Saturday, November 22, 2008

Review: Fable 2

(Note: I realized I write really, really long reviews. I'm going to try to include a one paragraph "summary" under the quick fix so you can get the gist of what I'm saying without reading the whole review. In this case it's just copy-pasting the last paragraph)

Review: Fable 2



Score: 7.7

Quick Fix:

++ Great art direction and good musical score
++ Most of the role playing aspects are well done, as are choices with consequence
+ Combat is enjoyable, even if it's easy
+ Great and intuitive control scheme
+ Some of the moral dilemmas in the game are actually pretty good

-- Glitches galore! Some of which can be game breaking
-- The endgame does not feel balanced at all and becomes pretty meaningless
- Load screens are somewhat frequent and very long
- Most of the optional quests are rudimentary, easy, and not very interesting
- The game is extremely easy, do not play if you're looking for a challenge
- Spell selection system is a mess
- Economy system is terrible, gold feels worthless
- Abrupt ending is a bit unsatisfying

Summary: I really wanted to love Fable 2. I wanted to give it a high 8 or low 9, praise it for its fantastic theme and role playing elements, as well as combat that proves that games don't have to be difficult to be fun. If the game ended at the mid-way point it very well could have been that way. Not to say that the game is too long; it's more that it felt like everything became unbalanced, broken and meaningless toward the end. I went from being engaged in the story and my character to just wanting to get to the end as fast as I could. The final line is the game needed some more time in testing - to both fix the myriad of bugs and make sure the second half of the game plays as well as the first half did. Here's hoping that Fable 3 will patch up the mistakes of 2, as 2 has done for 1.
--------------

I finally finished Fable 2 last night, so I figure it's a good time to post a review. Fable 2 is marketed as Microsoft's big action RPG, its Zelda of sorts. While the first Fable was relatively disappointing and did not fulfill the big promises it made, Fable 2 is said to have atoned for the mistakes of the first while expanding the experience as a whole. Does it deliver?

Well, yes and no. It makes up for a lot of the mistakes of the first by filling in a lot of the gaps where the original failed, but at the same time, has a lot of problems of its own. Let's start with the good: Fable 2 is gorgeous. I don't mean cutting-edge graphics gorgeous, but art direction gorgeous. The towns have a life of their own, day and night and the seasons all work well. Everything sounds great too, from the musical score to the excellent voice acting all around. Fable 2 feels and looks like a high budget from all angles. The pre-rendered cutscenes, which are few and far between, are usually brief but beautiful and do a great job of fleshing out key moments in your hero's tale.

What I really, really like about Fable 2 (as well as the original, but less so) is it puts the "RP" back in RPG. A lot of RPGs today seem to only be called RPGs because it involves hit point meters and alternating between swordplay and magic attacks. They rarely feel like you're playing any active role in the plot other than advancing the linear story by talking to key characters and blowing up the occasional boss.

Throughout Fable 2 I really felt like a part of the game world. A lot of games give you options like clothing choices, but it never means anything in the scope of the actual game. Fable 2 often succeeds in the idea of consequences. If you wear attractive clothing, women in the game will remark on how handsome you look, while if you don't take care of yourself and become fat, people will turn heads. If you eat meat vegetarians will look down on you. If you rent out some houses and raise the rent, people will think of you as a miser and react accordingly.

It works on the larger scale too. There are several key decisions you can make in the game that affect the game world as a whole. A simple good-or-evil decision you make during the childhood portion of a game affects the entire town's well-being when you come back as an adult. If you were good the economy prospers and the shop keepers give you a discount, but if you were evil the town becomes run down with bandits and you can get offers to assassinate key gang leaders for cash. Some of the decisions even break the fourth wall: One of the toughest decisions I had to make was between sparing the life of a friend you made (netting you a ton of positive alignment points) or losing some valuable experience points you worked hard to get throughout the game.

