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Review: Fable II

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During the 15.78 hours I've played Fable II (which the game measures out as 56,796 seconds) I have earned 987,502 experience, completed 13 quests, dispatched 28 trash-talking gargoyles, opened 1 demon door, bought 14 buildings (3 houses, 11 shops), shot 11 enemies in the groin, acquired 4 scars, and -- because I finally felt like getting around to it -- saved the kingdom of Albion from a particularly evil doom. The story begins much earlier than all of that, of course, in the kingdom of Albion, in the streets of Bowerstone Old Town, where Rose and her sibling, known to her as 'Sparrow,' dream of a better life.

Upon first beginning this review, it became apparent that attempting to cover everything would be essentially impossible and, frankly, a pretty boring read, especially considering most of our readers are at least aware of the new features in Fable II. That wouldn't be fair to the game, because Fable II, quite honestly, delivers. Rather than attempt to go over every infinitesimal possibility in the game, and there are many, I've tried to distill everything down to the core elements.

Let's start with the dog. Peter Molyneux wants gamers to love their dog. Peter, if you're reading this, mission accomplished, at least with me. My digital canine and I – I named him after my real life beagle, Lenny – were inseparable. Whether he was aiding me in combat, sniffing out treasure, or impressing the townsfolk with tricks – playing dead is easily my favorite – the dog became an integral part of my adventures in Fable II. From the beginning as a mangy black mutt and progressively morphing into something between a golden retriever and a yellow lab – he changes based on your moral choices; mine were "good" – I can't imagine the game without him. I submit that anyone that makes it through Fable II without developing an attachment to their dog has a heart of stone – or is a cat lover, if there's a difference between the two.

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Which brings us to the story. The story in Fable II – and the player's role in it -- is much improved over the original. I daresay it's a bit more grown up. While the overall arc of the story follows the tried and true RPG formula of "find the sacred whatsits to stop the Armagedd-O-Majig," it's handled very well, not in small part thanks to some superb voice acting (Firefly fans will be pleased to hear the voice of Ron "Shepherd Book" Glass). Let's just put it this way, I don't really remember the details of the original Fable's story, but I won't soon forget many of the moments in Fable II.

The story, though, is practically a second thought in comparison to everything else you can do in Fable II. That statement isn't meant to mock the story, it's just that the extremely wide range of quests and activities is more than likely where most players will spend the bulk of their time. Indeed, I essentially had to force myself to avoid all the game's various sidequests and activities so that I could complete the story in time to write this review. Thankfully, a handy glowing trail is always there to point you to your main objective (or any chosen objective, for that matter). That's assuming you can resist the urge to wander off the beaten path, of course.

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Whether it be hammering away at a five star rating in the blacksmith job mini-game, buying up local shops to receive a discount and a share of the profits, renting out houses to earn gold every five minutes (even when the game is turned off), or just exploring Albion to find gargoyles, Demon Doors, and hidden treasure, Fable II has a lot to offer. Don't think that these are just diversions from the quests and moral choices in the game, either. All of them have an effect on your character's development and on the world around you.

Character development is governed by a number of different factors. Raise the prices of your products, or the rent you charge your tenants, and you'll become more corrupt. Lower them and you become more pure. Eat meat or drink alcohol and you'll become fat. Eat fruits and vegetables and you get thinner. Help a farmer stave off a bandit attack and you become more "good." Decide to help the bandits instead and you become more "evil." It's worth nothing that purity and corruption are different measurements from good and evil, so it's possible to be both good and corrupt, or evil and pure. These factors, combined with plenty of others, affect how people feel about you and also affect your character's appearance. Do you become the ashen-faced, horned demon of Albion, or its ivory-skinned, haloed savior? Moreover, what sacrifices will you make to maintain your chosen path? Make no mistake, some choices are harder than others. On top of all this, let's not forget that combat has an affect on your appearance as well.

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Fable II's much-vaunted "one button combat," for the most part, works perfectly. Melee is assigned to the X button, ranged weapons to Y, and magic to B. That's it. You can use the left trigger to target a specific enemy, though in my experience it isn't necessary. All of your combat maneuvers are accomplished via combinations of direction presses and either quick taps or long presses of the face buttons. Things get somewhat more complicated as you upgrade your abilities (particularly if you opt to upgrade your Skill, which governs your ranged abilities), but it never feels overwhelming or confusing.

Depending on which methods of attack you use – and how skillfully you fight – you will receive experience in the appropriate category. Stick to melee, for example, and the majority of experience you receive will be red Strength experience. You can use this to improve your Brutal Styles, Physique, or Toughness, all of which will morph your body accordingly (my female hero was fairly robust by the end of the story). Eventually, you unlock new abilities such as counterattacks, precision aiming, and higher level spells, all depending on how you choose to fight.

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The only complaint I could level is that it seemed like it would be difficult for anyone to try to purely focus on any of the three disciplines, particularly magic. Still, it gets easier to specialize once higher levels are reached and, thankfully, you can discard any abilities you've purchased and redistribute your experience points as you see fit (keep in mind you only get back half of the experience you originally spent, though).

Over 1,000 words into this review, and it seems like Fable II can do no wrong. Certainly, there are a few quibbles here and there. It can occasionally be difficult to target a specific enemy with a ranged weapon. Sometimes the glowing trail gets confused for a few seconds. The game isn't without its glitches, including one that consistently caused me to break the first glass during the bartending mini-game. Load times between areas can be very long (though they should be faster in the final retail version). While the game is essentially an open world title, there are still invisible walls and even impassable obstacles that are barely half a foot high. Taken together though, the positives far, far outweigh the negatives.

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Even with so many words dispensed, there are still plenty of things I haven't even touched on. For one, the game is gorgeous, sporting everything from grim swamps to some of the most verdant, idyllic landscapes I've ever seen in a video game. I've also barely mentioned that your actions actually shape the world around you. During my time, for example, I've seen the Temple of Light transform from a dome on a dirt hill to a marble palace. I haven't mentioned co-op (expect more on that once online co-op is enabled after the game's launch). Ultimately though, what I've failed to mention so far, and what is most important, is that Fable II is fun.

Don't forget to listen to this week's Xbox 360 Fancast for more on Fable II, including details not mentioned in the review.

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