Thursday, February 12, 2009

Fable 2

I've been playing Fable 2 off and on for the past couple of weeks. So far, I've got this whole love/hate thing going on with it. One of the things I really  look for when playing a good RPG is a lot of characterization. I want to see lots of interaction and personalities lumped in with the constant stream of +2 Swords of Geriatric Doom and Scarves of the Baritone Banshee. I was a fan of Planescape: Torment for god's sake.

That is not Fable 2. And, for me, it's a strike against.

In Fable 2 there are are a few people who talk at you, usually to tell you what you can do for them, and a horde of people who just emote at you (and you at them). If you're a good guy that usually means they're following you around all the time, even into places they shouldn't, like your home. I get there's a burden to being a famous hero, but there's a line. If I can get busted by guards for trespassing in an NPC's home (which did happen, and was a nice touch), then NPC's shouldn't be trailing me into mine (unless I can get them arrested too).

The world, while huge and utterly beautiful, is at the same time incredibly shallow. There are areas where monsters appear. You kill them. Leave. Come back. And you can count on them appearing at the same places. The encounters themselves may vary in terms of number (and possibly type?) of opponents; that seems tied to your own level/skill. (I could be wrong about this, but that's how it appears so far.) Most quests can be counted on to have a good path and an evil path. Which is sort of the point of the game (and there's nothing wrong with that), but as a fan of gray-areas it's just not as compelling to me as, say, The Witcher.

But despite all that, I'm still really enjoying the game and I remain eager to keep playing. Perhaps owing to its thorough simplicity, this is an extremely fun game that has a lot of scope to it. Even if all of it is incredibly simple, there's just a lot for you to do in the world and I love that aspect of it.

You start off as a child (little Sparrow) living on the streets of Bowerstone in the world of Albion. It serves as a jumping on point for learning about the game world and the game's play mechanics. (Which are also very simple; a good thing.) But it's not long before you take a dramatic life turn and the game advances into your very early adulthood as you strike out to become a hero (or villain, I suppose), avenge a loss, and fulfill your destiny.

It's standard fantasy setting fare, but the kind of fare I can get into. Once you dispense with the obligatory foundation setting, you're free to go off into the world and play as you will. You can take jobs from the populace that range from standard quests (clearing out basements, collecting bounties, etc.) to actual jobs like smithing weapons or chopping wood. Even if the execution of said jobs is incredibly simplistic (press the A button at the right time over and over again to hammer a sword), the diversity of options is great. If you don't want to get money the old fashioned way (earn it), you can take to the gambling mini games. If you amass sufficient wealth, you are able to purchase any business in the game, which can add to your income. You can purchase new property to live in, the value of which varies based on property type (or business type), whether someone is already living there, the town economy, your reputation with the current property holder (if they like you, they'll charge less), etc. There's just a broad spectrum of stuff to play around with, which I've found really compelling.

Then, of course, there's the main quest. I don't think I've ventured very far down this line. When you're a child there's a gypsy woman that saves you and raises you and then sends you out into the world. Once you reach that point, through the magic of deus ex machina, she's able to see everything you do in the world and act as your own personal Obi-Wan Kenobi voice in your ear, telling you what you need to know to properly interact with the game world and what to do to progress the story forward. It works, but at the same time she's so obviously a gameplay device that it diminishes my ability to see her as a character in the game, which is the intent.

As for character interaction, as I noted above, there is none (in terms of back and forth dialog). You can build relationships, however. There's tons of emotes (some you start with, others you have to learn from books/experience) that affect how you're perceived. (How you choose to complete quests also affects how people see you.) However, the only real purpose it appears to serve is to get a young lass (or lad) to fall in love with you so you can marry them. This would be a fine dynamic if it weren't so easy to get people to like you. I've not spent a lot of time in town and I've probably got a dozen maidens all eager to receive a ring from me for marriage (despite the fact that I'm already married). I suppose that's the life of a celebrity, but it gets in the way of enjoying the game. I guess I just think it should be harder to get everybody to like you.

Once you are married you still have to spend time with your spouse, sending out positive emotes and giving gifts to make them happy. (Owning better property and providing more daily cash for its upkeep, as well as outfitting yourself with nice clothes seems to help too. Yeah, lots of little layers to all this.) Oh, and you also need to consummate said marriage. About once every game day or so (days advance very quickly so this tends to get annoying) you'll get a note that your spouse, "wants sex." Judging from the frequency of these requests, the designers of this game haven't been married (or not for very long). You can ignore said note if you want, but I have to assume your marital bliss will suffer if you do.

Sex in Fable 2 isn't gratuitous or graphic (at least relative to, say, The Witcher) and it does serve a purpose in the game. The screen goes black and you get the choice to have protected sex or unprotected sex. There's a couple moans (which is, frankly, embarrassing when your wife is sitting at the computer five feet away) and the screen comes back into view. If you went with unprotected sex then time flashes forward and you're awarded with a child, whom you also need to suck up to in order to keep the little tyke happy. (NPCs all have favorite gifts, expressions and places to be.) I have no idea if having unprotected sex with your spouse always leads to a child or if there's a random chance of it. All I know is that I'm one for one.

Right now the fruit of my character's loins is still a baby. I'm not sure at what point aging takes place or if there's a limit to how many kids you can end up with. The game seems to stay in a static state and then leap forward upon the conclusion of specific events (like having a kid or completing a major quest).

And, of course, there's your dog. Much was made of your canine buddy in the build-up to Fable 2's release. I don't know. I don't mind the little crotch sniffer, but at the same time, he's so clearly a gameplay device (like your gypsy guide) who's there to bark when there's danger or grab your attention if there's a treasure chest or something buried nearby that it's hard for me to see him as an in-game companion. (Which, again, is supposed to be the idea.)

I do like the experience/leveling system. You don't really go up levels in the game, but you do accumulate different types of experience (which appear in the form of orbs that you absorb): general, strength (melee), skill (speed and shooting), and will (magic). The skills you use to dispatch your enemies determines the distribution of experience orb types, so it'll be easier to build up your will tree if you use magic all the time (for example). You use your accumulated experience to purchase news abilities. Each of the ability trees has a set number of branches (strength and skill have three; will has more) and each branch can be leveled up multiple times. Doing so nets you more options in combat, like a stronger attack that you can execute (called a flourish), followed by chain attacks, etc. Again, simple, yet elegant design.

How much I end up liking Fable 2 will depend a lot on where the story goes from here. (If I get into the story on the blog, I'll do so later, in another post.) It's a compelling enough romp so far, but if I've already discovered all the gameplay mechanics Fable 2 has to offer then I've got to question whether or not it's got the staying power to keep my attention through to the end. (This is where I think the simplicity of everything could hurt the game, but we'll see.)