Fable II: Arguably Better than Getting Your Head Crapped On

I finished Fallout 3 maybe six or eight weeks ago, and it was hands-down one of the best games I’ve ever played. A game like that gets you in the mood for more gaming, so I thought to myself: “Hey, I should plop down $160 for Fable II!”

Actually that’s not exactly what I thought, but it’s what happened. I bought the game for $60, fired it up, got up to the part in the intro where a bird craps on your head (yes, this is how it starts), and it locked up hard. Reset the XBox, tried again, and this time got as far as some guy selling snake oil gadgets before it locked up again. Snake oil, indeed.

I tried playing for about an hour, with the game crashing every 3 to 5 minutes, and I finally went online to read about how it kills XBoxes and it’s the Game of Death and blah blah blah, all interesting but not especially helpful. Eventually I stumbled across discussions of the “install to hard drive” option. Nobody actually said how to do it, so it took another hour of digging to deduce that you need to purchase a $100 wireless network adapter (or 100 feet of network cable, I guess). So I shut it down for the night, waited for the stores to open, forked over the $100, and installed the game to the hard drive. To Lionhead’s credit the game never crashed again, making it significantly more stable than Oblivion or Fallout 3.

I tried hard to like Fable 2. I didn’t even need to like it $160. I would have settled for a $60 value. I vaguely remember liking Fable 1, although I can’t remember anything about the game except for one neat scene where you had to escort two NPCs through a dark valley. One of the NPCs has been bitten by a Balverine (a werewolf), and the two argue the whole trip about whether he’s going to turn. It’s a funny conversation and the scene has a funny ending. Other than that, I just have vague recollections of shooting birds on the roof of some guild, and needing to get a 6-foot handlebar moustache for some side quest. The rest of it is basically a blank. But I had set some flag to the effect that “I liked it,” and I wanted to like the sequel too.

Unfortunately, with a few noteworthy exceptions that I’ll call out in the “Highlights” below, the game is entirely forgettable. It’s already fading from memory as we speak. It wasn’t as bad as some people make it out to be. It’s playable for a couple of days, and it has its fun moments. But it’s not a very good game, and it’s definitely not a very memorable game. This is sad, considering the amount of effort that went into its development.

The no-spoiler synopsis of Fable 2 is that it’s a bad Zelda clone. You can smell the desperation; there are dozens and dozens of direct rip-offs from the Zelda franchise. Heck, I wouldn’t have minded a half-decent Zelda clone; they’re some of the best games of all time. But Fable 2 misses the mark by a mile. The humor is juvenile bordering on imbecilic, the hints are hamfisted, the areas are small and cramped, the minigames are lackluster, the music is virtually nonexistent, and the story pacing is rushed and breathless. It’s a cargo-cult copy of Zelda that winds up having no identifiable soul: forgettable across the board.

I’ve given up every piece of Microsoft software and hardware I own except for the XBox, which I had been holding onto just for Fable 2. Now that it’s come and gone like a bird crapping on my head, I’m giving up. No more XBox or PC games for me. Ever.

Hence, Fable 2 cost me $160. I hope you got it for cheaper than that.

Anyway, here’s a quick rundown of the lowlights and highlights of the game, as I see them. Enjoy!

Lowlights

1) Humor. Fable 2 tries hard to incorporate humor into the game — too hard. The writers use the trusty old “stopped clock” approach to humor, in which they inundate you with jokes, and 1 out of every 43,200 of them is funny. Amazingly, this perseverance leads to 3 or 4 genuinely funny ones, mostly near the entrance to the Crucible (arena). But by the time you get there, you’ve already tuned out all attempts at humor and have probably even tried killing yourself a few times. So they may fail to register.

2) Theresa. The game features an old lady who watches everything you do and talks at you constantly. This starts in the very beginning of the game and lasts until the very end, with no option to turn her off. Your character can’t so much as take a crap without Theresa piping in with helpful advice on which hand to use. “That is ancient paper. Be cautious.” She uses some magical form of communication system that only breaks down in the fog — probably shortwave radio — and there’s no way to turn the fugging thing off.

I really hated Theresa.

3) Expressions. You can’t talk to people. Instead, the game gives you a series of increasingly repugnant forms of nonverbal communication. Initially you’re limited to belching, farting, giving people the finger and making lewd pelvic thrusting motions, but as you rise in fame Theresa informs you that you’ve earned the right to use the “kiss my ass” expression. I am not making this up. I tried to avoid using expressions altogether, but the game forces you to do it once in a while. Made me want to take a shower.

