Holding Out for a Hero
Published in The Student, University of Edinburgh’s oldest student newspaper
Do you remember when games were easy to play? My Dad and I had lots of fun playing Sonic when I was five. Nowadays if I handed him a copy of Oblivion it would be like giving him a neuroanatomy textbook: different media, same expression of bewilderment. Games in 2008 are vastly different from 1991. They are complicated to the point where you can’t just pick up and play them. They require prior knowledge and careful wading through endless tutorials. In contrast, it’s easy to see how the intuitive arm flapping of the Wii has been so successful. Luckily, Fable II is here to save the day for team Xbox: easy to enjoy, yet with a lasting depth and complexity. It’s the gaming equivalent of Guinness.
Fable promised the earth: a huge world brimming with character that you could remake in your own image as you wished. Instead it was difficult to make an impact in Albion at all; the world carried on regardless of how many paupers were killed or bandits thwarted. Fable was and is an enjoyable romp, but to say it fell short of expectations is a slight understatement.
Five hundred years have passed since the story of Fable. A penniless orphan in the slums of Bowerstone, events are set in motion that lead you on an epic journey- the means and ends of which are up to you. Are you a courageous hero who stands up for justice, family and always lends a hand to those in need? Or are you a malevolent rogue who shags prostitutes while drinking and murdering… and also in the game?
In Fable, it didn’t really matter whether you were good or evil. In Fable II, it changes everything. Take the side of good and towns prosper, their villagers showering you with gifts and marriage proposals. Side with evil and cities burn to the ground, slavers roam the countryside and assassination contracts appear with frightening regularity. Your actions truly make a difference to the world, making for some difficult decisions as the game’s story unfolds.
The biggest successes of Fable II are not those which build on the original game, rather the way in which it approaches the basics so differently from anything else on the market. Anyone who has played a modern adventure game will be familiar with staring at an inaccurate mini-map and trying to navigate in vain. The ingenious solution is to place a glowing trail on the ground guiding you to your next objective. Want to explore instead? Just ignore the trail and it fades away.
Likewise, combat has been elegantly reduced to using just one button for melee attacks. Tapping the button rapidly produces a string of quick attacks, while holding it down charges up more powerful blows. It’s not possible to die in Fable II: after being knocked down you’ll spring back to life with a burst of energy. Rather than making the fighting feel easy or arbitrary, it lets you concentrate on the thrill of battle. In short, it feels heroic. Every game in the future is worse for not including it.
Perhaps the best addition to the Fable formula is your dog. Man (or woman)’s best friend is always by your side: he’ll bark to get your attention when he spots a treasure chest or a spot to dig for goodies, growl when enemies approach and tackle downed foes. You can even teach him tricks or play catch in a field when you want a break from all that adventuring. To be honest, your dog has more personality than most game characters and I couldn’t resist spoiling him rotten.
Unfortunately, in Fable II’s co-operative play that the hype machine rears it ugly head again, threatening to spoil all the fun. We were promised two heroes playing for gold and glory over Xbox Live or in ‘couch co-op’. However, when joining a friend’s game a generic henchman inexplicably replaces the hero you’ve invested so much time in personalising. It’s not a total loss- the henchman inherits your abilities and gains experience for your hero- but it is a baffling inclusion.
Whenever the worst criticism I can think of is some ropey online implementation, it’s clear that Fable II is an excellent game. It’s not perfect, but the irritating glitches seem insignificant in light of the overall quality. It is a hilarious, swashbuckling, massive and most importantly fun adventure with which it is all too easy to love. Of all the choices you can make in Fable II, one is easy: if you play games, buy it. If you don’t play games, now is definitely the time to start.