All the standard things are here too: customizable clothes, tattoos, hair, getting married and having kids, fat / slim appearance. Clothes and hair can be dyed as well which is a nice touch. I got a pretty sweet black mage gig going down by the end of the game (hat included). If you missed out on the concept of "morphing" in Fable 1, then I'll mention it's in this game too and it's pretty neat. Your character basically morphs based on key decisions you make in the game. If you put a lot of points into your physique (primarily to increase melee damage) you become buff, while increasing your shooting abilities makes you taller. Investing into a lot of spells gives you these cool glowing blue veins at your neck. Being good gives you a halo, being evil gives you dark eyes and even some horns. It's a neat thing to see how different heroes turn out by the end of the game. The end of the game even shows you a brief retrospect of how your hero looked at different points in the game, which is cool to actually see him grow like that.

The RP part is definitely the strength of Fable 2. The weakness, unfortunately, is in the third letter of the acronym, G for game. There are a lot of little and big annoyances here. The load screens, while not too frequent, are very long and almost unacceptable for a game this generation (this is a lot better if you have the HDD space to install it). While the main quests were pretty good in general, the optional quests felt extremely straightforward, usually kill-those-dudes or collect-x-of-item-y affairs ,sometimes with minor moral choices attached. The world was touted to be massive and free roaming, but generally felt very linear, with only the occasional slight detour to find a treasure or key. Your dog makes this even easier, as getting anywhere near a treasure prompts him to bark and guide you the rest of the way, taking a lot out of the exploration element.

A major show-stopper here is the absurd amount of glitches in the game. To get an idea of the amount of glitches, just check the Fable 2 forums at GameFAQs - the main sticky in the forum is one outlining the major game breaking glitches and how to avoid them. If you need more of an example than simply search "glitch" in the forum and see how many pages come up (I got 26, and that's at 50 topics a page!). I experienced a couple of glitches myself; for some reason, they all seemed centered around my wife. For one, there just seems no way for the "have sex" option to appear when I want to have a baby with her. She even tells me how much she wants it, but I follow the prompts exactly and it only gives me the normal "sleep" option. The other glitch is with my second wife, who at some random point in time apparently went mute on me. She doesn't talk to me besides the occasional comment, doesn't react to my gestures, won't sleep with me, or really do much of anything. I do everything to make her happy and give her a good share of money, but she is pretty much a vegetable that walks around. It's really appalling to me that a game with this kind of budget gets out with so many bugs.

The best part of the gameplay, thankfully, is the combat, which turns out to be very enjoyable. While having only one button for shooting, one for melee and one for magic may sound limiting, the game manages to do a lot with it. With your sword you can button mash if you want, but can also block, time your swings to increase speed, hold the button down to charge a flourish attack, and even counter your enemy. With shooting you can either fire a quick shot, zoom in to increase damage, or sub-target enemy body parts to slow them down or kill them outright. Magic has 8 spells that get stronger as you invest more points in them. The cool part is besides basic swinging and gunning, all aspects of melee and ranged are unlocked by investing experience into the right abilities. It really feels like your character is growing because of this, and you'll have some difficult decisions in how to spend experience. Being able to quickly shift between the three combat styles and the lack of ammo or mana gives the player a ton of freedom in how to fight.

A minor downside about combat is the spell selection system is pretty bad. There are 5 levels of strength with magic, and you can put a different spell into each level. When you charge magic the spell you cast depends on what level you release the button at. So if you charge all the way to 5 you'll use whatever spell you put in the 5 slot, but if you release at 4 you use the spell in the 4 slot. This falls apart when you want to quickly change what spell to use. The only way to change a spell is to hold down a different trigger entirely and then use the dpad to select the correct level and spell to use, all in the middle of combat. You can also pause the game and re-organize spells but this really breaks up the action. Why they couldn't just map an active spell to the dpad and then charge that with B is beyond me.

