a review of Fable II
a videogame developed by lionhead studios
and published by microsoft game studios
for the microsoft xbox 360
text by tim rogers
Peter Molyneux, the very bald and very English “creator” of the concept of videogames that promise to let the player do “anything” and then end up only letting players do anything that the designers were able to make halfway exciting, somewhat famously implored the press to go easy on Fable 2, his Lionhead studio’s latest production. He did this by sticking a little note in with the copies sent out to reviewers. We could search for the exact text, though that would only accentuate the fact that Molyneux did not send us a copy, and we’d probably start crying, and then you’d never get to see this review. From what we’ve heard from our Industry Friends (in other words, from posts we’ve read at Kotaku), it seems that Molyneux’s plea was that critics approach the game as critics of a piece of entertainment media, and not as hardened, jaded video-game-players. Bitter as we may be that Molyneux, who apparently coded every last scene, designed all the characters, and even composed the music in Fable 2, didn’t personally send us one of these notes and a big fat review copy of the game, we objectively deem that his request wasn’t and isn’t too much to ask.
We paid money to play Fable 2. This is a very important point. We very rarely pay money to play anything. Usually, we use our “Industry Connections” to get free copies from guys who hand them over with a greasy grin on their face, like they absolutely know that our reason for wanting the game (“pop-culture research”) is complete bullshit. It’s not, really! Usually, when we get games for free, we very graciously tear them apart and criticize them. You’d think that, with a game we paid money for, we’d be able to laugh and groan at it more, because at the end of the day, we’re harder on ourselves (and the things we spend money on) than we are on other people (and the things they spend money on). Weirdly, it might be the case that we liked Fable 2 more than we should have had any right to like it given that we’d spent money on it and, right up until the end, were obsessively refreshing The Action Button Game Database to make sure that the buyback price hadn’t dropped too low. Yes, we are criminally stingy people, over here, and can you blame us? Nine times out of ten, any feature that makes it into the final retail version of a game isn’t even worth a negative amount of money. Fable 2 is so covered in execution-related warts that you’d have to be a Special Olympics medalist to mistake any given random millisecond of the game in play for a movie, a cartoon, or a cartoon movie. No doubt should ever bob to the surface and float lifelessly and scarily that what you see inside that television in front of you is, and always has been, a video game.
We don’t really want to be mean to Fable 2, because we respect the heck out of its goals, and because the way Peter Molyneux talks to his assistant in this video is sexy as hell. Fable 2 is speaking — drawling — with the off-hand nonchalance of a charismatic sexual sadist who would be a terrible human being if he weren’t British and A Man, about a future of video games where no one has to be afraid of Not Knowing What To Do, though not a single person in the proverbial concert hall we’ll call the Xbox 720 or Xbox 1080 (please please please call it the “Xbox 1080”) will fail to Be Rocked. Fable 2 is probably (probably) the closest the Modern Video Game gets to being something everyone can enjoy on some level.
Fable 2 is one of those big, go-anywhere, do-anything games. Like Grand Theft Auto, except instead of attempting to recreate an existing world and let you do realistic (and violent) things that you could do in the real counterpart of that realistic world if you possessed the correct brand of psychological detachment, Fable 2 designs and crafts its own fantastic medieval-like world. We scanned Metacritic, and some otherwise glowingly positive reviews park in the driveway called “a conclusion” by executing the well-worn phrase “if there’s anything wrong with [Game Title]” and then bemoaning the game’s setting as “too generic”. Lionhead studios, if you listen to no one else — and there’s a chance that you don’t care what we say because you didn’t send us a free copy of your game even though we asked very politely (on second thought maybe we shouldn’t have worn our intentions on our sleeve by promising, up-front, to not be nice just because we’re getting the game for free) — listen to us: the setting is not too generic. Those other game reviewers — the truth is, they are not male models like us; they are fat people who started buying Dorito-scented cologne because they figure if they’re going to smell like something, it might as well be something they like eating. If you give them hobbits and elves, chances are they’re going to ask you to hire Ian McKellan to do the voice of Gandalf, and you listen to them and then — surprise! — you’re getting sued by New Line Cinema, Peter Jackson, and JRR Tolkien’s schizophrenic son, and that’s way too many fat people bringing you down. The fantasy setting in Fable 2 is low-key and sublime; it is not just “vanilla” — it is French vanilla. We appreciate the look, the touch, the feel of it. It has obviously been crafted with great confidence. Good on you, art guys. Let’s go one further and say that the night-time color palettes are drop-dead gorgeous, with just the right amount of navy, imperial purple, and orange torchlight to make the fuzzy green grass and generous crayon-colored flowers visually sing. At sunrise and sunset, the world looks like a great big bowl of the greatest cereal on earth. That said, we will now address the real negatives of Fable 2. To be honest, if any of the reviews we had read off of Metacritic had addressed these points, we’d probably be spending the time it’s taking to write this review by huffing nitrous oxide and playing Gears of War 2 again.
