For all the successes of the so-called next-gen platforms, an impressive showing in the RPG department has not been one of them. So when Peter Molyneux comes along, talking his usual big talk about how Fable 2 is going to radically change our gaming lives with all the wonderful things it’s going to do it’s hard not to at least be a little intrigued. Of course anyone who knows anything about Molyneux knows that he has a habit of being somewhat overenthusiastic about features that sometimes don’t quite make it into the final product, so claims that his latest masterpiece would not only slice and dice but also chop and juliennes, well it needed to be seen to be believed. So now that it’s finally here has Pete made believers out of us? Well, yeah…mostly.
Fable 2, for all its hype, mostly plays like what it is—an updated version of the original. It starts out the same way with our soon-to-be hero, male or female at your choosing, as a young whippersnapper waving around a wooden sword and running errands as means of a tutorial. But just like the original, what you’re taught early on is not only how to control your avatar, but also that your actions in this world have consequences. It’s a theme that’s carried through the entirety of your adventures, that your deeds are not only reflected in how you are treated by the populous, but also in your very appearance and sometimes even in how the world is shaped.
Most of Fable 2’s moral choices are pretty black and white—help the farmer fight the bandits or help the bandits trash the farm—but what makes them interesting is how the world reacts to what you do. Will villagers adore you for your benevolence, or flee from your very approach? Will shopkeepers offer you a discount for being their savior or will they offer you a discount so you won’t kill them and burn down their store? It’s all very amusing to watch, and what makes it work is the incredible wit and style with which the world is infused. The result is irresistibly charming and very hard not to like, regardless of whether you choose to play nice with others or bathe in the blood of the innocent.
When you finally get around to smashing something you’ll find three flavors of carnage at your disposal—melee, ranged, and magic—each with their own experience to be earned by using them to dispatch your foes. For those who played the original this is all pretty familiar, though each has been improved slightly. Melee attacks can be charged up for more damage or chained together for combos, and you can zoom in with ranged attacks and sub-target different body parts, but the biggest improvements come in the spell-slinging department, where spells can now be charged through five levels of power and can be used as both distance attacks and radial blasts. None of this is going to rival what you find in a dedicated fighting game, but it all works pretty well here even if it is a little on the fluffy side.
And that’s really the only major gripe with Fable 2. As with most things that try to do a lot of stuff at the same time, it never really nails any one element. The quests are amusing, but there are no dialog trees or the kind of real depth we’re used to in a classic RPG. Combat is amusing but also lacks depth, and is pretty easy from start to finish. There’s also the matter of the much touted co-op feature. You can only play with other people as a henchman rather than your hero, and you must stay pretty much in your partner’s back pocket the whole time. Not the epic tag-team action we were promised. Even the character customization options leave a lot to be desired, considering all you really have to choose from is male or female models, a bunch of clothes, and a handful of haircuts. The rest is determined by your actions and abilities, which sounds nice in theory but when you realize that your fully powered up hero is going to be extremely muscle-bound (strength), alarmingly tall (skill), and have blue veins of energy all over their body (magic)…well not everyone’s idea of hero is an escapee from a traveling freakshow.
For most games, this kind of criticism would be the kiss of death, and a one way trip to a crappy score. Instead it’s a testament to exactly how charming Fable 2 is and how very much is has to offer that this only prevents it from being considered one of the great all-time games rather than what it is—a very good, very entertaining game that does a lot of things well but nothing top notch. Consequently Fable 2 is a game that should be played accordingly to be enjoyed to the maximum, which is to say everything should be sampled and nothing overdone. So smash some heads and flirt with the villagers, and when that gets dull try shooting some fools and kicking some chickens, or zapping a skeleton and playing your lute in the town square. Teach your dog to chase his tail. Buy a bar and double the prices. Buy a house and let people live there for free. Save a temple, or let it burn. Pick some flowers for your wife and child, or wives and children, or husbands and…well, you get the idea. Each individual experience may not be deepest, but sometimes an ocean of shallow is almost as good. Maybe even better.