Just don't go in expecting combat with Devil May Cry or Ninja Gaiden levels of difficulty. Not only is the game pretty easy from start to finish, but it is actually impossible to really die. When you run out of health instead of re-doing the fight scene or getting pushed out of your game, your character simply jumps back to life in 5 seconds. The only losses are uncollected experience orbs and the gain of a scar on your body, which never goes away. I thought the lack of death bothering you would be a bad thing since it removed any threat of combat.

I was actually wrong. I still found myself fighting for my life, for my character's scar-less look. If you're the kind of gamer that wants to be punished more harshly for failing in combat, this probably isn't the game for you. It also turns out the death system never bothered me because I never actually died. Anywhere after early in the game you'll have a ridiculous amount of potions (both from buying them cheap and finding them) and they all restore a ton of health instantly, with no restrictions. Anytime I got near death in combat I simply tapped the potion button and everything was okay.

This brings me to what I think is my biggest problem with Fable 2. The game starts off great, and it continues to be great for about the first half. Things feel balanced; my character's funds were limited so I couldn't buy great equipment and health potions, the combat was pretty challenging with said limitations, and my character was steadily growing in skill set. After the midway point, things started to spiral out of control.

For one thing, the economy system blows. When you're poor in the beginning the best way to make money is to take up a part-time job, which of course involves a minigame. Whether it's chopping wood or serving beers, it's always a timing minigame that gets extremely boring after about a minute. It's really the only decent way to make money - questing and stealing both result in tiny amounts of money that could be made in minutes of a doing a job. Rank up in the minigame a couple of times and you'll have enough money to last you most of the game right there. Everything in the game is dirt cheap except for some of the higher level melee and ranged weapons.

The real way to invest your money is buying shops or renting out houses. These are large up-front investments that seem to pay for themselves over time - balanced enough. But by the end of the game I was raking in thousands of gold every 5 minutes. The payout continues even while the game is off - I came back after a few days once and my bank account doubled and then some. High class weapons became pocket change and the only thing worth buying was even more property, which of course perpetuated the cycle further. So to summarize, tedious in the beginning, broken at the end.

The combat also falls apart toward the end. In particular if you choose to invest in spells, the later level damage spells are simply ridiculous. Here's my late-game four step guide to every battle:
1 - Cast Slow Time spell as enemies appear
2 - Move to a safe location as enemies stumble to you in slow-mo
3 - Charge and cast level 5 Shock (enemies still in slow-mo)
4 - Anything that isn't flat out killed can be swept up with some sword strikes

Honestly, after I had those two spells I could not find one group of enemies that could even put more than a dent in me. I ended up avoiding the combination to keep combat from being a complete snore-fest.

After a while the game just felt didn't feel as interesting. My character was already pimped out the way I wanted and my abilities were mostly developed; late-game experience mostly goes toward simple tweaks in the damage you deal instead of interesting additions to your moveset. Combat became a drag and money became a joke. The final quests were barely interesting and the ending felt abrupt. It pretty much throws a plot twist in your face, and goes right to the credits. It felt like an entire arc of the story was left out, which makes me wonder if we'll be nickel-and-dimed for expansion DLC content that continues where the story leaves you stranded. The only interesting part is a really tough final choice you have to make.

I really wanted to love Fable 2. I wanted to give it a high 8 or low 9, praise it for its fantastic theme, role playing elements, and combat that proves that games don't have to be difficult to be fun. If the game ended at the mid-way point it very well could have been that way. Not to say that the game is too long; it's more that it felt like everything became unbalanced, broken and meaningless toward the end. I went from being engaged in the story and my character to just wanting to get to the end as fast as I could. The final line is the game needed some more time in testing - to both fix the myriad of bugs and make sure the second half of the game plays as well as the first half did. Here's hoping that Fable 3 will patch up the mistakes of 2, as 2 has done for 1.

Overall Score - 7.7

(PS - sorry for the lack of images. I'm lazy. Game screens / videos are pretty abundant on the web if you want to see the game in action)

10 comments:

Richard R. said...