First of all, let’s say that we are giving this game three stars because it reminds us of Monster Hunter, in that anyone can pick it up and play it, that it encourages the player to attain a certain level of skill at its basic controls, though by no means requires great skill for complete enjoyment. Fable 2 equals Monster Hunter when it comes down to the bonus quests: plenty of places to go and dudes to kill. The line between casual and hardcore is right there in plain sight when you pay experience points to unlock charge attacks, the “block” command, and the ability to fine-aim your crossbow or pistol. We can see Lionhead’s planners sitting around a big table going “Yeah, the concept of using an analog stick to aim just doesn’t make sense to most people”. In Fable 2, you can shoot someone without aiming, and it actually works pretty well. You can keep most enemies back with a barrage of auto-aimed arrows or bullets. When you aim, you can kill the enemies more quickly (headshots, etc), which increases the amount of experience you get when a skirmish is all skirmished out. In this way, being better at the game makes it easier make your character stronger, which is admittedly kind of cheesy. Conversely, you can play the game pretty far with the default weapons. Out of morbid curiosity, we refused to upgrade our crossbow and rusty sword until the story had officially bored us and we just wanted to be done with the game already. It was surprisingly playable, and even well-rounded with regard to challenge, if not somewhat maddening to actually defeat enemies: beating a single evil dude required backtracking all the way to the beginning of an area while peppering him with crossbow arrows. At that point, the only way to get hit was to fall asleep on the job, and the only way to die was to get hit too much. We got hit a couple of times, sensed death, and were currently on our way back to a particularly doomy stage entrance for the twenty-somethingth time before we opened the fucking menu and spent all of our experience points, awarding us the dodge, aim, block, and charge attacks. The game was pretty fun after that! The enemy physics are cute. They flail and fall around and knock into each other. Get a second player in there for online co-op, and you effectively translate the game into a super-slick brawler. If we’d had this (and/or Monster Hunter) when we were kids, skater punks would have burnt Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles arcade cabinets to the fucking ground.
That is to say: Fable 2 is infinitely more fun than Dynasty Warriors. Though really, clipping your god damned toenails is infinitely more fun than Dynasty Warriors, and even more infinitely more fun than Dynasty Warriors if you prefer tight socks. Fable 2 manages to be more fun than Dynasty Warriors in many ways that count, however, by giving you your own unique character, letting you choose from a variety of weapons, letting you augment said weapons with valuable jewels (adequately named “augments”), and letting you purchase real-estate. You can work side jobs or gamble to earn money, which is hilarious, because with money you can buy great equipment and beat the shit out of any given mission without hardly understanding the fundamentals of the game. You can theoretically purchase a building, choose to rent it out, turn your Xbox off, and then turn it back on weeks later to see that you earned rent money even while not playing. Buy a bigger building, which earns more rent, and turn the game off. In a couple of years, you’ll be able to beat Fable 2 without looking at the screen.
We will admit we’re pacing around the point of this review like a Dynasty Warriors AI with a deliciously long and penile spear. It’s hard to get to the point without being mean. We’re trying to compliment the game as much as possible before digging in. What else can we say? How about that Fable 2 is a lot better than Oblivion? Oblivion was touted as a game that anyone could play and enjoy in their “own way”, though the game was so hung-up on playing as much like its predecessor as possible so as to not piss off existing fans, and it opened on a terrifyingly discordant note, by forcing you to decide what kind of child-molester your character would look like. Oblivion was human life in a fishbowl, the consequences for theft (“Stop, thief. You must report to prison.”) as real-like as a tiny Styrofoam castle with bubbles blowing out of it. The most potent human emotion contained within the experience of Oblivion reached ghast-like out of the game’s shell: it was the feeling of dreadful disappointment when at last you settled on the monstrosity that would represent you for the duration of the game: “This is as good as it’s going to get”. All at once, we understood what it’s like to get married to someone who’s “emotionally stable”, if not sexually attractive in the slightest. Oblivion‘s character creation process cast violent ultraviolet lights on all the compromises ever made in the name of love, war, hate, or peace in the history of this earthly realm, so of course we could only be disappointed by how ropey the combat felt. At least we were able to make our marathon-running lesbian protagonist’s hair deliciously purple. We were so disappointed — no joke — when we had to give her a helmet or risk failing a mission for the second time.
Fable 2, on the other hand, is of a new wave. It reminds us a bit of the original Dungeon Siege in a way, though it takes what that game did with abilities and applies it to literally everything. Your hero starts as a generic Male of Female Human Being template character, and you make the nips and tucks in his or her aesthetic facade by actually playing the game. In Dungeon Siege, it was like, swing your sword a lot and your physical attacks get stronger. In Fable 2, it’s like, get killed in battle and your character gets a scar on his face. Use lots of physical attacks and your character gets bulkier. Be evil and kill lots of innocent people, and your guy grows an Evil-Spock-like goatee. Use a lot of magic, and your dude starts to glow all mystically. At least, this is what’s promised. At the end of the day, however, Fable 2 is a story of too many middlemen left standing.
