Aesop for the digital age.
Here's a trick question: How many games has Peter Molyneux finished making? None, I'd argue, because his games - while imaginative, ambitious, and beautiful - never feel like they're quite done. If left to his own devices, Peter would never finish a game because he always wants to add more. I imagine this must be quite frustrating for the publishers:
[image1]Publisher: So, Peter, you said your game would be ready this month. We good?
Peter: Not quite. I'm adding a game within the game where people can build farms, grow vegetables, and enter those vegetables in the state fair to win prizes.
Publisher (one month later): So, Pete, farms all done? We ready to go this month?
Peter: Ah, there's the thing. Now that there are farms, the players need a way to maintain, customize, and race their tractors.
Publisher (one month later): Saw the tractors, they look great. So this month it's a wrap, right?
Peter: No, no, no. Now we're adding to the database whether every single character in the game likes pancakes or not.
Publisher: They all like pancakes. You're done.
Enter Fable II, a game that tosses so much into the mixing bowl, it defies categorization. To call it an RPG is only part way correct, as half the game plays more like The Sims than anything else. Add to that some mini-games, several unique ways to gamble your money away, and a complex economic model (which could be a game in itself), and you have what I call a WTFOMH, or a World That Fell Out of Molyneux's Head.
Your story, and the quest it spawns, is only one comparatively small part of the game. Indeed, completing the main story doesn't end the game. It opens up more game.
[image2]You are a filthy beggar. No, no, not you dear reader, but your avatar. As a child, you and your filthy beggar sister begin by scrounging together five gold pieces by hook or by crook in order to buy a wish-granting magical music box, sold by a dubious traveling salesman. However, the box disappears when you make your wish, and your little mendicant dreams of living in a castle are crushed.
Until, that is, the city guards come that night to bring you to the castle of Lord Lucien, who had previously lost his wife and daughter. In his study, Lucien mumbles something about some hocus-pocus ritual and how dreadfully sorry he is... and then he shoots you both. Despite your tiny, scrofulous, bullet-ridden body falling backwards out of what must be the highest stained window in the castle tower, you manage to survive and are raised by gypsies. Ten years pass. [This story has nothing to do with Chris Hudak. ~Ed.]
And here's one of the main hooks of the game: city transformation. Your actions as a child knock over the first domino that shapes the city of Bowerstone. The dirty slums you grew up in might now be a gentrified suburb, or even more crime-ridden than before. Each leg in the story presents its own unique opportunities to shape the environment. Mid-game, there is a second ten-year gap where parts of the world change once more, based again on your decisions. It's a very cool notion and lends a lot of replay value.
All your actions also contribute to your slide towards Evil or Good and towards Purity or Corruption. The problem is that it's tremendously easy to be Evil and quite hard to stay Good, and you're not always sure which actions lead to which alignment. Do you kill a looter after a bandit attack, or let him loot unmolested?
It's also hard not to feel evil when your only option is to steal an object you find. Open a treasure chest or a dresser, and you are forced to take it. Even if you're the richest man in all of Albion and you have no need for a pair of low-level boots, you can't put it back.
And has Peter become some sort of proselytizing vegetarian? All meat products you eat not only contribute to your corruption, they make you fat. And you get fat fast. Vegetables and tofu, on the other hand, make you more pure and won't add to your fat. Despite miles and miles of running, unless you enjoy watching your fat hero schlubbing around the map, it's a meatless diet for you, even though a hero, muscle-bound or not, shouldn't be able to survive on celery sticks. It's all very ambitious, and yet it feels imbalanced.
[image3]So too does the economy, in which nearly every property and business in Fable II can be bought. The value (and income) of any property depends on the local economy, the furnishings, the sellers opinion of you, and other factors. So one way to take advantage of the system is to go on a crime spree, let bandits run wild, drive prices down, and then buy up the town for cheap, just like Donald Trump. Then you can clean up the bandit problem, renovate a couple homes, and viola!, you're sitting on a gold mine that generates money even when you're not actively playing Fable II.
