Trouble Thinking

April 16, 2010

Just Old Enough for a Retrospective: Fable II

Filed under: Video Games — Tags: , , , — Chris @ 10:00 pm

The fall of ’08 was a flurry of AAA video game releases, with games like Rock Band 2, Star Wars: The Force Unleashed (yes, I was the guy who liked The Force Unleashed), Fallout 3, Left 4 Dead, and many others all released within a scant few months of each other. Many of those games I still find myself playing even today. Yet, of all the great games released in the autumn of 2008, my favorite at the time was without question Lionhead Studios’ Fable II.

I know. I was surprised too. I mean, first of all, the first “Fable” was impressively disappointing, with far too linear environments, and a half-baked morality system. Secondly, this is a Lionhead game, which means just one thing: Peter Molyneux. Peter Molyneux has never met a game concept he couldn’t oversell and fail to deliver on. Peter Molyneux is so bad at developing video games, that he thinks “unlimited character customization,” means one player model, and five different shirts. Peter Molyneux is so bad at developing video games, that when he promises a “dynamic game world, gradually altering over time to reflect each of the player’s actions,” you get a single town that either becomes poor, or does not become poor. Peter Molyneux is so bad at developing video games, that when he sets out to create “gripping emotional resonance,” he gives your character the ability to fart on command.

Yet, despite Peter Molyneux’s best efforts, there’s something about Fable II I find endearing. First of all, the combat is just fun—incredibly, annoyingly, easy at times—but just fun as hell to play, and instantly gratifying. It’s real time combat with no combos to learn, just one button for melee attacks, one button for ranged, and another for magic. Combine that with the ability to dodge and roll all over the place, and a skill progression system that is rewarding and satisfying with every level up, and you get a surprisingly entertaining combat engine.

Furthermore, as played out as a “morality” rating has gotten in RPGs these days, Lionhead made excellent use of theirs. How? Simple: Fable II’s save system. This thing is devious. Each character gets one, and only one, save file. This means that when the game auto-saves—which it does, frequently, every time you make an important decision—it overwrites your save file. You’re stuck with whatever it is you’ve done. Sell some people to slavery? Stuck with it. Sacrifice someone to an evil god? Can’t go back. Kill off the population of an entire village? Yeah, that’s not going away any time soon.

And if you want to be good, you really want to stick to your guns and be the bigger man? It’s gonna hurt. Lose experience, grow old, all kinds of decisions that you can’t go back on just because you’ve been making save files left and right—and that’s awesome! That’s how it should be! I love that Fable II reinforces that being bad is easy, but doing the right thing takes work, and even sacrifice.

Another reason I found myself so hooked to Fable II, is that it stumbled across an excellent character creation system. Unlike basically every other RPG ever made, your character’s equipment in Fable II have no affect on his or her stats, meaning that you can choose to dress them however you want.  It sounds simple, but more RPGs need to do this. When as the player you’re freed from having to worry about whatever equipment is “the best,” it lets you instead get involved with who your character is. Combined with the morality system, the ability to choose in what ways your character presents and carries themselves adds layers of depth to what is an otherwise simple and straightforward story.

Still, as much as I enjoyed Fable II, I can’t help but feel like it was all some kind of miraculous, once-in-a-lifetime accident. I don’t know if you guys caught onto this earlier, but I don’t exactly have a lot of faith in Peter Molyneux, and when I look at the way many of my favorite features were implemented, this opinion only seems to be confirmed. All those sacrifices your character has to make via the game’s save system? Completely undone after you beat the game. Later quests completely reverse your character’s aging, and eliminate all of your scars, defeating the purpose of your character having made it so far. It robs them of their integrity, and undercuts the entire narrative.

Oh, and all that great customization? Oh, I know that was by accident. There are literally around five shirts for each gender in the game, and while Fable II does helpfully allow you to cross-dress if you so desire, that’s not nearly enough variety to carry an entire game the developers clearly intend you to replay with multiple characters. On top of that, the whole thing is saddled with a terrible interface, which is completely unorganized, and doesn’t allow you to preview color or costume changes.

Maybe I’m being cynical, though. Yeah, Peter Molyneux has a god awful track record, Fable I was lackluster, and Fable II seems to underestimate and undercut many of its best features, but Fable III is well into development, and I’m sure that at this point a seasoned team like Lionhead can learn from their successes and failures, and build upon them, instead of focusing on other meaningless, gimmicky, borderline absurd, nonsense.

Oh.

God damnit, Peter Molyneux.

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