There’s no simpler way to explain what exactly we’re driving at than to be blunt about the way “personal relationships” are presented in this game. Here’s the back-of-box quote for you:
In Fable 2, it is literally possible to show a girl a thumbs-up so many times that she is forced to marry you.
It’s enough for the back of a package to say that in this game right here you can marry a girl and take her home and have sex with her and produce children, who are then born and look like the videogame equivalent of children. You can say that the cities, towns, and environments in this here game are populated with people possessing their own personality quirks and/or sexual preferences, and it all looks fine, dandy, and/or peachy on paper. When you get right down to the execution as Something That Happens in a Videogame, it’s freaky and bizarre. It goes something like this:
In Fable 2, you can press the right bumper button at almost any time to open a wheel-shaped menu of moods: social, funny, flirty, et cetera. Choose “social” and then choose “thumbs up”, for example, to give a character a thumbs-up. If you press the left trigger while looking at a person, then you will “lock on” to them. Open the mood wheel, choose “social”, choose “thumbs up”, and that thumbs up will affect them directly. Like any good sword-swing in a Zelda game, it is possible to hit characters other than the one you’re locked onto. In this way, you can stand in the center of town thumbs-upping one woman to infinity, as every passer-by stops to admire the thrilling display.
We here at Action Button Dot Net will make no bones about it: one of the first things we try to do in every game we play is make it look jaw-droppingly ridiculous. In Fable 2, this took about thirty minutes, which is pretty admirable. Most games take about five. (We made Saints Row look ridiculous in a record-setting three seconds, when we jumped on top of a passing car and then proceeded to ride around on the hood of the car, unnoticed by the driver, for over forty-five minutes.) Fable 2‘s breaking came when we managed to earn the “Dumpling” title (heh heh, it says “Dump”) by befriending the entire city of Bowerstone simply by standing in town square repeatedly choosing the “thumbs up” expression for an hour. Red hearts appeared above the heads of nine girls in the audience. Pop-up tutorials had instructed us no less than a dozen times: this girl likes you. You can now give her a ring and she will marry you. We didn’t marry any of the girls because suddenly we started wondering what they really thought about us. All they know is that we are able to give a thumbs up with the exact same emotion over and over again. According to this month’s Men’s Health (and last month’s Men’s Health (and Men’s Health from three months ago))), it’s possible to Get Great Abs by doing the same excruciating exercises and eating the same delicious high-protein spinach stir-fry every single day (that’s a joke about Men’s Health), and it’s also possible to give any girl an orgasm (granted she’s “in the mood”) by unrelentingly repeating the same manual action with the same exact feeling for a long enough time. Men’s Health‘s sex columnist is a woman, so we suppose it’s not right to not believe her. It could be that the female Non-Player-Characters in Fable 2 are reading too much into the precise, unrelenting, mechanical nature with which we repeat our thumbs-upping, which sets off our Fundamentalist Christian Alarm and makes us find them all disgusting on principle. Is that really all it takes for a girl to want to marry a guy? We want a girl who appreciates us because of our unflagging commitment to swinging our mood over our head like a wet towel, not in spite of it.
We like the idea of a thumbs-up button in games. We said kind of recently that Grand Theft Auto games are all about the violence because the developers spend a lot of time and money to make the violence look awesome, and also because there is no “hug button”. Fable 2 incorporates a hug button, which is admirable, though it buries it two menus deep (every “expression” belongs to a “mood”) and requires you to purchase an item to unlock it. We suppose the reason for this is because Fable 2 wants to allow a wide range of moods. They want you to be able to thumbs up a person and thumbs down them. It’s obvious that thumbs-upping someone makes them feel good and thumbs-downing them makes them feel bad, though when you’ve had to manually target someone and then sprint through two menus to get to the choice whether or not you’re going to make this imaginary person feel good or bad, what kind of sick person would bother? What’s the point of it all?
For some clue as to the answer to this immortal question, we asked Google “how do you have sex in Fable 2?” We got this as a reply. Let’s cut out some key bits:
Step 1: Get married. If you plan on playing as a good character, you will need to find someone to marry. To do this, you will need to alternative between flirting and giving gifts. If the object of your affection feels the same way, a heart sign will appear over their head. Eventually, this heart will turn red, and they will tell you they want to marry.
Here, we feel it necessary to point out, again, that we were able to get red hearts above the heads of nine women simply by thumbs-upping repeatedly in the center of town. What kind of sucker gives girls gifts? The writer of this article obviously hasn’t spent the requisite hours of grinding necessary to finish a Dragon Quest game. Gamers these days are so lazy, etc. (Also pointing out that we’re ignoring this writer’s failure to mention why you’d want to have sex in a videogame in the first place.)
Give them a ring and you will be engaged. To make your marriage official, buy a house and declare it as your marital home.
It’s worth noting that the words “buy a house”, in this article, are an automatically generated link to an article on the same site, which tells you how to buy a house in real life.
