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Spinning Yarns With the Nearly Finished Fable II
by Brad Shoemaker on
Brad got his hands on Lionhead's anticipated action RPG and played a brand new hero for a bunch of hours.
After choosing a boy or girl character to play as, you start off being hit by the now-famous airborne glob of bird poop before venturing into the town of Bowerstone's back alleys with your street-urchin older sister. Childhood lasts only about 24 game-world hours in Fable II, which you'll spend doing odd jobs to gain a few gold coins in order to buy a magical music box from a persuasive street vendor. Even in this brief, benign tutorial sequence, I felt like I was making decisions that might have a meaningful impact on the alignment of my hero or the world around me--and quite often both--as I carried out specific tasks and quests.
Fable's characteristic freedom to be good or evil was immediately evident here. A mission that had me collecting lost warrants for the city's worst criminals gave me the option to sell those warrants to one of those criminals, instead of returning them to the constable who was trying to recover them. Later, I retrieved a lost bottle of wine for a wino in another mission, but was then able to give it to a concerned caretaker instead of further contributing to the bum's debauchery. It seems like even walking the straight and narrow path in Fable II will make you some enemies. A third mission had a warehouse owner begging me to use my slingshot to rid his storeroom of a beetle infestation. However, a local thug insisted that I smash up the businessman's stock instead, and when I opted to kill the beetles and lay off the goods, I unavoidably made an enemy of that thug just by trying to do the right thing.
After you get your five coins together, some mystical shenanigans with the music box deliver you to an audience with Lord Lucian, the slightly unhinged ruler of the land whose newfound, crazed obsession with magical research owes to deep, recent personal tragedy. Unfortunately, Microsoft muzzled my original intention to tell you exactly what happens during this meeting with Lucian, but I'll only say that after the benign, easygoing way that Fable II first opens up scarcely an hour before, the events in the castle on this fateful night really made me sit up and go "Holy shit." The game gets serious quickly, and provides a good setup for its abrupt flash-forward to your adulthood, when you've become a strapping sword-and-crossbow-wielding hero ready to undertake your quest. (You know, given the impact of that early plot point, maybe it's for the better that I can't describe it in detail.)
Childhood is when you meet Fable II's well-publicized dog, a scruffy mutt who's still alive and much heartier a decade later when you've grown up and set out on your journey. Besides looking cute--I haven't seen a game dog this convincing since Nintendogs--the dog has a few gameplay functions that became apparently immediately. He'll scout around unbidden for hidden treasure chests and places to dig with your shovel for other goodies. You can also incorporate him into your social interactions with other characters or just play fetch with him or praise him to make him like you better. You can find dog-training manuals throughout the game to increase your dog's stable of tricks and skills in treasure-hunting. This training is presumably how you'll beef him up into a canine combat machine, too.
There were numerous demo stations set up at this event, with a representative smattering of games press members playing Fable II on a fresh save game. More than once, I heard Molyneux delightedly pointing out how differently everyone was playing their hero. Like the first game, Fable II does give you a ton of ways to customize and socially develop your hero. I only had about two hours to play the game, so you'd think I'd have wanted to make tracks through the storyline as fast as possible. But no. I couldn't resist blowing a chunk of my time shopping for new clothes (I added an eyepatch and a jaunty pair of new boots), convincing one of the local gypsy maidens to marry me, slaving away at the blacksmith's, and looking into property ownership, since just about every building has a deed posted you can opt to buy. For instance, Molyneux commented that you could buy the town pub and then set the price of ale to effectively zero, after which you'd notice an inordinate number of townspeople stumbling around the city streets in a drunken stupor. And who can blame them?
Fable II adds a glowing "bread crumb trail" that Molyneux has talked about previously, to guide you more directly to your pertinent objectives. I found that useful in the short term, since I had a limited time to see as much of the game as I could. The trail will show you the way to the next required story point, and you can also select individual optional quests as your next goal to have the trail guide you there, too. But I felt like when playing the final game in the comfort of a weekend, I'd prefer to turn the trail off (which is thankfully only a menu option away). There seemed to be a lot of treasure and other curiosities hidden around Albion, and blindly following the highlighted trail really discouraged me from venturing off the beaten path and looking for them.
In between quests, I returned to Bowerstone. Heading to the city's oldtown district, I immediately picked up on one of the specific effects my prior decisions had. I ran into that constable I'd helped a decade earlier--who'd since been promoted to a higher rank for cleaning up the streets--and he told me how since I'd returned those warrants, he'd been able to catch all the crooks and turn the district into a thriving, law-abiding commerce center. I assume quite the opposite conditions would have existed if I'd sold those warrants to the criminal in childhood, instead.
Running around in Bowerstone's town square made me realize Fable II Pub Games may have had a legitimate use after all. There are some odd jobs you can undertake with different merchants to build up a bit of coin, and the blacksmith's work I enlisted in was menial enough--just a series of timed button presses against an onscreen meter--to send a person running for the Live Arcade screen. Maybe that was the point.
From what I remember of the first game--it's been four years, after all--this new game feels very Fable from top to bottom. It's got lots of flippant characters spouting the same delightful range of British accents and cheeky dialogue. The visual style is very similar, not just in art but also use of color and even specific graphical effects (hail the return of the light bloom!). Even the controls feel the same, which is to say a little tight and awkward compared to more limber action games in the God of War vein. I wish I'd had more time to explore the game's one-button combat system, which seemed by necessity a little simplistic and button-mashy. But Molyneux swore we hadn't even seen the tip of the combat iceberg, since you cash in your experience to gain new melee, ranged attack, and magical abilities throughout the game. You also pick up some companions who will fight alongside you later on. I'm interested to see how the combat develops over time and if Molyneux's promise rings true in that particular regard.
At the event, I was fortunate enough to sit down and chat with Molyneux, who's the most affable, down-to-earth big-name designer you could hope to meet, a real gentleman of game development (despite his occasional penchant for hyperbole). Here's that!
Thanks for your time, Peter!