4) Retinal blindness. Fable 2 is nauseatingly saturated. They just don’t know how to lay off the paint gun. There are a few OK-ish-ly tasteful areas, such as the big trees in Bower Lake, but most of the game is a frightully garish mix of lime greens, oranges, purples, reds, blues, and general oil-spill iridescence. It makes you color-blind fast, even if you didn’t start that way. Finding anything onscreen is like trying to spot where someone threw up on a Matisse.

5) Linearity: the game is unrelentingly linear for the first hour or two (a _long_ time), after which it settles into, well, linearity. The gameplay occasionally approaches the smashing-through-lines-of-baddies feel of Gauntlet Legends, which I liked, but mostly it makes you feel like a rat running a big maze, following a neverending golden trail of cheese.

A major contributor to the linear feel, even after the game opens up, is the plethora of tiny little fences and obstacles that you can’t hop. It makes it really hard to know where you can walk, and it feels like you’re constantly bumping into things, because, well, you are. So the game is linear at all resolutions: high (the plotline), medium (most of the level designs) and low (the path designs). Linearity can cramp even the best of games — Kingdom Hearts comes to mind. It’s just a bad way to design things. And Fable’s linearity felt especially suffocating after just having finished Fallout 3, which is immense and wide-open.

6) Controls. It’s been a long time since I played a game whose controls were so accident-prone. Normally a game’s controls take some getting used to, and then it’s like driving a car. In Fable 2, even after days of play, I’d still be trying to hop a fence and wind up shooting the front door off a mansion, blowing boards everywhere and scaring the shit out of the villagers.

Hell, even when I was trying to buy my final sword (this was a $50k sword I’d been looking for all day), I tried to bring up the “buy sword” menu for the blacksmith, and I accidentally wound up casting a massive Inferno spell, causing him to literally run screaming across town. It was weeks of in-game time before I saw him again. God dammit. They really should have had different controls in safe zones.

7) Elephantine mammary glands. I don’t know what planet these guys have been living on, but giant udders fell out of fashion at least two or three decades ago. Every single woman in Fable 2 had knockers significantly bigger than her head. It reminded me of my trip to Paris, where every statue of a woman is bare-breasted, presumably so that you can tell it’s a woman — a practice which unfortunately suggests that there’s really no other way to tell. Dumb French statue-making assholes.

I mean, the people in Fable 1 were ugly — the main character worst of all. They all had this “I’m a programmer who never gets outdoors” look, and I expected (and got) no better from Fable 2. But I was really disappointed that every female in the game was a fugging dairy farm. I mean, someone with some taste and maturity should have a talk with these asshats, and explain to them what women actually look like. Or they should pick up a frigging Victoria’s Secret catalog or watch a goddamn Target commercial or something. Jesus.

The milk jug thing… it was really just too much. I have zero respect for those jerk-offs at Lionhead.

8) Ass-kissing. This was probably the most serious problem with the game. It was a disease in Fable 1 that went malignant in Fable 2. Whoever designed these games was apparently neglected as a child, because the gameplay revolves around gaining “renown”. Lionhead’s hopelessly adolescent view of “renown” is that villagers should follow you around and say things like “yay!” and “hurrah!” It’s even worse than I’m making it sound.

They spent so much time coding this crap that they forgot to code pushing into the game: you can’t push people out of your way. So as soon as you wander into a dead-end alley you’re fucked: a bunch of people will crowd in after you asking for autographs and offering you gifts and all this sickening bullshit.

To the game’s credit, and I count this as a highlight, if you pull out your six-barreled rifle, take the safety off, and aim right at their heads, it clears everyone out pretty fast. You can imagine how desperate I was by the time I tried that approach. But they coded it correctly, bless ’em.

9) Too Easy. The game just wasn’t hard, period. There were no hard fights. I never died. I don’t even know what happens when you die in Fable 2. I used a couple of Resurrection Phials, but only because I had become so lazy in combat that I didn’t care anymore. This was a serious flaw in the game: it essentially removed the element of fear, which was the only emotion (other than disgust) that the game had a chance of evoking.

10) Demon Doors. Oh man, oh man. These were probably the low point of the whole game. They made me want to puke. I would run past them as fast as I could so I didn’t have to listen to their inane drivel. This was some of the worst game writing I’ve ever seen. I just don’t want to talk about it.