We must also point out that declaring a house your “marital home” in Fable 2 happens when you buy a house. You can buy any piece of property in the game if
1. You have enough money to purchase it
2. You are able to find the large, glowing signboard out in front of the house
Walk up to the signboard, press the Action Button, and you’re reading it. If your Xbox 360 is a launch model that hasn’t red-ringed yet (holy shit, only one month left on warranty :-/ ), it might jitter a bit bringing up the menu, so be patient or you’ll end up accidentally buying some marketplace stall like we did. That’s a good rule of thumb for Fable 2: whenever you are tempted to press the button again because “maybe the game didn’t notice”, it’s probably your Xbox’s fault.
When you buy a house, you see options:
1. Move in
2. Rent out
3. Declare as marital home
Your spouse will be in a good mood and proposition you for sex. When this happens, give a “thumbs up” and use the “follow” command to lead them to your bed.
Yes, they’re usually like this after you buy a real house, too. Or so we imagine. We look forward to thumbs-upping our real-life wives on the wedding night about as much as we look forward to thumbs-downing them in divorce court four days later.
The “proposition for sex” part consists of the girl saying she wants sex in literally so many words. Likewise, when you have thumbs-upped any given girl enough times to get a red heart above her head, the obligatory voice sample that escapes her with every successive thumbs up switches to a variant “I hope you do something romantic” or even (gasp) “Shall we get married, then?”
This would be a good time to point out how amazing it is to hear the voice-sampled reactions of entire crowd of onlookers to your public performance of the masterful art of the thumbs-up. They bounce like ping-pong balls on an endless bed of mouse traps.
“You’re a fine one!”
“How did you know I’d like that?”
“That’s the best thing I’ve seen all day!”
“It doesn’t matter how many times I see it, it just gets better!”
“You’re a fine one!”
“It doesn’t matter how many times I see it, it just gets better!”
“How did you know I’d like that?”
This is all coming in at a rate of twelve per second. Mix in the occasional “Shall we get married, then?” and you have a hell of a mind-fuck. When suddenly you start hearing a deep-voiced, roguish British man snarling, “When are you going to put a ring on this finger?” things get surreal.
This entire paragraph exists to point out that the first two women you meet in Fable 2 are bisexual and large-breasted; the first gay or bisexual men encountered in Fable 2 are halfway through the single-player campaign, in a dark, rainy shanty-town full of bandits and pickpockets.
Now, here’s where things get interesting. Unlike the first Fable, sex in Fable 2 can lead to kids if you select “unprotected sex.” If you select “protected sex” and you have a condom, you won’t have any kids. Either way, the screen will switch to black and you will ‘hear’ the spouse enjoying themselves.
“We’re having sex!”
“You are having sex with me, then?”
“You’re a fine one!”
“This is definitely sex!”
Step 2: Find a prostitute. Sex in Fable 2 can also make you more ‘evil’ if you have sex with a prostitute. You can find them in major towns or cities.
1. We are disappointed that the words “Find a prostitute” were not an automatically generated link leading to an article on this same website on the subject of finding prostitutes.
2. It would have been so funny if the words “in Fable 2” had been cut out of the second sentence, and it would have translated this entire paragraph into a public service announcement of sorts.
Use the “Come on Over” expression. This is the easiest way to get sex in Fable 2, though your lover will still need to be in a good mood. [A]nyway, with the “Come on Over” expression, you ask the person directly if they want sex. If they do, you have them ‘follow’ you to the bed. As far as finding this expression, you will have to buy it from the Bowerstone Bookstore.
The character learns new expressions in Fable 2 by buying “expression books” in the bookstore. We had thumbs-upped a crowd of thirty people maybe forty times before a message telling us “you can earn new expressions by finding or buying expression books” got stuck to the top of the screen and didn’t leave for over ten minutes.
We went to our real-life bookstore and asked if they sold “the book that teaches ‘the “Come on Over” expression'”, and they called a security guard who then avoided our penis by several millimeters when frisking us.
It is now clearly the time to tell you how to find out what characters like. What you do is press the Left Trigger to “target” the NPC. A menu appears at the top of the screen — we hate how it shades the whole top part of the screen, like we’re walking under a really low ceiling all of a sudden — with a slider with a sad face on the left and a happy face on the right, with a little ball representing this character’s standing. The character’s name is at the top of the screen. At the right is a Y button icon, and the words “More info”. Press the Y button, and you get a quick crib sheet:
Hannah the Barmaid
Common, Straight, Flirt, Bubbly, Happy
Expression: Thumbs up
Expression: Point and laugh
Expression: Thumbs down
That’s it. Really, any “nice” expression will positively affect someone’s opinion, just as any “mean” expression will negatively impact it. The crib sheet tells you how to get a girl to like you as quickly as possible. If you’re looking to speed run this game at a later date, you’ll need to know each NPC’s preferences like the back of your hand.
We’re going to quote the rest of that article we linked because
1. There’s only one section left
2. It’ll save you the trouble of having to click the link
Tips and Warnings:
Sex in Fable 2 can occur between gay couples.
