Peter Molyneux is one of the greatest game developers of all time. Populous, Syndicate, Theme Park and Dungeon Keeper were all classics created by Molyneux's Bullfrog studio in the late 1980's and 90's. After Bullfrog got snapped up by EA, he moved on to found Lionhead Studios - which has been around for a considerable period of time itself, now, producing more classic, albeit flawed, Molyneux masterpieces.
You see, Peter Molyneux is a visionary, but unfortunately he suffers from dreams so huge that recreating them in the real world in their entirety is not quite possible (yet). We, the gaming public, are hyped up to a furore by wildly fantastic descriptions of great sounding games he's working on, but then when they're released we're left wondering what happened to the promised Holy Grail. Before the release of the original Fable, Molyneux talked about many features that would be in the game, but when people got it they found they didn't actually exist in the final product. It was still a good game though, it just wasn't quite what it was made out to be.
Enter Fable II, one of the most anticipated titles of 2008. While he's tried to moderate his comments this time around, it's another classic Molyneux hype-machine title - but the good news is this time he has come much closer to hitting the mark.
Fable II is an action role-playing game, which follows in the footsteps of its predecessor. It is set in the early era of gunpowder, with some primitive firearms, but also catches the tail end of wooden ranged weaponry, such as crossbows. In Fable II you play a young boy or girl who grows into an evil wizard, or an honourable hero - the choice is yours to make. The main story follows the plans of Lord Lucien, who (like all megalomaniac antiheroes) is out to create a new world order. In doing so has caused the demise of your sister (or brother, if you're a girl). As you can imagine, this is the sort of thing that could mentally unbalance an individual if you let it.
Albion is a magnificent kingdom with a diverse range of environments, from shanty port towns to farming communities and a large city, Bowerstone. Gigantic castles and mansions scatter the countryside and tower over the cities. The graphical style is picturesque, almost painted, which is very fitting for the kind of game this is. Trees sway beautifully in the breeze, with each individual leaf being rendered. Overall the graphics are pretty spectacular, which really helps to put you in the shoes of your hero and immerse you in the game world. The countryside is littered with bandits, "hobbes", and other undesirables. The game world has expanded massively since the first Fable and the small, set paths are gone.
The environments may be large, but you are not free to simply wander the map as you please, as each section is divided into its own loading area and has an access road that needs to be followed. This is not Oblivion, and your freedom to roam the world reflects that, but the world is truly massive with an enormous amount of activity. Bowerstone bustles with people and conversations, stall owners try to sell you their wares, and children run up to you wanting autographs and asking you to dance for them.
Fable II is a real rags-to-riches tale, or more correctly, rags-to-whatever-you-want-to-be. You can be the honourable hero, questing out of the good of your heart and for whatever scraps you find on your journey, or you can simply steal and murder to gain what it is that your wickedly twisted heart desires.
No more will you be rewarded with exuberant amounts of gold for your quests. No, in Fable II you will need to work for your coin. Work can be anything from wood cutting, blacksmithing, or head hunting. The jobs are well implemented and largely enjoyable, and the higher you are skilled in them the easier you will earn money. You can also get into the slave trade to earn some coin, if you're that way inclined - but clearly this will put a mark against your name, so if you are playing to be as pure as you can be, this would not be a recommended career path. This is where Fable II's in-depth character development comes into play.
You have no input as to what your character looks like at the start of the game, however you have total control over hair styles, dress, and your appearance through the actions you take in the game, and from using some of the stylists and tattooists scattered around the city. Every action and every deed will result in an effect on your overall character. Eating too many pies? Your character will become a slob. On the other hand, eating a diet consisting entirely of organic tofu will increase your purity. Pulling your weapons out in town will result in people fearing you, being merciful will result in people liking and respecting you. These actions sculpt your physique, including the number of times you have been knocked out during combat. They will leave you with hideous battle scars that will scare away the prettiest women in the town. And in Fable II, your standing in town is pretty important if you want to start a family and spawn some offspring. This incredible character diversity is amazing, and the subtlety of the system means that your smallest actions will have an impact on your character. This also means that your characters will never be the same, and the game will always play differently. The humour in Fable II is also worth a mention, because it is actually very well done. From the one-liners you hear around town, or the conversations you have with people, or a guy you follow into a cave who throws up at the sight of some gnawed bones. there is a really funny side to the serious storyline that drives the game.
This also is extended to doing farting expressions in the street and having people react, or any other rude or obnoxious gestures you learn and perform.
The quest structure in Fable II supports this flexibility, meaning that many of the quests in the game will require you to make choices, some harder than others, and these choices will impact your character and also the story. You also will not be able to access all missions depending on what sort of a character you are playing, giving the game some substantial replayability.
However at times it does feel as though the impact your decisions has on the actual world beyond your own character is limited. The actions you take do impact the economies of the towns and cities, affecting purchasing price of houses and businesses, as well as your purchasing power for goods, but that is where it seems to end. On the upside, Fable II’s world is changing continually, with seasons and time passing.