Fable II (Xbox 360)
Fable II starts and ends on a wish. In the early minutes of Lionhead's ambitious role-playing adventure, the player stumbles upon an enchanted music box -- a device said to grant the owner's greatest desire. But we know how these things go. The White family in the classic horror story "The Monkey's Paw" fell into a similar trap. First they wish for money and they get it, in the form of a life insurance payout when their son is killed in an industrial accident. Distraught, they wish their son back to life. They're granted that wish, as well: Their son's mangled corpse comes loping back. Before they get a chance to lay eyes on the horror they've wished into existence, they use their last wish to send the zombie back to its grave.
W.W. Jacobs could have been talking about Fable II's mastermind Peter Molyneux when he wrote that story back in 1903. In the tale, the sergeant-major, haunted by his experience with the cursed object, said this of the mystic who imbued the severed claw with its powers: "He wanted to show that fate ruled people's lives and that those who interfered with it did so to their sorrow."
So when Rose, the protagonist's na?ve sibling in Fable II, verbalizes her dream of finding sanctuary in the opulent Castle Fairfax, she seals her own fate. Up in the ivory tower we meet Lucius -- an agent of evil in league with Molyneux. Lucius may pull the trigger, but it's the game's creators who predestined the ensuing murderous act. They're the ones pulling the strings. They kill Rose and mortally wound the game's hero.
And so our story begins. Peter Molyneux and company thrust the player (and faithful canine companion) down a path towards vengeance. There are many byways to take on this journey, plenty of scenery at which to rubberneck on the way, but all roads lead toward the same finale. Fable II gives players choices, but they're all like the choices made in "The Monkey's Paw" -- wishes fraught with consequence. Eat a pie to regain health and your character gets fat. Use magic and glowing blue cracks form across your face. The bigger the decision, the more monumental the impact on the world or your countenance. Some choices transform the landscape of Albion, turning wretched camps into thriving cities. Others simply change the townsfolk's opinion of you. But all these deeds can't change fate.
Destiny awaits at the end of a quest line. There, way off in the future, there's a showdown to fight. A choice to be made. And know that no matter what you decide, there will be consequences. That's the fascinating frustration of Fable II -- and the frustration of the lives we live every day, really. You can't escape cause and effect. There's no cheating death. And sometimes you have to make sacrifices.
The sacrifices made by Peter Molyneux's team are many. See, Fable II is far from perfect. For every heart-wrenching plot point or intriguing moral dilemma they've woven into the game's tapestry, another, less momentous thread unravels. Many mundane, but vital features feel frayed around the edges. Getting around Albion is made easier by a sparkling trail of bread crumbs. That's because the game's maps are damn near useless. And the button that allows you to inspect and interact with townsfolk is the same that makes you draw your gun and threaten the poor saps.
There's a laundry list of inelegant faults in Fable II. The game's most half-baked feature is cooperative play. Friends can join other players' stories, but only in bit roles. That avatar into which you've invested so much heart and soul is shed when you warp into your buddy's alternate Albion. Instead you tag along as henchman. Playing with an online friend is further hampered by a crappy, uncontrollable camera, making adventuring more chore than fun. There's still plenty for two to do, though. More than a couple non-essential, but fun, Achievements require the help of a friend.
But for each unfortunate kludge there's something fresh -- a novel approach or a moment of storytelling that nearly forgives the shortcoming -- because there's just so much to do in Fable II. Sure, there's that plot waiting to happen. That face-off between good and evil (or evil and evil if that's the way you swing) is off on the horizon. Albion may not be a big world, but it's full of people and places to explore. Many of the distractions are fairly traditional -- there are keys to collect, quests to complete and a handful of demon door puzzles to solve. More interesting are the unique slices of life the player encounters when they're in the right place at the right time. One quest culminates in a young gay man coming out to his father. And the hero Reaver, played by actor Steven Fry, provides a hilarious running gag if you stick around long enough after accepting his quests.
You could say that Fable II makes up for its shortcomings with innovative simulations and heartfelt story, but where it counts the game hits a single, but resounding sour note. Though you can marry, start a household, and raise children, the game doesn't quite allow players to make emotional connections with wives, friends and even that faithful pooch that follows your every footstep. Alyx Vance in Half-Life 2 is the gold standard when it comes to in-game relationships. Alyx, a near-constant companion in Episode 1, never needs help. She's self-sufficient, complimentary and more than capable of taking out enemies. That's a good reason to like her, but not enough to engender love. Those feelings come because she's allowed to become a character. We hear her father and friends talk about her. We see her vulnerable. And we see her grow.
Save gold, work hard, and you can own this house. More proof that Fable II takes place in a fantasy world.
The dog in Fable II isn't allowed to blossom into character. He (or she) has no arc. The pet is merely a tool -- one that sniffs out treasure and very, very occasionally kills an enemy for you. Molyneux forces the player to conjure empathy for the beast out of proximity and convenience, rather than intimacy. The same could be said for Rose, who is murdered before her character is given a chance to develop. By the end of Half-Life 2: Episode 1 the player is poised to repopulate the planet with Alyx Vance. And they're glad to do so. In the final moments of Fable II, no such emotional connection exists. And if it does, it's one that the player brought to the table. See, Molyneux is more than capable of creating living, breathing characters. During the course of the game we see another hero experience great loss, change, and change again, but no such life is breathed into Rose or the dog -- the two characters that should be the most vital.
And it's here that Fable II's fatal flaw comes into focus. If the purpose of the game truly is to teach us a lesson about fate, then Peter Molyneux is no less malevolent than the old fakir in "The Monkey's Paw." Fable II promises much, but in the end delivers a sledgehammer message about good and evil, about predestination and free will. It gives us wealth, power and fame, but forces us to pay the price every time. It would be childish to ask for more, because this is exactly how life works. But it's hard not to wish for a little something more -- friends, family and companions worth making such sacrifices for.
This review is based on a retail copy of the game provided by the publisher.