Ritzy characters will need expensive gifts, higher household budgets and a lot of flirting before they will want sex.
Sex in Fable 2 is harder if you already have kids.
If your spouse does not get sex regularly, your relationship will sour.
It would be great to cut the words “in Fable 2” out of this. We’re going to try it. Try reading this section again:
Tips and Warnings:
Sex can occur between gay couples.
Ritzy characters will need expensive gifts, higher household budgets and a lot of flirting before they will want sex.
Sex is harder if you already have kids.
If your spouse does not get sex regularly, your relationship will sour.
Would you look at that! We just made a public service announcement.
The Facts of Life, reduced to bullet points: that, at the end of the day, is Fable 2. The thing is, though, that life isn’t bullet points. We get back to that One Great Corollary of Virtual Reality: One Sense Is Never Enough. Don’t try to make something look perfectly real if it doesn’t sound perfectly real, and don’t try to make something sound perfectly real unless we are able to smell and taste it. In a movie, Presumed Sex often occurs after a fade to black, though in a game, where we’re in control, where there’s a mini-game where we can Press The Action Button with precise timing to chop logs of wood in half, where there’s a mini-game where we hold a button down for a perfect length of time so that a sculptor can make a perfectly accurate statue of us, it’s something of a huge failing that we can’t Press The Action Button with superhuman speed to thrust faster and produce children with higher gorgeousness statistics. That said, 99% of the joy of sex for us (in real life) is the run-up, during which we test the real-life girl’s patience and allegiance by talking non-stop about freakishly inane things in a dark room during a long movie, until long after it’s ended, one night a week for several months, until, timid though she may be, she is clawing at us. We don’t know why this is the only way we Like It, and we’re not going to change our mind any time soon. Until a video game can carry out that level of gripping realism, we’d really rather not experience simulations of life’s Social Payoffs without any of the Social Logistics. Gears of War, for example, is a game about reaching out and touching someone with your gun, and it’s convincing because that’s all you ever do. Then again, sex is never the “point” of Fable 2, so neither is flirting, nor being nice to people you don’t intend to have sex with, nor is owning property. It’s all superfluous. It’s all filler. It’s the game designers’ duty to make the filler sing. Here, the filler just constantly complains of having a sore throat and eventually shoplifts some honey-ginger lozenges from the convenient store on the corner before getting bitten by a stray dog.
Early in the game, we have a scene where a photographer takes a picture of us as a child. During the photo-taking process, we can press a button to make a funny face and ruin the photo. That’s like, whoa, man; that’s, like, we don’t know if we’d be more or less impressed with the game design at hand if they’d let us press that same button to blink just as the shutter clicks, which would also ruin the photo. Fable 2 sets up a ton of little “moral choices”, and apparently it’s subtler than its predecessor, though to what end? In Fable, it was like “Do you want to kill this innocent man and take his money, or will you help him find his child, who has been kidnapped by bandits?” In Fable 2, it’s more like “do you want to stand still and have your picture taken, or do you want to make a dumb face and mess it up?” That is to say, in Fable 2, most of the time, you’re given the choice between acting like a normal human being or acting like a jerk. Acting like a jerk is what eventually gets you the goatee and the mocha-colored skin. Of course, you’re still free to murder any pedestrians or castle guards or travelers you see fit to murder, just as you are free to steal any cash register (by holding down the A button for a set length of time, so as to avoid accidents: come to think of it, this is a fitting facsimile of Real Kleptomania) though after experiencing how easy it was to get a woman (or nine) to want to marry us, we felt kind of bad about the whole simulated reality thing. We felt like being obtusely good (thumbs-upping everyone we meet, regardless of age, color, or creed) or obtusely evil would be something of an insult to the hundreds of men and women currently employed in the trade of researching artificial intelligence technology. We then began playing Fable 2, curiously, the way our Jewish mother from Philadelphia went about purchasing a minivan: we said no to the power windows, we said no to the radio, we said no to air-conditioning, we said no to the passenger’s side floor mats. We came to feel vaguely sanctimonious, and good about ourselves: here we were, rejecting the temptations of a simulated world. We felt like history’s greatest heart surgeon, capable of performing a triple-bypass by using a pair of forceps to operate another pair of forceps which is holding a scalpel. In the end, our psychological hangups re: inability to differentiate between reality and fantasy in all of the places that do not matter ended up simultaneously ruining and redeeming the game.
Also, seriously, the “flirty” mood doesn’t appear on the mood wheel when you’re talking to children. How’s that for “freedom” in games, eh? You’re allowed to be a rampant murderer, though not a pedophile? Also, the options for murdering aren’t compelling, in that it’s only “murder” if the person is innocent, and none of the “innocent” people are doing anything objectively obnoxious. Call us when one of these sandbox games features pedestrians who passive-aggressively slam us with their umbrellas, or stop dead in the middle of the turnstile at rush hour to pat their coat for their train ticket. Have your train ticket ready as the train slows to your stop, jackass! That would be wish fulfillment. As-is, Fable 2 features more than enough rabid, crossbow-toting bandits or sick-eyed wolf-things to satisfy any normal person’s need for simulated violence. The main reason that the majority of players “play the good guy” in these games, perhaps, might be because Batman was right, and the Joker was wrong: most people want to be good. Maybe being “bad” in a game is never going to be satisfying unless it’s the whole point. Who the hell knows.
