Friday, 25 June 2010

Fable II Thoughts

I've spent the past couple of weeks ploughing through Lionhead's Fable II. I actually played Brutal Legend just before it (which, looking back over some old, old posts was a game I was really looking forward to) but that will have to be a post for a different time.


I played the first Fable game a few years ago on PC, and quite enjoyed it. It didn't quite have enough freedom for me, I never felt like I was exploring or really adventuring. The world was presented as a series of small, mostly linear 'bubbles' with a couple of key locations in them, so you couldn't wander off the beaten track. The story also wasn't the best, and I think I eventually gave up around two thirds of the way through. That said, there was something engaging about the central character, and the way his appearance reflected your actions in the game.

Fable II builds what I thought were the strong areas of the first game. Unfortunately, some of the poor areas are carried across directly; for instance, the story was particularly uninspiring. It's full of paper thin characters and ridiculous moments where a character (I like to mentally label them Professor Von Plotexposition) turns up and explains what's happening. There was some backstory to explain why the Bad Guy was the bad guy (actually, that's a lie... his fall from his originally tragic situation to a cruel tyrant was explained in one line of dialogue, which itself was simply a cheesy metaphor), but it really was hard to care about any of it. At all. I mean, it says something about the game that I was more upset about a bad guy kicking my dog than I was when my sister was murdered (actually it may say more about me).

I think I would have preferred if the story had actually been more generic and spent more time playing on other RPG cliches, something it does on several occasions very well. Slight spoiler here, but there's a brilliant twist on the classic 'My son thinks he's an adventurer and has wondered into a dungeon' quest; if the style of this quest had been carried across to the main story I would have lapped it up right the way through, and we wouldn't have had the jarring shifts in tone that the game is currently plagued with. One minute, you're helping a pair of bumbling brothers (Freelance Necromancers) who have accidentally raised the dead, and the next you're forced into torturing some prisoners in the Bad Guy's castle.

I did at least enjoy the voice acting; good to see an almost entirely British cast (Stephen Fry, Julia Sawalha), even if it does slip into cliche comedy accents in several places. You'll already be able to tell what accents the peasants have before you even have the game.

One area where there has been an obvious improvement, however, is in the graphics. They weren't too shabby in the original, they had a certain cartoony charm. In Fable II they are absolutely stunning. In particular, the seasonal shifts (sadly there isn't a Harvest Moon-style seasonal cycle, changes in the seasons are driven by plot) and the lighting and weather effects are amazing. Seeing the sun breaking through the clouds, or watching snow slowly drift to the ground are some particular highlights.

The levelling system works well, though it certainly could have been deeper. As your character kills enemies with your various abilities you gain experience associated with that area; shoot an enemy to death and you get more experience to invest in the Skill tree. Your character can specialise in Strength, Skill or Will, and there's also a 'general' experience pool that can be used to advance your character in any of the trees. One small problem, though, is that I reckon most characters will end up with lots of experience in all three areas over the course rather than specialising in one. You are supposed to be the only hero who has the mastery over all areas, so I guess it kind of fits, but one of the central themes about the game is choice. Why not make the choice as to which path you progress down meaningful, instead of allowing anyone become an expert at everything?

What is very cool, though an idea carried over from the first game, is that advancing your hero in the three areas will change your appearance. Focus on Strength, and you muscles visibly bulge, concentrate on Will and glowing runes will start to appear on your skin. Go with Skill and your character... erm, gets taller?

Anyway, leading on from this, the reintroduction of alignment morphing from games like the Black & White series is welcome. I'm a sucker for stuff like this; by the end of the game by character was a 6' tall bodybuilder, sporting a rather fetching cuffed overcoat, shiny white teeth and a halo. In particular I like how there are now two character sliders; one for your character's 'purity', which is a measure of how greedy and indulgent you are, and one for your character's 'alignment' which is how selfless you are. Tou could be a Good character who is Corrupt (a decadent character who drinks and sleeps with prostitutes, but wouldn't harm anyone else) or an Evil character who is also Pure (someone very organised and regimented; more of a brutal dictator than a psychopathic killer!). The former character would end up looking fat and unhealthy, and the latter would attract a cloud of smoke and end up with a chalk-white complexion.

(Incidentally, how stupid is it that you have to eat celery to get thinner? All the running, fighting, dancing, chopping wood, etc. etc. makes no difference to your figure!)

Also, some locations change depending on your actions through the game; the effects of this can be seen fairly early on, with one location in the main city of Bowerstone changing either to a hive of scum and villainy or a fairly well-to-do area with a scattering of shops depending on whether a guard you encounter ends up being fired or not (as a direct consequence of your actions).

The area where I had the most fun, however, was interacting with the world and the economy. Unlike a world like Oblivion, Morrowind, or Fallout 3, prices of goods depend on supply and demand along with the local economy. Keep an eye open, and you can make money shipping goods from areas where they're on sale over to areas where they're in demand. Invest a lot of money in an area and the quality of their goods goes up, allowing for a bigger margin if you decide to play trader. I may be wrong, but I think if you pick up things like blacksmithing jobs it can result in the weapon shops producing more, but don't hold me to that. Still, if you fancy to property trade, you can buy cheap buildings in town, pour a load of money into the local economy, then sell the houses on again in a booming market with a redecorated interior to make a fat profit.

In fact, it would have been interesting if this had gone further, if it would basically a fantasy Renaissance-era version of Elite; imagine if you could own woodmills or ore mines, and by having a stranglehold on the supply of raw materials you could ensure your blacksmiths were producing the best or only weapons. You could even encourage strife to boost the sales of your own weapons (I'm sure this happens in a film, but I'll be buggered if I can remember which one.). By the sounds of it, this aspect of the game is set to be vastly improved on in Fable III. The idea that your entire kingdom will change depending on your actions as ruler is quite exciting, with, for instance, particular neighbourhoods falling into disrepair if you neglect to tackle crime.

I should mention when you take the time to earn money like this playing the game ends up pretty easy; money is plentiful, therefore it's easy to buy health potions, food, and property.

Bottom line is that Fable II isn't really a 'proper' RPG by any means. It isn't even a particularly accomplished action-RPG as the combat is way too simplistic (compare Fable II to a stat heavy, crunchy behemoth like Dragons Age: Origins). What it is, is a toy box where you can mess about with the various tools at your disposal; it sort of reminds me of playing with Playmobil as a child. It's even pretty much one of the only games I would consider playing through as evil, as the evil is much more of the top hat-wearing, mustache twirling Villainy than actual EVIL evil.

In many ways, this all makes it a classic bit of Lionhead software. Similar to Black & White, it's a series of cool mechanics without a huge amount of traditional 'game' holding it all together; this is both the title's main strength and main weakness.

No comments:

Post a Comment