Wednesday, 20 August 2008

Preview: Fable II

Publisher: Microsoft
Developer: Lionhead Studios
Formats: Xbox 360

Release Date: October 2008
Peter Molyneux is a creator of undeniably excellent video games often brimming with unique technologies and advanced gaming ethics. Yet after more than two decades in the industry his name has become synonymous with pre-release hyperbole that constantly flatters to deceive. The result has been wonderful titles that have pushed traditional boundaries but have failed to live up to Molyneux’s expectations and the collective hope of the gaming media. Despite sporting an infectious passion and enthusiasm for the projects he oversees, he has become his own worst enemy, a personality bigger than the games themselves and stunting their ability to wonder by peppering previews with unrealistic promises.

The original Fable was one such example of unrequited rhetoric which culminated in an excellent RPG being lambasted for features technologically beyond the original Xbox. Real time tree growth, branching story paths, NPC’s reacting to your legendary whims and sporting a copycat hairstyle, Molyneux promised us it all in a gaming experience tantamount to Nirvana. What we got was a solid RPG that failed to live up to the expectations of a now increasingly wary public and failed to revolutionize the way in which we approach console games.
Nevertheless, Molyneux seems to have rained himself in for Fable II. Aware that his hype has cast the ire of the gaming public on his previous visionary masterpieces, Molyneux has toned down his outlandish pledges and tried to keep focus on elements he knows can be technologically achieved. Subsequently, whilst Molyneux’s presentations have been disappointingly tempered from his usual bombastic approach, we can begin to conceive what has become of the Fable universe and perhaps become excited again, after all Fable II is complete, or so says Molyneux.
Set five hundred years after the original, Fable II will see players return to ye olde world of Albion, a whimsical, fantasy setting part Dickensian, part Medieval, constructed through an encompassing and stylized gothic art direction. At the beginning you will find yourself playing as a young boy or girl, the choice of sex is your only customization. From here on in, Lionhead Studios, the people behind Peter Molyneux, have kept the details of the story close to their chests. Suffice to say our young protagonist is grossly wronged early on and is embroiled in a quest for revenge.
There is good reason for Lionhead to keep the story under wraps. Like much of Molyneux’s previous CV, Fable intends to be a study in right and wrong, good and bad and a universal sense of real world morality. Where his early God sims such as Populous and Black and White pushed the player to create a benevolent good and bestow bad to the whims of the gamer, the Fable series has intended to capture the minutia of such actions and relay them through precepts of cause and effect. Subsequently, the story of revenge is a mere disposition in asking the question how one wants to go about seeking revenge in a freeform world and how this revenge will be embodied through the life story of your character and the landscapes in his or her wake.

In this way, Fable II suggests we will take the next logical step in gaming development, at least in the sandbox genre. Like a lovechild of Bethesda’s Elder Scrolls: Oblivion and EA’s Sims, Fable II offers up any number of potential character development options, be it through a family life, or that of an infamous hero, that in itself can be internally extended. For instance, a player can engage an NPC of either sex and follow early flirting with marriage and children dictated by such details as protected or unprotected sex. From here you can be the perfect wife or husband, hunter gatherer or negligent oft absent hero. You can perform adultery and catch an STD or come back scarred from battle to the detriment of your traumatized family. With every action will be a reaction and this will be cast upon those NPC’s closest to you and even the most ancillary of bystander perhaps in wonderment of your celebrity or terrified by your eviscerated appearance. In the same respect, you can try and do well and create bad upon yourself or others unintentionally as is the way in real life.

Fable II is subsequently about options, input and output. Put crap in and crap will come out, just crapper. The story is not designed to be a centre piece but the thread that holds the unending options together. That is not to say the game is without its certainties. For the majority of the story you will be joined by your unconditionally loving companion, a dog for which you can name yourself and whose breed will depend upon your own input. As one of many companions that will join you on quests, the dog is ever present and will morph like your own character depending on the things you experience and the varying acts of good and bad you bequeath upon others. This mechanic of cause and effect character models extends into the landscape and townships you will encounter along your way. Make the right decisions and towns will prosper, become cleaner and act as wholesome hubs for family enjoyment. However make a decision of unspeakable evil and the town will become a slum rife with crime and prostitution, dank bars and ne’er-do-wells.

