Fable 2 is a sequel in just about every sense of the word. The action RPG takes a successful formula from the original Xbox game and gives it additional depth. Its world maintains the same overall design, but on a larger scale. Its character attributes (Strength, Skill and Will) are upgraded in the same basic way, but with a few new wrinkles. After comparing the original, which we played and beat, to this sequel, it’s obvious that Lionhead invested a lot of time exploring what worked in the first game and how to make it all grander for the sequel. But while Fable 2 is now “all grown up,” its new scale and gameplay elements expose some key issues that other RPGs of this scope have spent years ironing out. The result is a game that, although entertaining and good in many ways, clearly shows that bigger doesn’t always mean better.
Fable 2 picks up 500 years after the first game, taking place in a version of Albion that has advanced to repeating rifles and grand downtown villas, although magic and fantasy are still very much intact. The evil Prince Lucien, struggling with the death of his wife and child, has embarked on a twisted mission to locate and eliminate the remaining Heroes in Albion, whom the main character must eventually rescue, reunite and collaborate with to keep Lucien from achieving his goal. (You can also do this while playing as Master Chief).
This heroic journey takes players into more than a half dozen different regions, each of which has a unique feel, geography and economy. While the original Fable seemed large, Fable 2 puts the first game to shame, as each of the sequel’s individual regions feels as large as the entire first game. Albion isn’t quite on the scale of The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, but its geography and size are much closer to Oblivion than expected. With this size come a host of gameplay options outside the main storyline (including the puzzles associated with opening Demon Doors). Because Fable 2 is a game about being a good, evil or “middle ground” character, it includes a variety of side missions, many of which have both good and evil versions (for instance, either stopping some bandit raids or deciding to participate in them). None of these is vital to advancing the plot, although completing them adds to the main character’s Renown and light/dark alignment. Some missions, in fact, only are available to characters of a certain alignment, so it’s safe to say some Xbox 360 owners will not have the same experience as their friends.
Outside of the side missions, Fable 2 also includes several side activities that are important enough that gamers can significantly improve their experience by participating in them. The Woodcutting and Blacksmith jobs, for instance, are great mini-game ways to make gold, even if their swing-meter hit detection is inaccurate and lacking polish. It’s important to pursue these jobs early in the game and to endure the tedium of reaching Level Five in both, because top-rated Blacksmiths and Woodcutters make exponentially more money for each sword they forge or log they split, thus letting players make mad cash with which to buy real estate.
Literally every structure in Fable 2 is available for purchase, from small fruit stands, furniture stores and pubs to carriage houses, homes and even the castle. Some real-estate ventures are more expensive than others — buying a home and renting it out isn’t too costly, while purchasing a five-star pub or store can cost more than 60,000 gold — but the purchases are almost always worth it. Every six or seven real-world minutes, the in-game character receives a payment from an investment, be it rent or business revenue. Combine a few stores and houses, and the “free money” really rolls in. Players can get greedy and adjust the rent/prices, but that adds to the character’s corruption scale. The coolest part of these investments, though, is that Fable 2 keeps track of the in-game time even when the Xbox 360 is turned off. So, when players turn off their console for the night and come back to the game the next evening, they may end up being “welcomed” by 35,000 gold or more, depending on the number of properties owned.
When players decide to hop back on the campaign trail, they will upgrade their character’s attributes based on how they literally play the game. Strength Points are earned by doing melee attacks and can be used to upgrade your blocking ability, the strength of your attacks and your overall hit points. Skill Points are gathered by killing enemies with ranged weapons (e.g. crossbows and rifles), and can be spent to learn evasive techniques, to improve your ranged-weapon accuracy and boost your character’s overall speed. Will Points, meanwhile, are earned by using magic and can be spent to learn and upgrade eight magic tricks: Shock, Inferno, Vortex, Time Control (slow motion), Blades (they shoot at enemies from the sky), Chaos (foes do bizarre things like run away, stop moving, fall in love with you or attack one another), Force Push and Raise the Dead (recently deceased enemies return to fight alongside you for 10-14 seconds). The General XP category rounds things out, with points in this category being available for use in any o f the other three categories.
Yet behind all this customization and non-plot gameplay lies a story that needs to be completed, and that’s where Fable 2 suffers some clear growing pains. Peter Molyneux himself has said he didn’t make Fable 2 for hardcore gamers; it’s designed to be more approachable to John Q. Gamer. However, by adding such size and depth to his game, Molyneux and the team at Lionhead have introduced some new variables that quite frankly aren’t addressed like they are in other games of this size/depth, or are addressed in some new ways that just don’t work.
The first sign of trouble comes when trying to navigate the game world. Players almost always have multiple quests or objectives, only one of which can be active at once. When a specific quest is activated, players have three options to find their way to the next objective, each of which involves a gold line along the ground (think Crazy Taxi or Midtown Madness). The first option is a bright gold line. The second option is a low-intensity gold line. The third option is to turn the line off, which most Xbox 360 owners would choose if the game had a mini-map to help navigate the similar-looking subdivisions of each region. But without a mini-map, you feel absolutely crippled when walking through the world without the gold line.
