No excuses this time - it's judgement day for Lionhead.
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Lionhead has finally delivered on the promises its head spindoctor Peter Molyneux has been spouting for the past year.
Fable II once again depicts Albion, the world into which your hero is born. 500 years on since the first game, there have been some technological strides - not least in the form of guns, which initially seem at odds with the traditional fantasy setting. However, a Highwaymen wouldn't be able to scream "Stand and deliver" without one, and despite the lack of horse-drawn carriages for them to raid, Fable II sees you slash, shoot, shock, singe and surreptitiously stomp on legions of the black-masked rascals.
Fable II's fantasy setting may be cliché'd, however the game manages to poke enough fun at itself that you can forgive its various small problems that pop up. At the very least it deserves heaps of accolade because there's not an Orc in sight. For a genre which can lay claim to having any kind of creature a person would dare to dream up, for some reason the green skinned nemesis of fantasy humankind have managed to creep into nearly every fantasy world created since Tolkien placed them in his Middle Earth. Not here, thank you very much!
Fable's foes have been designed with the same attention to detail which has been poured into the general populace. As a child getting the tour the city from your big sister, the Dickensian opening serves as a tutorial as well as a scene setter. You'll meet the local ruffians, the law, and Zoe Wannamaker's Theresa, a blind witch who will guide you through your own development, the world as a whole and the meaning of your existence. Sage advice indeed. Mrs Wannamaker is not the only voice talent to be found - Stephen Fry also appears, and it seems that console gaming may be as lucrative for him as presenting his own TV shows, with this month's big PS3 exclusive LittleBigPlanet also featuring his quintessentially English dulcet tones.
The rest of Albion's human denizens range from the positively motley boors and prostitutes to the snobbish gentry. All have their own roles and go about their jobs daily, bringing to life a city which could perhaps have been London in Terry Pratchett's Discworld. Fable nicely side-steps the po-faced trappings of games like Oblivion with character dialogue, books, and notes littered with jokes and jabs not only at the genre but at Fable II itself. While the game plays perfectly well as an action RPG, it is these self referential touches that make its charm so completely ingratiating.
And what of the gameplay? Fable II, like its prequel, is an action game, so turn-based tactics and strategic planning of resources are about as much use as a sling shot and a bag of ping pong balls against the various enemies you'll face.
Combat is a relatively simple affair and a melee attack button, a shoot button, and a magic button are all you require to dish out the pain on any who cross your path. It is a system which works very well. Infinite ammo and unlimited magical power initially seem unbalanced, however players will have to decide if they want a powerful rifle which is slow to reload or a pistol which can empty 6 shots into a marauding tribe of Hobbes before you need to pause.
Magic spells are similarly balanced by the amount time required to cast them - aiming a level 1 fireball at a bandit isn't likely to upset him beyond frying his facial hair, but charge Inferno to level 5 and you will send the whole gang in your vicinity to the local burns unit for skin-grafts. That is, if you can survive perforation from their blades while you build up the energy to cast it.
Fable II sets a new bar with game-world interaction. Grand Theft Auto IV certainly presented huge scope for extra-curricular activities, however you can comfortably spend a dozen hours with Fable II forming relationships and business ventures without (ad)venturing near a dungeon or story-progressing quest. Express your feelings (of love or contempt) for your fellow inhabitants; buy and sell stock or invest in properties and raise or lower the rent. Tenants can hate you for your cold profiteering or you can be a generous puritan and keep rent down to a minimum.
All your actions, from a simple thumbs up to someone in the street, to the slaughter of an entire community for your sadistic amusement, have implications which affect the way people perceive you and treat you. And one promise Mr Molyneux has certainly delivered on - being good is its own reward; a pure character will have much shallower pockets than one prepared to bend - or even ignore - the rules.