Plenty of other vidgames have flashier graphics and a more original story, but no interactive world has ever felt quite so alive as “Fable 2,” where many paths are open, but all choices have consequences. Deep, accessible and endlessly adaptive, it’s a boundary-pushing experience that players will still be exploring long after the hype has faded.
In fact, never before have videogame characters been quite as opinionated as the denizens in the fictional world of Albion. Every computer-controlled person in Microsoft and developer Lionshead’s new fantasy epic has a thought on the protagonist’s exploits, appearance, and wealth and isn’t afraid to act on it, whether that means they want to insult him (or her), ask for an autograph, or get married and have kids.
“Fable 2” is a much improved version of 2004’s flawed original, but it’s perhaps better viewed as a counterpoint to this year’s other groundbreaking open-world game: “Grand Theft Auto IV.” The latter looks and moves like a stunning real New York City, but heinous act aren’t met with real-world repurcussions. “Fable 2” takes place in a generic and less detailed fantasy setting, but it’s most certainly not a rules-free playground.
Pilfering from private homes and killing shopkeepers, for instance, is the easiest way to make money, but it can ruin the reputation of the protagonist (referred to simply as “the hero”). Making money via honest work like chopping wood or slaying bandits is slower and more tedious, but results in throngs of adoring fans. Unlike the first “Fable,” the sequel features frequent breaks in the main plot and strongly encourages players to delve into life in Albion. It’s astonishing to realize that every building can be bought and sold, every woman or man wooed, and every character socialized with via actions like dancing, gift-giving and growling. It doesn’t take long to find oneself with a wife, two kids and a house in one town; a husband and three businesses in another; a reputation for thievery and using prostitutes in a third. (Bigamy can result in blackmail, however, and even a double divorce if the two spouses cross paths.)
While each of the game’s hundreds of characters is unique, there’s one who truly stands out. “Fable 2” gives players a loyal dog that follows the hero wherever he or she goes, hunting down treasure, growling at enemies, and even relieving itself on unlucky villagers. This canine companion, which can be named, trained and wounded in battle, is the player’s only loyal friend in Albion, creating a bond that’s emotionally effecting in a way few videogames manage.
There are dozens of side missions, many of which feature an amusing cast of recurring characters whose lives develop along with the protagonist. Most of these missions are combat-oriented, utilizing the game’s impressively accessible fighting system that features a wide range of swords, guns, crossbows and magic spells, but requires only three buttons, each of which works differently based on how long it’s held. Casual players unfamiliar with or uninterested in complex combat can get through with little more than button mashing, but RPG fans will enjoy utilizing a variety of spells and techniques without having to navigate a cumbersome menu system or tough-to-memorize button combos.
Players use everyday social interaction and optional side missions to build up the weapons, potions and skills needed for the main story, which is “Fable 2’s” weakest link. Though it presents a few awesome battles, it’s a fairly bland and derivative tale about stopping a dastardly villain who wrongs the hero early in the game and goes on to try and take over the world. The plot’s few emotional beats are mostly on-the-nose moral choices, and the entire thing ends with a disappointing whimper. Furthermore, since the hero’s expressions can’t be controlled during most of the key scenes, he or she always carries the same goofy grin no matter how dramatic the situation.
There is also online co-op play that, while not available before launch, looks to be a fun way to see the different path that a friend is taking through the game. Given the maturity of most online players, however, letting strangers visit with the potential to wreak havoc and ruin one’s reputation is less promising.