11) Misguided innovation. They really should have stuck with copying Zelda, and Kingdom Hearts, and Gauntlet: Legends, and all the other games they copied blindly, and badly. Because whenever they introduced something entirely new, it almost invariably sucked. Examples? OK. Sure. Since you asked, and all.

How about the “innovation” that when you eat nearly any food (and it only takes a few bites), you bloat up to the size of Orson Welles, and the only way to get rid of it is to eat celery. No amount of exercise will make any difference, but eating a few bites of celery makes it go away. Innovative!

Innovation: you can purchase almost any property in the game. Is this realistic? No. In reality, not everything would be for sale (and especially not posted on the front doors). Real-estate transactions wouldn’t be instantaneous. You would need the owner present to buy something. Etc, etc. So given that this feature makes the game less realistic, what purpose does it serve? Is it fun? No. Buying real estate is about as fun as attending insurance seminars, so I don’t know what the hell they were thinking. It could have been fun in the right setting, with suitable other human participants, in a Parker-Bros. Monopoly kind of way. Maybe. But slapping it on the side of an RPG and calling it innovation? It boggles the mind.

And what about the the busywork jobs (blacksmith, woodcutter, bartender) for making gold? Um, dudes — busywork jobs only exist in MMORPGs to limit per-player CPU usage. They’re not fun. “Innovatively” bringing them into a single-player game was just flat-out brain damaged.

12) Nonexistent target audience. What age group is the target market for this game? If you enumerate the possibilities, you arrive at the inescapable conclusion that the game was either (a) created by imbeciles, or it was (b) created for imbeciles, or possibly (c) all of the above.

It’s presumably not intended for kids, or you wouldn’t be finding condoms in treasure chests, soliciting and obtaining sex from male and female prostitutes of all shapes and sizes, performing pelvic thrusts to solve quests, and so on.

It’s not for adults either, or you wouldn’t be bombarded with the constant barrage of scatological humor, beginning with the bird shitting on your head, continuing with warnings about “extending the fart command and messing it up”, and going pretty much straight downhill from there.

Is it intended for teenagers, then? Poooossibly, but (a) that ignores their primary demographic, which is 30-year-olds, and (b) I don’t know any teenagers that are that stupid, nor so hard-up for attention that they need AI villagers to yell “hurray!” whenever you pass them, even if you’re in a graveyard at midnight.

Dipshits. This game was designed by dipshits. The coding was great, the artwork was great, the sound effects were great; the details were for the most part rock-solid. But the creative direction was just inexcusably bad.

Highlights

OK, I’ve been pretty tough on the game so far. Fable 2 did actually have a few genuine highlights worth calling out. You could even argue that these highlights make the game almost worth playing, in spite of all the crap you have to suffer through in order to get to them.

1) Banshees. Fable 2’s banshees are, in a word, awesome. I’ve been racking my brain trying to think of a VG monster as cool as these banshees in any game I’ve ever played. I’m coming up with a few ties, but nothing that beats them. The YouTube videos don’t come close to doing them justice. Fable II is worth playing just to get to Wraithmarsh.

The only real problem with the banshees is that since none of the combat is challenging (see Lowlight #9), they’re nowhere near as scary as they could have been. But they’re amazingly stylish. I’d call them an innovation, but I’m inclined to believe Lionhead stole their basic design from some other game, given all the other copying they’ve done. (The Fable 2 Trolls, for instance, are about as Zelda-clone-esque as you can get without inviting a lawsuit.)

2) Lucien’s speech, where he addresses the recruits. Really great speech. Riveting and convincing. Amazing how Microsoft-run studios that are so consistently bad at humor are so good at creating convincingly evil speeches about taking over the world.

Actually the whole centerpiece drama in the tower was very nicely done. I have to give them credit for that part of the game: it was exceptional by any standard. It basically saved the game from being a total loss.

3) Hammer. She’s cool. Great voice acting, surprisingly good scripting, neat character, lots of depth. One of the better-realized VG supporting characters I’ve seen in many years.

4) The dog. Apparently there was a lot of hype about the dog. Or so I hear, after actually having played the game. Whatever the hype, the reality is that it’s a very believable dog. I especially liked how it would run ahead of you — I’ve seen pets that follow you, but the dog would often anticipate your direction and run ahead, kinda turned back towards you like “c’mon! let’s go!” I encountered no glitches with the dog; the coding was rock solid. Overall it was, well, very… doggy. And what more could you ask for in a dog, really?

