Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Fable 2

I did not enjoy Fable 2. In fact, it's one of those games that I've given up on forever after playing less than 10 hours. So this is not a detailed analysis of the game, but rather an explanation of why I completely failed to connect with it on every level.

Fable 2, like the original, is the work of Lionhead Studios, which is headed up by ex-Bullfrog developer Peter Molyneux. This is the man responsible for Black & White, Syndicate, The Movies, Magic Carpet, Dungeon Keeper, Populous and Powermonger. Those are all games based around fantastic ideas which implemented revolutionary game mechanics, and which all laboured under crippling flaws relating to game balance, user interface, and complete absence of narrative and characterisation.

Fable 2 represents a step forward for Molyneux in as much as it makes a genuine attempt at storytelling. The game opens with the player in the role of a young urchin living wild on the streets with his or her sister. This portion of the game, which effectively functions as the tutorial, is excellent, and the sister is one of the most instantly engaging characters I've met in a game for quite some time.

At the end of the tutorial, your sister is shot dead, and having thus been taught an important lesson about emotional attachment you proceed to spend the rest of the game treating everyone you meet as a not-particularly-complex toy.

People in Fable 2 are idiots. They have a five second memory and are more gullible than some kind of animal which is renowned for being gullible. If the mood takes you you can invade the house of a small family and slaughter everyone present in an explosion of gore, with the exception of one traumatised survivor (probably one of the game's bizarrely indestructible children). Then you can dance a saucy jig in front of the survivor until she laughs delightedly and offers you gifts.

Fable 2 isn't the first game to have an exploitable social minigame. The Elder Scrolls is infamous for it, and you can go back further than that. But to some extent the exploits were the joy of those titles. In Fable 2 the game makes a point of attempting to acknowledge your moral choices, and encourages you to form attachments to the community by buying land, performing odd jobs, and getting married. So much development time has been spent on the social aspects of the game that their shallowness is hugely off-putting.

Take, for example, Fable's infamous titles. Your character doesn't really have a name, so you're just known by a "title" wherever you go, which can be something as simple as "Mayor" through to something like "The Fearbringer". Sometimes villagers will use your title appropriately - "Watch out! It's the Fearbringer!" - but then sometimes they won't: "How's it going, Fearbringer?"

Your character can't talk. Every other character in the game can talk. The lowliest peasant has spoken dialogue. Animals make sounds. Your character is mute, and can only express him or herself through the age old art of mime. It's very hard to take your character seriously as the Bringer of Fear when the only non-violent way to instill terror in villagers is by making scary faces.

In amongst all of the chatty salts-of-the-earth, there are really very few "anchor" characters. No-one feels unique, no-one feels special, no-one feels like someone you'd want to just hang out with. Any given NPC is only a couple of sword-swings away from becoming your next level-up.

Whether to murder these flesh-robots on sight is not a moral choice but rather a practical one. When you meet yet another superstitious villager with a West-country accent, you have to ask yourself, "Will disembowling this guy break a quest line?" If the answer is no then it's time to gain some XP. He'll respawn next time you load the zone anyway.

Combat is pretty good, I guess, even if it's not connected to the social part of the game in any way. It kind of feels like Fable 2 mashed an average hack-em-up dungeon crawler into the back end of The Sims. It doesn't excel in either area, although the dungeon crawling is reasonably unobjectionable.

Also, you get this dog that follows you around and helps you out. You can get kind of attached to the dog, I hear (I didn't), but that would be forgetting the important message taught to you in the tutorial. Treating the dog as a real character would just be setting it up to be horribly gunned down in the final act. I sure hope that doesn't happen!

So, anyway, Fable 2 really failed to grab me on any fundamental level. I understand that other people have had a blast with it, which is good for them even if they are clearly crazy. You should probably make up your own mind.


SPLastic said...

I forced myself to finish this game, having enjoyed the original to a large degree.

Dare I say that you and I have the same feelings about this game, Greg. Except that I couldn't be bothered killing civilians... they didn't produce enough XP to be worth it.

The ending was, to me, as resounding "eh" to finish of a title which quickly grew boring.

You were right about the dog getting shot. But it's okay, if you don't like money, you can get him back.

Greg Tannahill said...