When I went to Lima's apartment a couple days ago I saw she was playing Fable 2. I watched for a little while and was completely underwhelmed.

Maybe it was because I came at a bad part since she was just serving beer over and over again like a really bad Wario Ware minigame.

So I asked her why she was serving beer and why this was fun.

Lima responds: "Chase says beer is the fastest way to make money."

Why do you need the money?

Lima: Then I could buy all the towns.

Sounds cool, but what's the point of that?

Lima: ...
-----

Sure, I get the whole role-playing thing and that's all well and good but, pressing A over and over again to make money isn't fun, no matter which way you cut it. At least the minigames in Zelda require some sort of skill (i.e. aiming to hit a target, quickly running over platforming sections).

Also, apprently Lima had been playing the game for 2 days and according to Chase was nearly done with the main story.

Honestly, this ISN'T fanboyism. I think Fable 2 really hurts the RPG genre. I like the attempt at trying to appeal to the RP in RPG but from what I saw, Fable 2's role-playing looked boring.

At the end of the day, which would ou rather want as a gamer? A deep open-world environment filled with lots of action and killing? Or would you rather serve beer, press a button to have sex and buy stores? I think most reasonable people would take the former.

Maybe Fable 3 will find a way to focus on the G in RPG first, as that is the most important part. I hope it does too, but so far the Fable series looks like a series predicated on hype and not quality gameplay. (Though we could say the same about Final Fantasy right now as well, lol).

ultima301 said...

Yep, like I said the job minigames were a horrible idea. The role-playing aspect is better in other respects, like how your character's appearance affects things, the choices you make, etc. You have to remember with role playing, there is no real point to doing things. You never HAVE to get married or have kids; your wife never does anything for you other than the occasional gift. Buying out the towns has no real effect other than discounts at stores and more income. It's just the fact that you can do those things. It's the fact that you can make your own little story about your character.

As I played through the game I actually had a mini-story going for how my character developed. He was romantically naive until he met this chick at the bar who showed him how to have a good time. They got married, had a kid, life was good. One day I got I took a simple sidequest mission which was to exterminate some bugs infesting a house in Oakfield. As I followed the trail to the objective I couldn't help but notice the trail was heading toward my house. My worst fears were confirmed as I saw giant killer beetles infecting my very own house. Before I could even get to the door I saw my dead wife on the front lawn and my child compensated by the town sheriff. After killing the bugs I was left looking at the idiotic town guard who did nothing to save my family. I offed that bastard...and my character shifted toward an evil alignment. It was really cool how some elements of his "fable" developed. Those moments were Fable 2 at its finest.

Richard R. said...

Had I seen the beetle sequence that you describe at Lima's house I'm sure I would have been blown away. In that sense, creating your own story must feel invigorating.

Great review by the way. I feel as though you covered the game very thoroughly.

Lima said...

The upside I really agree with you on is the depth of the towns. there were only 3 of them...but those three were remarkable deep with content.

But (as you've mentioned) the game it WAY too short

Your description of the the money problem is dead on.

And I have to disagree with you on the some of the character development. the clothing? there's practically none and all are very obvious evil-good alternatives. I'm not hugely impressed that townspeople are scared of me when i wear spooky robes. Also by the end you've probably bumped up you strength and skill enough that you're huge with linebacker sholders, regardless of what road you take.

The moral dilemmas? donate enough endgame rent money to the temple of light and you can say hello to your halo, and going evil isn't exactly hard either.

I don't know, I didn't dislike the game, But ultimately it took about a week to get out of my system.

TheNightgaunt said...

Eh, I liked it to some extent. It fixed alot of what I hated about the first Fable. However it made up for it by adding a whole new list of stuff to be annoyed about. Like there not being any really good places to go to fight monsters.
You want a real fight outside of the main quests. You go to the arena. That's it.
Not to mention how short the game is. The number of side quests is truely sad.

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