As a tribute to the believability of the dog, I’ll offer a minor spoiler. (Skip ahead if you don’t want a spoiler!) At the end of the main storyline, you are granted one wish. Your choices are: (a) get all the people who died back, (b) get your dog back, or (c) get a bunch of money. What I really wanted was a sort of amalgam of the 3 choices: I wanted my money back for this dog of a game. But when push came to shove, I picked the dog. I kinda missed him.

5) Architecture. Overall the architecture was really nice. The only somewhat dubious exception was Bowerstone, which looks almost exactly like Euro Disney. I kept expecting Tigger to come waltzing around, cursing in French under his breath, just like he did on my real-life trip to Euro Disney a few years back.

Other than the Euro Disney influence, which I could take or leave, I thought the architecture was nice throughout the game. I liked the waterfront town of Bloodstone. I liked the manors in Oakfield. I liked the gypsy wagons. I liked the vendor carts. I loved pretty much every creepy structure in Wraithmarsh. The overall look of the game was beautiful, once you got past the color-saturation problem, and the architecture was a huge contributor.

6) Fight music. Unlike in Fable 1, most of the music in Fable 2 is forgettable background/atmosphere music. They didn’t get Danny Elfman this time around, and it shows. The theme for Bower Lake is nice as far as it goes, which is exactly 2 chords over and over and over. But it’s still OK. The rest of the music didn’t leave any sort of impression on me at all, except for the fight music, which almost made up for everything. It was very good. There were at least two fight themes and both of them were cool. If only the rest of the music had been… present. It was like it wasn’t even there. It phoned in its performance.

Folks at Dorkhead studios: Zelda’s music is one of the top five reasons for its success as a franchise. Same goes for Mario and Kingdom Hearts and Final Fantasy. Their music is always great, and it’s always in your face. The music isn’t muttering or mumbling; it’s shouting. And they can get away with it because it’s always great. Even when it’s bad or annoying, which is rare, the music still anchors each place and event in the game in your memory, in a way that only music can. You guys really screwed the pooch on this one.

7) Mixed-tactic fighting. They did a great job of setting things up so that you could use melee, ranged weapons and magic effectively in combat. It was refreshing to be able to switch styles in mid-fight: you could use your sword to kill everything near you, then start blasting everything ten feet or more distant with your rifle. Or you could clear a little space and cast a time-slowing spell, and then just start zinging around whaling on bad guys. The combat was never hard, but it was on the whole fairly satisfying.

The downside of ultra-convenient access to melee, range weapons and spells was that you could effortlessly use them all simultaneously while trying to buy vegetables from a produce stall in the main market. I really wish they’d made it just a teeny bit harder to cast spells in public areas.

8) Well, damn. I can’t think of a Highlight #8. I thought of some more lowlights, though: long area loads, unresponsive controls during “scenes”, only a handful of available spells, months of coding/design effort wasted on useless features like “groin shots” and tatoos…

Oh, and the lack of control over when quest scenes actually unfold — they trigger from proximity to the relevant NPC rather than interacting with the NPC because, oh, that’s right, you can’t interact with anyone except to fart on them or give them the finger. Oops! So you’re always accidentally wandering into a dungeon that triggers some quest, and there’s no way out except to back entirely out of that phase of the quest, which may involve losing hours of your time, all because you walked through the wrong door. Damn that pissed me off.

And how the hell do you sleep in an Inn? I never managed to figure it out. I’d wind up spending $10k for some hovel just to get a frigging bed to sleep in. It was amazingly bad UI design, if there even is a way to do it. If not, then their helpful tutorial message lied to me at least a dozen times.

Argh. Well, this highlights section is going downhill in a hurry, so I think I’ll end it here.

Better than a crap on the head?

Maybe, maybe. But compared to Fallout 3, Fable 2 pretty much sucked. It had a couple of nice features, but they were drowned in an ocean of painfully adolescent design. Such a shame.

I’ve tried to be fair here. I don’t mean to discourage you from playing the game, since for all I know there’s nothing better out there right now.

If you do decide to play it, I hope I’ve set your expectations very low. That way, well, who knows? You might actually have some fun with it.

But if you open even one of those Demon Doors I’ll lose all respect for you.
Source: Steve Yegge