Written by: Big Ross, CC2K Staff Writer
It's a BIG World, Too Bad You Have NO Idea How to Navigate It
Call me old fashioned, but I love a game that comes with a paper map. The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, TES IV: Oblivion, Grand Theft Auto IV, all came with paper maps. For me, video games are a way to escape reality for a few hours, and my favorites tend to be games set in vast, open-ended worlds just waiting to be explored. Of course, when a game isn't set on a linear path forcing you from A to B to C, it's up to you to figure out where to go and when. Doing this requires, or at least is aided, by a map. Paper maps are just kind of fun, but in-game maps become more practical, especially as you discover new locations and if the game has the ability to fast-travel. Fable II has one of the worst in-game maps I've ever encountered in a video game. I'm not exaggerating when I say that I have no idea where any of the regions or towns are in to relation to each other. I suppose that Fable II proves you technically don't need a map to play a game of this scale (considering that the quality of the in-game map is on the same level as simply not having one), but I still consider this a weakness. I like to see where I am in relation to where I'm going, I like to have an idea of how far I am from my destination, and I like to have an idea of just how big the world I'm playing in is. If you were to look at the in-game map in TES IV:Obliviion, you almost get a sense of awe just by considering how big the map is. More attention should have been given to crafting an in-game map for Fable II that is informative and functional.
Man's Best Friend Could and Should Have Been Leaps and Bounds Better
One exciting prospect of Fable II was the promise of exploring Albion with a digital incarnation of Man's Best Friend. Developers expended a good deal of time and energy to create the dog that your hero first encounters as a child and remains with you throughout the game. Their efforts were largely successful; your dog serves multiple functions including acting as a sort of radar for treasure as well as enemies, aiding you in combat, and offering a bit of fun by learning and performing tricks that can help you boost your influence over NPCs. More than all of that, your dog possesses a personality that is difficult to ignore and almost impossible to dislike. It will get scared and compel you to offer comfort and reassurance. It can get injured and fill you with sympathy as it limps along whining in pain and waiting for you to heal its wounds. Yet as personable and (dare I say) life-like as the dog may be, the problem lies not in what was done, but what was neglected. The developers essentially devoted themselves to creating an NPC sidekick for your hero, and then told gamers, "you don't have to care or even pay attention to this character, but it's going to be with you until the credits roll." In my opinion, the dog in Fable II should have been modeled after the squad of NPCs in Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter. For those who don't know, in the solo campaign on this game, you often command a small combat unit of NPCs that you are forced to care about. You don't have the choice of playing missions without your squad, and in order to successfully complete a mission every single member of your squad must survive to the end. It seems to me that the developers of Fable II sacrificed their vision in an attempt to please everyone. That or they were just being lazy. See, the dog can't die. And you can't get rid of it. You are forced to play the game with the dog (just as GRAW forces you to play with a squad), but whereas the NPCs in GRAW are vulnerable, the dog is not. This doesn't make any sense because if the dog can't die, why is it that he can get injured? Furthermore, when your dog does get injured, you can heal him with a special magic potion just for dogs, yet it's an infinite potion, meaning once you have it you never run out of it. So not only does the dog getting injured not make sense because it can't die, it's also meaningless to have the dog become injured when you can immediately heal it at absolutely no cost as many times as you want.
So there's nothing at stake, nothing that you have to invest in your canine companion. You can ignore it if you want, but if that's the case why not simply give you the choice of whether or not to keep the dog? But really, if it was the intention of the developers to make the dog important, they should have made it more of a liability. Give the dog a health meter, and allow it to die if it suffers too much damage. Keep the dog-healing potions, but make them equivalent to the healing potions you use on your own hero: single-use items that you will have to replace either through finding or buying them. Along those lines, they had a missed opportunity to get players even more invested in the dog. There are books that you can use to increase your dog's skill at finding treasure and fighting enemies. Why not create some kind of experience system similar to your character's for the dog? Instead of skill books, your dog could level up and attain skill points you could use to increase your dog's health, damage inflicted when attacking, learned tricks, etc. Of course, you might ask, "if that's the case, what happens if the dog dies?" Good question. First of all, this could be a way for players to get rid of the dog if they're tired of having it around. But for those that grow to love it, developers could have implemented a resurrection scheme into the game. There are two temples in Albion: the Temple of Light and the Temple of Shadows. I don't think I need to tell you that depending on your hero's alignment you will be frequenting one and not the other. For good characters, you could take your dead dog to the Temple of Light to be resurrected good as new. For evil characters, wouldn't it be cool to have your dog re-animated at the Temple of Shadows, and with each re-animation it becomes more and more of a monstrous zombie dog? While we're at it, since the developers of Fable II are all about forcing gamers to make tough decisions, how about designing the game such that if you are in the middle of a fierce battle and your dog dies, you have to physically carry it to a Temple to bring it back to life, but doing so sacrifices your ability to wield two-handed weapons? And if you don't have a pistol in your arsenal? Well, you're going to have to make do without a ranged weapon or leave your loyal companion behind. Developers could even have built in a time window that the resurrection must be performed within to be effective. These are just ideas, but I think that any or all of them generate risk; they force you to weigh the cost versus the reward. They make you stop and think about strategy, how you're going to play the game. In short, it gets players engaged, making the game more interesting and more fun.