Further “moral choices” involve giving 5,000 gold pieces to a man who is “building something”. The something he is building ends up being, like, a shrine to some evil god, or something. This may or may not be a riff on real-life, how sometimes you can invest in an honest little corporation that might end up one day becoming a baby-eating empire like Micro$oft. It’s kind of cute to see your reputation eventually fall among the righteous because you paid this guy money for some easy “renown points”, though you have to wonder, again, if this is really the best way to illustrate “choice” in a videogame. Truly, in real life, every once in a while, luck makes a man into an objectively evil being. Shouldn’t our games be a little more idealistic? We apologize if this paragraph is too philosophical. We can’t in good conscience cut it because it contains the word “Microsoft” spelled with a dollar sign in place of the “S”.
Much like the vegetarian meals in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, Fable 2 gives you non-violent means to earn money. Namely, you can chop wood, smith swords, or serve beers at a pub. All of these “jobs” are presented as mini-games. We’re halfway between thinking that “jobs” in games are brilliant and thinking they’re rubbish, though with Fable 2 we leaned a little more toward the “brilliant” end. The jobs mini-games are all quite simple. You press one button at the right time to do the thing you’ve been hired to do. A little white ball slides around a little curved window; a green field represents when you’re supposed to press the button. With wood-chopping, the green field gets bigger the more the white ball slides; with blacksmithing, the green field gets smaller. With bartending, you hold the button as a field expands to fill the arch; release the button when the field turns green for a successful pour. Every log you chop gives you money. Chop ten perfectly in a row, and the price paid out per log goes up. You can chain this bonus indefinitely, until you’re earning hundreds of gold per log. This is a reasonable facsimile of the way people are promoted in real-life offices, we suppose: keep doing the same ghastly boring task with unflinching, enthusiasm-like detachment and without failure, and someone up above insists that you’re a genius and deserve more money. (See: game development.) Hit a sword five times to smith it; smith a sword perfectly, and the next one earns you more money. Et cetera. As your chain tops higher, the little white ball moves a little more quickly, and the precision field migrates around the arch-window, simulating the way a human employed doing a menial task will begin setting ridiculous challenges for themselves (“flip that next burger higher“). Maybe we’re giving Fable 2 too much credit, given that the developers might have underestimated our
1. psychopathic patience (we have cleared the optional dungeons of every Dragon Quest game for god’s sake) and
2. gift for rhythm
This will probably be our only opportunity to point out that the movement of the Timing Ball is way too choppy when you start getting to the harder chain levels. Also, that we have the peripheral vision of a fighter pilot and can thus totally see the extra log mesh appear overlapping the log mesh in the lower-right corner just as we cut the log on the chopping block.
In short, we were able to raise two hundred thousand gold pieces by spending two hours on the log-chopping mini-game. We then purchased a few houses and then never had to worry about money again for the rest of the game. It was kind of depressing for a minute, until we remembered a real-life friend of a real-life friend who played the stock market when he was in high school (he had hippie parents who thought the idea was hilarious) and owned two houses at age nineteen.
Part of us, however, detects that this maybe isn’t the kind of feeling or reminiscence you want to push across in a videogame. Gears of War 2 it is, then.
Okay, we can’t in good conscience go back to playing Gears of War 2 yet, because there are a couple of things in our notes that we didn’t talk about, that we promised ourselves we were going to talk about because no one else had talked about them.
First, there’s the dog. In Fable 2, your hero has a dog. Your hero also has a high-priestess-like woman who speaks directly to his brain using a hotly mixed disembodied voice effected with too much reverb. Your hero also also has an all-holy glowing golden trail sprawling out in front of him, constantly telling him where he must go to complete the grand arc of his quest. The golden line is cutely videogamey without feeling ridiculous. We kind of wish that they had just used the dog as a guiding point, because that would be kind of ironic, that the sub-human dog always knows where to go, even when the all-powerful warrior is lost, though we locked ourselves in a broom closet for fifteen minutes and managed to come away convinced that the glowing golden line was as good a method as any to represent the “ambition” of a hero as a practical visual motif. The dog, as Peter Molyneux said in an interview, exists to lure the player away from the main path, toward unexpected things. During the course of a mission to rescue a traveling merchant’s child from a cave full of nasty gnomes, the dog might lead us off the path toward a treasure chest; if we go after the treasure chest, we might risk the child’s death. In this way — on paper — it can be said that Fable 2 is kind of a subtler simulation than Fable, impressing us with a sense of duty or responsibility in each mission. Molyneux says the game is more subtle this go around because too many people played the part of the good guy in the first one. Fair enough. In the end, though, you can see the evolution of your character coming a mile away; praising or scolding your dog comes to feel about as much fun as sorting your iTunes library by track rating and then realizing that you’ve only rated maybe ten tracks five stars and ten tracks one star, resulting in a playlist of ten songs you like and ten you hate, and training him to assist you in battle comes up feeling like adopting a child just so you can have someone else to mow the lawn in ten years’ time. For god’s sake, if you don’t want to mow the lawn yourself, buy a condo, not a house!