Pulling up the pause menu is no help, because the only maps available are for the area in which you’re currently located, and there’s never an option to “zoom out” to get your bearings in the larger world. Forcing players to use the glowing navigation line is inexcusable. Not only is it graphically annoying, but it suffers from serious slowdown when trying to re-calculate the best route, much like a half-broken GPS. The lack of a mini-map is also horrible, because it’s difficult not only to know where you’re supposed to go, but also where certain landmarks and objectives are located. And, there is quite literally no way to know which regions are adjacent to other regions — and thus which direction you need to go — because you never see a full world map, nor can you “move a cursor” around one. The narrator/tutor in the game may be blind, but there’s no reason for gamers to have to play that way.
To their credit, Lionhead gave gamers the option of “fast traveling” to previously discovered areas, presumably to appease gamers who either don’t want to walk in-game for days or who grow tired of following the gold line. However, because of the poor navigation and the excruciatingly long load times during so-called fast travel, the game quickly delves into a tedious mess of fast traveling from one section to the next simply out of navigational necessity. We played most of the game without fast traveling, choosing instead to wander the countryside, but after seeing the same basic landscapes over and over and encountering only a handful of random enemies along the way, fast travel eventually became the preferred method. Without it, navigation just got maddening and boring.
The second sign of trouble is the game’s linearity, a surprising turn for an action RPG of this size. Being able to see for miles means nothing when the paths and walkways are as pre-determined as they are in Fable 2. See a hillside in the distance? Chances are, it’s either inaccessible due to a valley, a two-foot retaining wall or a river with an impassable shore. Either that, or you can only get there by following a single trail. The first Fable suffered from this as well, although it wasn’t quite as noticeable in a game world of that size. But when Albion is comprised of this many large-scale regions, you can’t help but get frustrated by levels that seem designed with the philosophy of “teach a man to follow, and he’ll walk straight for a lifetime.” The game’s underground caves and dungeons suffer the same DOOM-like fate, a sad fact that’s made worse by an overall lack of enemies to break up the A-to-B monotony.
Another problem with a fantasy RPG like this is the development team’s apparent decision to nerf the magic system altogether. When playing with melee or ranged weapons, those attacks’ accuracy and power show marked improvement when upgraded to Level Two or higher. Ranged weapons get more accurate, more powerful and can be zoomed-in, while melee weapons do more damage and can be swung in devastating Flourishes to knock down even the strongest enemy. On Level One, the various magic powers show great promise as well, particularly force push and raise the dead. But use them enough to warrant upgrades, and the risk/reward balance goes out the window, and along with it, all motivation to upgrade magic in the future.
Fable 2 uses a tiered magic system in which Level One players can select the magic spell they’d like to use and press the B button once to use it (there is no mana bar; use magic as fast and as often as you can). However, Level Two spells and higher must be charged like an energy weapon, with the time required to charge the spell increasing based on its level. On the surface this seems like a legitimate requirement; if you want to use more-powerful magic, you’ll have to take the risk of being hit while charging it. But when you consider the full arsenal at your disposal, the upgraded melee and ranged weapons don’t require charging, and they often do just as much damage as magic. And, as the game progresses and enemies become more numerous and more powerful, there’s basically no time to charge higher-level spells, rendering them pretty much pointless. I’m all for risk/reward, but its magic-only implementation makes no sense, and it will likely deter lots of gamers from using some of the higher-level (and very cool) spell variations.
At least the spells look good, even when in Level One. Fable 2 does a fantastic job of maintaining the fantastical design and feel of the first Fable, but with higher resolution textures and much-improved draw distances. The main character’s progression as his/her appearance changes to reflect the player’s tactics is also much more subtle than the original, as it doesn’t take place when leveling-up, but “organically” in on the fly. The only unfortunate holdover is the use of bloom effects and overt image softness, both of which seem artificial and a bit “last gen.” The camera could also have used a bit more polish, particularly as it gets stuck indoors, but since that’s an issue with most third-person games, we won’t hold anything against Lionhead for not being able to solve an industry-wide problem.
What we can hold against Lionhead, though, is becoming victims of their own ambition and achievement. Fable 2 is literally a huge improvement over Fable 1, with a comparatively massive game world, and it has a dizzying number of non-essential activities and customization options to help immerse gamers in the world of Albion. It also includes online co-op via Xbox Live — an option that has the potential to boost the fun factor — but as of this writing, that option is not available. But even as Molyneux said he’s not going after core gamers, his team’s game-design decisions seem to imply otherwise, thus opening them up to new criticism. Linearity and navigation issues are fine in a small game world, but Fable 2 got big. Having a simple ability-upgrade system makes it easier to refine, but Fable 2 “went deep” with its magic upgrades and nerfed them in the process. As a sequel, Fable 2 does things very well, and we’re impressed at how much Lionhead has built off of the original’s modest foundation. But while Fable 2 may not consider itself competition for other high-profile hardcore RPGs, its content additions justify the comparison, and those comparisons definitely show growing pains.
- Score: 7.8
- Lionhead packed Fable 2 with new features and depth, but a host of new gameplay issues give the action RPG some serious growing pains.
[NOTE]: Just to reiterate our scoring policy, we grade like a university. An “average” score (a C) is 70%, so this score means Fable 2 is a bit better than average. A 7.8 does not mean the game is a bust or a flop, just that it has some gameplay issues that drag down the overall experience.
— Jonas Allen