Lionhead's Peter Molyneux is the George Bailey of game development. He may not have the most realistic game plan, and his reach may exceed his grasp, but by golly, he'll promise you the moon if he thinks it will make you love him.
Take Molyneux's Black & White series, which tried to be both a Bronze Age Sim City clone and an anthropomorphic AI simulation. The series practically leaked neat little innovations from every orifice, but someone at Lionhead apparently forgot to plug up the holes to keep the seamless, bug-free gameplay in. Similarly, games like film studio simulation The Movies are developed with a "Damn the torpedoes!" attitude toward the market. The game's high concept aspect is undeniable, but how many people really want to pretend to run a backlot?
Fable (from way back in 2004) fell somewhere between these two classic Molyneuxian foibles. Fable promised to deliver to the adventure genre an experience of such dynamic interactivity that Nintendo's Link would hang up his one-dimensional sword in shame and go back to whatever it is he did before rescuing princesses became a full-time job. Once time and development constraints set in, Fable became less about the creation of a truly immersive world and more about getting a hack-and-slasher out the door in which your champion of righteousness could also make flatulence jokes and sleep around.
Released last month as part of the yearly pre-holiday deluge, Fable II aims to clean up the mess that its precursor (for all its adequacy as a standard-issue game) made. Molyneux's quixotic dreams of the perfect dynamic adventure game may be no closer to reality than they were during Fable's development; while Fable II does make a strong case for pushing game development toward ever more complex systems, it remains better suited as a next-gen game than as a next-gen accomplishment.
Set 500 years after the events of its predecessor, Fable II's story is a renaissance-tinted mirror of the original. Its plotline checklist is as follows: child is born of a special bloodline, child witnesses tragedy wrought by those who fear his potential, child vows to become powerful and bring his tormentors to justice, child grows into hero, hero completes a few dozen side quests to gain experience, hero hunts down his tormentor. As the entire point of the Fable plots is a gaming interpretation of the Monomyth, a sense of derivation is to be expected.
Fable's biggest problem was its smallness; in trying to make the most of the idea, Lionhead failed to make enough of the actual game. All the weird and wonderful things you could do were hamstrung by a combination of too few instances of them and the ever-popular arbitrary decision between two extremes of vice and virtue.
Fable II does a lot to counteract the former, but little to shore up the latter. The newest incarnation of the land of Albion claims a tenfold increase in square yardage. Although the number of areas has taken a hit over the previous total, the size of each area has been greatly expanded. The difference in real estate between the two once again highlights how effectively the curse of the original Xbox version, with its postage stamp-sized maps optimized for puny hardware, has been lifted.
If only Lionhead had paid the same level of attention to its purity scale. Once again, we're given a world in which no real incentive exists to not be either a saint or a rampaging lunatic who just happens to kill other rampaging lunatics. A permanent record of good and evil acts applies modifiers to several non-combat interactions, but the increased "complexity" of the system is smoke and mirrors. With no relevance afforded to gray areas, giving players new ways to hurtle down their chosen path doesn't make that path any less straightforward.
On the other hand, Fable II's character creation system is perhaps the most entertaining aspect of its alignment system. The basics are largely unchanged from Fable's version; good and evil actions alter your character's appearance toward the pious or diabolical, and your combat preferences (and the resulting experience expenditures) change his physique accordingly. Additionally, health issues have come into play—a balanced diet will keep your character thin, but a lifestyle of meat and ale will pack on the pounds. Beyond all that, the stylizations themselves have been uptweaked, making every combination of these variables into a costume design from your average Scandinavian metal album cover.
Despite Molyneux's continually impossible dreams, Fable II remains an entertaining experience. Molyneux wanted Fable II to be chaos theory on a DVD, and while it would be impossible to say that he succeeded at that pipe dream, it's equally disingenuous to say that he failed at the game's creation. A skeptical eye toward the hype surrounding it will help the gameplay experience, but don't discount the game itself because of it.