Anyway, we haven’t even discussed the Problem With The Dog. This is a shame; we should have started the review with this, because it’s pretty much the prime symptom of Fable 2‘s disease. We could have saved a lot of time (yours, and ours) that way. Anyway, here it is: the dog is, on the one hand, a victory, because it’s a bold step in the direction of rendering any or all intrusions of “videogamey bullshit” (tutorials, mini-maps, etc) into contextual expressions that just happen to be parts of (or characters in) a videogame. The dog leads the hero to treasure, sniffs the ground when he finds a place the hero should dig; he pulls us off the path by, well, being a dog.
In Fable 2, the dog is never mysterious. You will be walking along a path, and the dog will start barking maniacally. You swing the right analog stick so you can see where the dog is, or what he’s up to. He’s barking happily, and charging off the path and into the tall grass, with the word
glowing hugely above his head. As if this weren’t enough, there’s also a huge
TREASURE CHEST ICON
next to the word “treasure”. If Peter Molyneux emails us and explains that this was an homage to the developer of Action Button Dot Net Game of the Year 2008 Bangaioh Spirits, then we’ll gladly delete these next couple of paragraphs.
Sometimes, you’ll be running along a muddy road, following that glowing golden line, and your dog will start yapping. You swing the analog stick around, and see him charging off into the soggy bushes, with the words
glowing hugely above his head. As if this weren’t enough, there’s also a huge
next to the words “dig spot”.
Part of the real-life joy of owning a real-life dog is turning to your towheaded little brother, grinning, and exclaiming, “I think he’s trying to tell us something!” We wouldn’t call dogs “man’s best friend” if they weren’t a little bit annoying, or at least mysterious. When your dog wakes you up in the middle of the night, it could be because
1. he is happy to have the company of the shadow of a moth
2. he has just succeeded in biting his own tail
3. he senses cat burglars
4. he has just dug up a gold bar in your tomato garden, and is going to put it back if you don’t come pay attention to him right now
As the owner of a dog, it’s your choice: do you wake up, and say “What is it, boy?” Or do you roll over, wrapping your head in a pillow and shouting “Put a sock in it, you stupid mutt!”
Do you see what we’re trying to say, here? Dear Lionhead Studios: we respect the hell out of Fable 2 on the conceptual level; like Monster Hunter, it contains all of Animal Crossing‘s social opportunities while also being courteous enough to have an actual game built-in. It flatters us to no end that you’ve made a game almost as deep as Oblivion that requires absolutely none of the knowledge of Dungeons and Dragons rules. It’s just that you’ve built such a wide entrance here, with a game that is so entertaining and so fun — why spoil it by talking too much? You’ve cut out some of the middlemen, though not nearly enough. Truly, you cut down one middleman and five more middlemen wake up and say “Yeah, by the way, I was here all along.” It’s just, if you’re going to start, you might as well see it through to the end. If you don’t, it makes you look lazy.
Here we could harp on the experience system, if — nah, let’s harp on it anyway. It says in the manual that your character “gets stronger” if he uses lots of melee attacks, that he earns accuracy if he uses lots of ranged attacks. That’s cool. We’re all for games that use transparent experience systems. Remember earlier in this review, when we mentioned Dungeon Siege — we bet you thought that was just us being random. Sorry, jack — it wasn’t. Dungeon Siege did it right, though Dungeon Siege also failed to make the front page of the Wall Street Journal under the headline “Best Videogame Ever Is Released”, so maybe people didn’t listen to it. In Dungeon Siege, you attack with a sword and your sword attack skill gets incrementally stronger every time you attack. It’s voodoo-like. It’s magical. It’s the way things should be. In Fable 2, if you use your sword a lot, then it increases the number of physical “experience orbs” enemies drop. You can then use these “physical experience orbs” to power up your physical attacks. Uhhh, okay.
