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E308: Hands on with Fable 2's combat and story

Alongside Banjo Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts at the Microsoft press reception earlier this week was Lionhead's anticipated Fable 2. For the first time, I was able to test out all of the game's combat options, perform social interactions -- including playing with the adorable dog -- and glimpse the game's story, which once again begins during the hero's childhood. While much has been said about how Fable 2 innovates on the concepts in the first game, what I really took away from the demo is that the game is essentially just more of what was great about the original Fable with plenty of refinements. In other words, it's good stuff with more good stuff added to it. Read on for new hands on details.

The first demo I tried was a simple sandbox environment that Lionhead set up specifically for E3. It must be said that the game's design is gorgeous. Thick trees, lush grass, quirky characters and, yes, color. With so many games these days bathed in grit, realism and a dependence on the color brown, Fable 2 is very refreshing.

Anyway, social interactions. Social interactions are still handled through expressions as they were in Fable. You can walk up to citizens and perform a large number of social expressions from different categories. You can joke, compliment, threaten, whatever you like. Everything you do affects how a person feels about you. I was actually surprised when a group of people liked me more after watching me play with my dog. In another instance, I threatened and berated a poor citizen, even going so far as to slap him and feign drawing my sword. All of this was to scare him enough so that I could extort him for some money. Oddly enough, he didn't hand any over until I sent a few compliments his way.

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A new addition to Fable's social system is that you can now bring up a screen that shows the name, likes and dislikes of a given character. This works for every single citizen in the game, which comes in handy if you need someone to like you (or if you just want to know the best way to really piss someone off). Additionally, you can even rename a non-player character if you wish. Why would you do this? An example given to us by Lionhead's Iain Wright is to rename your in-game wife after your real life partner so she won't be jealous of your digital lover. Cute.

Speaking of digital loving, I was also directed on a strange guided tour by Lionhead's community guru Sam Van Tilburgh. First, I approached a local house, checking to see how much it was worth and whether or not I'd like to purchase it. The price of a piece of property is affected by many factors, including the local economy and whether or not you've killed the owners (which lowers the price, incidentally). Rather than fuss with the complexities of purchasing a new home, Sam suggested I simply break down the door and walk inside, so I did. A quick trip upstairs to the bedroom led me to a cupboard. I was already in the house, so i might as well steal things, right? Inside the cupboard I found ... a condom. According to the description, the condom prevents pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases and is "made from only the best animal intestines." That's comforting.

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But enough socializing! Time for combat. Combat feels more or less the same way it did in Fable, except this time everything has been streamlined. Each combat action is assigned to a face button. The X button is for melee, Y is for ranged, B is for magic. It's that simple. Combat actions can be chained together easily using each button, making it very simple to mix swords, guns, and magic into the same fight. Different variations on attacks are achieved by either tapping a button or holding it down in combination with movements of the left stick. For instance, press a direction and the magic button and you release a targeted magic missile. Leave the stick neutral and press the magic button to release an area effect spell.

The way spells are organized has been streamlined as welll. There are several different tiers of spells,with each tier corresponding to how long the B button must be held. As one might expect, the higher the tier, the more powerful the spell and the more time required to cast it. Organizing which spells are assigned to which tiers is a simple procedure. While holding the right trigger, press up on the D-Pad to cycle through each tier and press left or right to choose the spell to be assigned to the selected tier. Using this method, players can customize their hero's magic repertoire on the fly without ever pausing the game.

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As for the game's story, I'll admit I'm still mostly in the dark, as I really couldn't hear what characters were saying among the chatter at the Microsoft venue. Still, I was able to gather a few things. As in the first Fable, players begin the game as a child spending time with their sister. I accompanied my sister throughout the city, meeting various characters and performing simple tasks -- like posing for photographs -- to earn a few gold coins. The city played host to many different non-player characters, some seedier than others and all boasting Lionhead's charming designs.

I should mention that the build I played was unfinished. Lionhead's Iain Wright told us that Fable 2 is content complete and all that remains is polishing and bug fixing. That's a good thing, because the game looked rough in many areas. Characters and scenery sported some serious jaggies and the particle effects looked like they were pulled from the Playstation One. Still, Wright assured me that those things would be cleaned up by the time the game released.

Still, even with the bugs, Fable 2 is filled with the same charm and style that permeated the first game. The game manages to implement plenty of new features while maintaining the overall spirit of the original. With a solid core and a few more months to iron out the bugs and add some polish, action RPG fans have a reason to look forward to Fable 2's release in October.

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