Quests will be the focal point for your characters progression, stand around long enough and an NPC will come to you looking for help. The way you choose to approach these side quests is that of your creation. Be helpful and you will be rewarded as a good person and with XP, laugh at the misfortunate or fart in their general direction and you will be frowned upon. Go about slaughtering the innocent and you could end up in jail, bailing yourself or becoming an outlaw for the rest of your days.

Subsequently advanced AI is set to become a centre piece unto which your experience pivots. With NPC’s set to become an ever more present and sentient quantity in the world of Albion, Lionhead has been tasked with producing NPC’s that remember your past actions and react accordingly. Whilst we have been promised countless times before about revolutionary AI characters, for Fable and its malleable game history and landscape, perfecting an individualistic AI is important in the immersion, not only of the sandbox world, but also the morals it foists upon us. From early tests the AI seems sufficiently ready to hate or love you with equal measures dependent on the way you interact with your living environment.

This level of optional interaction extends into the combat mechanic, a system that has become a byword for the accessibility that belies Fable’s depth from early development. Utilizing the much vaunted one button context sensitive combat engine, battles are actually dictated by a considerably thorough collection of combinations and rhythm based timing mechanisms. With a sword this allows the player to jab with a quick press of the X button, block by holding said button and perform lunges with a hold and then release, executed with appropriate timing and the camera will cut to the now ever popular finishing shot. Players will be able to interchange between melee weaponry and more ranged artillery mid battle with the same simplistic system dictating both options.

This brings us to another of Fable II’s improvements. Where the original offered up a somewhat washy and piecemeal based magic arsenal, Fable II will look to its genre brethren to expand upon your characters magical abilities. Whilst we are unlikely to see the vast inventories of Oblivion, Fable II will perhaps be more intuitive when it comes to exercising your enchanted side. Mapping your magical powers to the B button, each individual power will have five levels of potency. Holding down the B button will bring up a meter, with each increased level the power evolves into something entirely more deadly; from here you can target enemies or opt for a rotating attack.

Nevertheless our abilities to wield weaponry with any level of skill, even inside of the straightforward mechanic, will be reliant on experience. Sure gamers can enter into the preceding Fable Pub Games arcade title to earn pre-release lolly and buy up all the best hardware and spells early in Fable II, but forgoing the actual skill to use such weaponry could be to your own disadvantage. No, in the time honored RPG way, players will be tasked with earning experience, working upon the very skill relevant to level up. Whether the completion of tasks and missions in an evil or good context will alter the ways in which you level up are unclear, but the more you kill the more proficient your character will become at killing and the same applies for any abilities one wishes to master.

Fable II is beginning to come across as a game with unbridled scope. The sheer number of options and innovations tied to the gameplay experience and the abstract concepts of good and evil are startling, not to mention the vast amounts of technology being poured in to make sure it works. This does leave one feeling concerned about how the game will hang together. As proved in the past by such titles as Jericho and Too Human, throw too many ideas into the pot and oftentimes the game becomes incomprehensively varied. It would be a little early to criticize Fable II’s rather short childhood section, the overtly simplified combat mechanics or the occasionally linear approach taken to freeform gaming as demonstrated with the invisible walls of the original Fable. Such shortcomings may well be the margins Lionhead are being forced to obey to produce a title with utterly choice based gameplay. What this explicit attention to detail will produce is tantalizing, throw in the traditional old school British whit and that sense of mysticism you get from watching a Harry Potter movie trailer and the excitement becomes unbearable.

Where Fable fell short of its own hype, the sequel hopes to build on excellent foundations and expand upon the basis of its RPG roots. The end result may well be a more traditional RPG which revolutionizes the genre with, not only its ethics, but the ways in which it makes you face them unwittingly and through the ways such action impact your character, those around him and the universe itself. Fable II is out in October and there is still plenty of time for Molyneux to buff his new toy, lets hope things go a little more realistically this time around.

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