It’s quite possible that Lionhead thought this system would work because “The Sims has a lot of menus; casual gamers must like menus”. Wrong answer! Fable 2 has an enormous chance to be better than The Sims, because it’s just you, the player, and that there Hero. It’s a one-on-one conversation. We have the promise of a guy who gets buffer the more physical attacks he performs; he also has the benefit of being the most constantly visible thing on the screen at any given time. We would see him getting bigger, if and when he got bigger. In Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, you didn’t have to stop to pick up “Marathon-runner orbs” as you ran long distances so that your guy would grow skinnier. It just happened. Of course, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas unpleasantly popped up a little menu every time one of your aesthetic properties changed by a significant tick mark in either direction. It was easy enough to get over. In Fable 2, maybe you could, uhh, make the hero’s arms glow gold and/or play a gay little fanfare whenever his muscles get bigger. We understand that holding down the R trigger to collect experience orbs is part of the combat experience, because it leaves you open to enemy attacks, and the orbs disappear pretty quickly, though couldn’t you have just balanced the combat a bit differently to keep it satisfying? Maybe make more enemies, for example. Maybe ran a little farther with the physics — make the enemies really ping-pong around. Make it so that the stronger your arms get, the longer you can charge a physical attack (maybe the hero glows a different color for each step of the charge), and the harder the charge attack when unleashed, the farther enemies fly when hit, the more damage they cause when they hit other enemies. Physics are fun! When it comes right down to it, the average “casual gamer” isn’t rolling their eyes at a game they perceive to be “not sophisticated enough” so much as they’re grinning like helium-huffing three-year-olds at how much fun it is to press right on the control pad and watch Super Mario accelerate into a brisk walk, and then let go and watch him coast to a stop.
In short: give us friction! We would take friction, physics, and crunchy joy over a tunnel-vision-like charcoal-colored menu bar at the top of the screen telling us that the fight we just had was an “Excellent Fight!” and announcing that we are receiving “387% bonus experience”.
Here’s a thought experiment, game designers: think of a numeral that appears in your game. If you hid that numeral from the player, would the player feel completely hopeless and lost? If not, you should hide that number. If so, you should keep that number. Experiment with hiding these numbers. Maybe, uhh, get a casual player to play the game and see if they weep about there not being enough numbers. You know.
Lionhead, remember how you decided in Fable 2 that sleeping in different beds would have different benefits and influences on the way townspeople view your character? That wasn’t a terrible idea. Remember the guy who recommended that you make a large menu appear in the center of the screen that says
AFTER SLEEPING IN THIS BED, PEOPLE FIND YOU MORE ATTRACTIVE
You should fire that guy! (Or you should hire a guy to email similar things to our iPhones in the dead of the night, tooth-fairy-like.)
Also — and this is kind of a big one — this is supposed to be an epic adventure, we understand. As the “Lord of the Rings” movies taught us, epic adventures are often about men walking disgustingly long distances. In Fable 2, sometimes, we approach the exit of an area, only to see a window pop up on the screen, telling us that the journey to such-and-such place is 87 miles and will take us around 27 hours on foot; we slide out of the area, and a loading screen — showing a map — pops up. Then — pop — we’re where we were trying to get. Why not at least show a canned cut-scene of a camera zooming over some terrain? As it is, there’s nothing less epic than telling us we just spent 27 hours walking in a game that — to harp on this again — features mini-games that simulate menial tasks such as chopping logs in half.
We could go on and on — like how we have these beautiful 3D graphics, that delicious lighting, and those fuzzy grass textures, though when we come up to a meticulously rendered 3D wooden signboard on the side of the road, we have to press the A button to read it via a text window — or how the “story” missions are often prefaced by mandatory side-questing which is prefaced by an actual main storyline character telling you “If only you were more renowned, I could trust you with this mission”, “If you built up more of a reputation, perhaps I could trust you”, followed by a large menu popping up in the center of the screen telling you “Complete missions for renown points” — or how the joy of selecting a weapon and dealing with the weapon we’ve been given is dashed by the fact that the game gives all weapons a star rating, immediately making us feel inferior about one-star weapons when we see three-star weapons — that the uniform shopkeeper voice will tell us, “that’s one of my favorite items — highly recommended!” if we let the cursor hover over the name of any item in a list of items for more than five seconds, which is a too-depressing facsimile of the reality we play games to avoid — the walking / running animations are so floaty it’s hard to believe your character actually exists in this world — though it would start to sound mean and petty. Really, despite all these shortcomings, despite the fact that our hero looked almost exactly the same at the end of the game as he did at the beginning (well, as he did just after the prologue), despite the fact that we played the game shunning all the temptations of its virtual world instead of indulging in them, we are capable of deeming Fable 2 alarmingly not terrible. There is plenty of room for more games like this, just with some of the numbers and bullshit removed. We award this game a “low three stars” because we know in our hearts that without the bullshit (or maybe just with a much better digging animation — seriously it’s N64-like; it’s like he’s poking an imaginary fire), it would have been great. At the end of the day, that’s (maybe) better than saying that the game would have been great if only they’d had that one key feature.
To close this review, out of nowhere, a list we typed up, of voice samples overheard during the beer-pouring mini-game:
“A perfect pouring!”
“Look at the head on that one!”
“A perfectly poured pint!”
“That’s a wonderfully poured pint!”
“A perfect pouring!”
“Just the right amount of foam!”
“A perfect head on that one!”
“Look at the head on that!”
“A delicious-looking pint!”
Little bit maddening, that is.
Time to play Gears of War 2 again, then.
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