I was trying to carefully couch the spoiler in the guise of speculation. I'd had it spoiled for me over at Man Bytes blog, where I read one of Corvus' posts despite the spoiler warning knowing, at that stage, that I was never going to play the ending myself.

Blogger needs some kind of spoiler text system. Fable 2 needs some kind of "pay money to resurrect the sister" system.

Jon said...

I would recommend finishing off the 'second hero' mission - the story does take a surprising turn. Although now that I think about it, you've probably been spoilt for this as well.

I must be clearly crazy for enjoying the game despite obvious flaws. There's a certain glee to the amount of carnage one can enact at higher levels.

Perhaps Molyneaux needs a creative partner with a knack for consistent/believable game systems?

Greg Tannahill said...

Yes, I did this post with a grain of salt because with the exception of SPLastic here I haven't been able to find any other real-life people with anything particularly negative to say about Fable 2. Most seemed to think it wasn't world-shaking but was generally entertaining. My complaints are solid but the extent to which they interfere with your enjoyment of the good aspects will probably vary significantly.

I want Molyneaux to partner with Valve. Valve can sit him down and explain the concepts of "playtesting" and "changing your game based on playtesting results". Valve brings a level of science to game design that Molyneux could really benefit from.

SPLastic said...

LionValve Studios! You get to play the next Fable as Gordon Freeman, with D.O.G. as your pet.

One of the biggest reasons for my dislike of Fable 2 is that I started playing it, then stopped because Far Cry 2 and Fallout 3 grasped me more.

When I came back to Fable 2, it felt crippingly old-fashioned - I really struggled to finish the game. And the end-game wasn't worth the struggle.

Having said that, most people that I've talked to enjoyed it... but only half of them have finished it.

Greg Tannahill said...

I got distracted from Fable 2 by Left 4 Dead, Rock Band, and Mirror's Edge, all of which were vastly more entertaining.

Fable 2 was a loan from a friend so it worked out quite well that I hadn't spent money on it.

Chris said...

My feelings about this game are quite similar to yours - except since I had no interest in the slaughter of innocents, I've probably had less fun with it thus far than you have. :)

But it's clear that another kind of player really enjoys the toys in this game - so it's not a clear cut problem with Fable II perhaps so much as it's a fault line in player tastes.


SPLastic said...

Chris is right about the faultline. The same applies pattern seems to apply for Mirror's Edge.

Perhaps, with some indepth study, we could find recurring patterns in gamers and eliminate the weaker ones.. thus dropping sales of bad games, preventing those developers from continuing their hellspawn antics!

...Or we could take advantage of that thing that EB does, where you can take back any game within a week of purchasing it and get your money back.

Greg Tannahill said...

SPLastic, go check out Chris' blog if you haven't previously. He's done a whole bunch of articles on player-typing and ways of predicting what sort of gameplay is going to appeal to what sort of player. It's good reading. (I think there quick links to the relevant articles down the left of his site.)

Morgan said...

Hey, it's SPLastic... had a profile update.

Can I get a link to Chris' blog? Blogger won't let me access it through his profile.

Greg Tannahill said...

Only A Game.

Presuming that the Chris above is Chris Bateman and not one of those other Chris-people who seem to be everywhere these days.

Anonymous said...

i own fable and thought it was a great game for its time...i wasnt sure if i would purchase fable 2 but g4 and so many ppl reviewed this game as a masterpeice...i forked out the 60 dollars that i really needed for other things but how many masterpeice games are released? i start playin this game and im like wow amazing graphics and this looks like its going to be awesome...very soon after i realize the game is over in an instant, the frames slow down constantly and the gfx glitch up all the ppl in the game look identical they say the same thing over and over the story is WEAK there is no puzzles in this game why do they think a dungeon is goin to be fun if all u do is run thru rooms hittin a ball with ur gun or sword..ive been a gamer for 19 years now and i have never felt so cheated, i talked my gf's lil bro into buyin this game with what little christmas money he had before i had really played it and i made him think it was amazing bc of the reviews i heard...i feel bad bc he keeps asking "so does this game get funner when you get farther in it?" he has only been playing it a short while and is almost rdy to kill lord lucien...i cant bring myself to tell him NO your actually about finished with the story and then you will have nothing at all to do, NO ONE BUY THIS PEICE OF !@#$