It should be a really cool system, but it gets broken by one thing: bartending. You can take one of three kinds of non-violent jobs - blacksmithing, wood chopping, and bartending - all done through little timing mini-games. The key is to get your multiplier high enough, and the bartending game is so easy that you'll soon be earning several hundred gold per beer. I've actually gotten it up over 1000 gold per beer, which makes even New York nightclubs look cheap. It's far more money than you can earn through the more violent jobs - bounty hunting, assassination, extortion, questing, or even plain-old treasure hunting.
So you bartend for an hour or so, buy some properties, and let the money roll in while you sleep. The domino effect makes you richer and richer as time goes by, which makes the combat far too easy. Just buy yourself a Master class pistol from the shop, put a couple buffs on it (don't worry, you can afford it), and you're virtually invincible.
Yes, Fable II has hit the Victorian age, including some primitive revolvers, which lets them get rid of the problematic armor from the first game. Yet while you shoot better than Annie Oakley with a laser sight and bullets are unblockable, your enemies seem stuck on the idea of running at you with a sword. Even those few that do shoot can't hit the broadside of a barn.
But with unlimited cash, high-end potions that only cost as much as a few pulls of the beer tap become the quickest way to get experience, instead of slaughtering those helpless enemies.
So why doesn't this ruin the game? Because the RPG combat is only one small part of Fable II.
[image4]Much of the game is about exploring the stunningly beautiful land of Albion for one reason or another, occasionally gnashing your teeth at the overly long load time between areas. Find and destroy 50 hidden gargoyles to receive increasingly mystical treasures from their cave. Collect 50 silver keys to unlock rare treasure chests. And then there are those maddeningly puzzling, talking demon doors you'll want to figure out how to open. You don't have to open them, but trust me, you'll want to for reasons that will remain unexplainable.
Or you can try to master the completely original gambling games you can find throughout Albion. From complex slot machines to a surprisingly nuanced dice game and a card game that uses a unique deck, tremendous love and effort has been put into them you never need play, but should, just for fun.
Other things you don't have to do? How about having sex? Getting married? Raising kids? Contracting an STD? Moving into a house and redecorating it? All of it's part of the Sims-ish part of the game that is here for no reason other than to play with it. You can even have a threesome, as I found out with two randy bisexual ladies. Best... Xbox Live Achievement... EVAR.
Wondering if Steve the Alchemist is a straight, middle-class, humorless man who likes apples and dancing but hates going to the beach? It's all there in his bio, including how much he loves or hates you, fears or idolizes you, and finds you attractive or ugly. Growl at him to make him fear you more, or dance with him to make him love you more. Or both, as fear and love are unattached (ask any married man). It's your choice.
You can even try to juggle multiple families in different towns (hope they don't meet), have a secret gay lover, or sacrifice your wife on the Altar of Shadows as the ultimate evil act. Maintaining a happy marriage can lead to special gifts and bonuses from your family, although it's exceedingly difficult to do if your continued adventures lead to any long absences. Suffice it to say, the Albion divorce rate is high.
You can even lose your wife to another player. Or, at least, I think you can because the Multiplayer isn't fully implemented yet (and it's Peter), although I was able to test out some of it with fellow journalists on my friends list. It works like this: If someone on your friends list is playing at the same time you are, you'll see their “orb” zipping around your world in the same location they are in theirs. Interacting with their orb allows you to give them gifts (transferred from one game to the other), see all their stats (I wonder how many times he paid for sex?), and if you like, invite them to join you in your version of Albion.
[image5]If they join you, it becomes a co-op game where you determine what share of the gold and experience your friend collects. Or you can join his game and see how his choices have shaped the world differently than yours. Then steal his wife.
However, while the Multiplayer is supposed to be finished this week in a patch, I wonder if other missing bits will appear. They're easy to spot because Peter is so (broadly) detail-oriented. While every single gravestone in the world has an unique inscription (there must be hundreds), if you take the unfinished quest to collect artifacts for Bowerstone's archaeologist, every single artifact is the same featureless “ancient scroll”.
Fable II might be a shallow RPG that's a bit too easy (I have never died), and if you're looking for a challenge, it's not here. But that's because it's not really an RPG. Difficulty, stat-obsession, and death is as pointless in Fable II as it is in The Sims. It's not about getting to level 50 or defeating the evil overlord; it's about simply mucking about in a WTFOMH full of adventure, bright colors, sex, and wry humor.