Your Actions Have Consequences, They Just Might Not Make Any Sense
Even more so than the first game, Fable II promises that your actions have real and lasting consequences. They will affect your hero's appearance, how NPCs react and interact with you, indeed the very world around you. To some extent, all of this is true. As you perform evil deeds your hero will become more demonic in appearance and more angelic with good deeds. At one point you will have to choose which of the two Temples mentioned earlier to side with, and your decision will determine the outcome of a skirmish between the two, which affects the surrounding environs. But more often than not your decisions have effects (or not, as the case may be) that make the kind of sense that doesn't. Remember when I talked about you having the opportunity to get married in Fable II? You could be the most evil, sadistic, terrifying individual in Albion, and there will still be women lined up to tie the knot with you. WTF? I could understand including female NPCs that like men that come from the far end of the wrong side of the tracks, but to have the sweet and innocent barmaid interested in your Mephistopholean hero is just stupid. Likewise, you will find that as your hero changes alignment and appearance your dog does as well. It changes from a mutt to a beautiful Golden Retriever as you become a crusader for good, and a black as night Rotweiller as you walk the long road to Hell. Only problem is, your dog changes in appearance only. You can have the most bad-ass looking dog to ever appear in a video game, and it will still tuck its tail between its legs and whimper in fright as you enter a dark cavern or spooky-looking graveyard. Again, WTF? If my hero is evil and my dog is emulating my hero, shouldn't it feel at home in dark and sinister places?
Play with a Friend! Just Don't Expect to Enjoy Yourselves
Fable II offers a multiplayer component in addition to the single-player campaign. This in and of itself is nothing new, but one of the biggest things hyped about Fable II was its nature. There was intended to be a seamless transition between single-player and cooperative play that was mediated by the fact that gamers can see other gamers within the world of Albion, sort of on a level somewhere below MMORPG. If you and a friend are both playing Fable II at the same time, even though you may be at different points along the way of completing the game, you can each see the other within the gaming world. You will appear on the other's game screen as a floating orb with your gamerpic and name identifying you to friend, and vice versa. When you encounter each other, you are able to interact in a couple of ways. You can give presents to each other, or enter co-op play. The latter option was, as I said, highly touted in the run up to Fable II's release. Gamers were told that entering a friend's game would be extremely cool in that not only could you see how their decisions and actions affected their world, perhaps in a way vastly different from your own, but also because any actions you take in a friend's world are irrevocable. Kill a friend's spouse and that NPC will remain dead, even after you end your co-op gaming session. It all sounded very cool indeed.
Cut to the game's release, and the reality of Fable II's co-op element falls far short of the hype. First of all, gift giving can serve as a hugely unfair cheat. Gamers can give whatever they want to other players. So if your friend is just starting out and you're far into the game, you can outfit your friend with the very best weapons (that he wouldn't normally have access to) and as much gold as you're able to give him. Developers commented on the fact that gamers theoretically could purchase every property in Albion, but seemed to dismiss it as a real possibility due to their design of the monetary system. Yet a friend of mine was gifted early in his campaign by huge sums of gold that he used to make like Donald Trump and buy up every property he laid his eyes on. Before long the game's commerce element was bestowing him with business profits on the order of roughly 10,000 gold every five minutes. Soon he owned every property that was capable of being bought that he was aware of.
Secondly, and more importantly, co-op play is a mess. If you enter a friend's game to play co-op, you will manifest as a henchman, taking your experience level but none of your items with you. While you will get to see how your friend customized his hero, he won't get to see yours unless you repeat the whole process with your roles reversed. It might be interesting to flip over for a few minutes to to see what things are like, but I wouldn't recommend spending any length of time questing together. The camera is horrendous, with Fable II switching from a player-controlled camera to one that is highly similar to that of Too Human, albeit one that isn't nearly so cinematic in its point-of-view decisions. And it goes beyond camera issues. There is a cross-shaped icon in the lower left-hand corner of the screen that corresponds to the old-school, cross-shaped directional pad that persists on today's next gen console controllers. Icons will regularly appear prompting you to hit a "hot key" to initiate some kind of action, such as digging up a buried treasure or choosing a recommended expression. I bring this up because in co-op mode it's as if the game can't discern who's in charge. Instead of icons only showing up on the host's screen, they appear on both, yet as a henchman hitting a hot key produces no effect on your screen but may do something on the host's. As just one frustrating example, my friend and I decided to kidnap a civilian and sell them into slavery. When my friend hit the hot key to call up the note with instructions on who we were to abduct, I couldn't see it on my screen. If I hit the hot key, the note was called up on his screen and my game seemingly froze. It took several cycles of this and a great deal of cursing before we figured out just what the hell was going on. There's a great deal seemingly wrong with the way co-op in Fable II was developed. Seemingly the henchman element was included because there can't be duplicate heroes in the same world, yet if each gamer can customize their own hero they wouldn't be identical, would they? The choices made with the game and camera controls just feel sloppy and cheap. Was it really that difficult to make it so that each player could control their own point of view in co-op as they do in single-player mode? There are games that can accommodate 8 or even 16 players. Fable II can't get it right with just two?
In summation, I realize that I'm doing A LOT of complaining in this review. I hope you don't think that I'm doing this simply to be contrary. Fable II can be fun. It's a solid fantasy RPG with a decent story, reliable controls, and at times impressive graphics. But I believe the complaints I've lodged here are valid. Each unto itself may be small and seemingly insignificant, but pile them all together and they noticeably detract from a video game that I wish I could say I really like but can't. I wish I could recommend Fable II to kids, but I don't think I can do that, unless you're OK with using a video game as sex education for your children. To be perfectly honest with you, if you're going to buy one RPG this fall/winter, buy Fallout 3. It's vastly superior in a number of ways, many of which I'll be addressing in my review of that game, coming to CC2K in the next couple of weeks!