(Microsoft, Xbox 360, Mature)
2004's Fable, an action role-playing game set in a stylized fantasy world, was a blockbuster for Microsoft's original big black box but was also famously criticized for under-delivering on the ambitious promises made by its Brit creator, Peter Molyneux. With the arrival of Fable II, it seems Molyneux and company has more than made amends: his follow-up title is absolutely brimming with expertly realized content, complemented by diverse gameplay options, personality-packed character interactions, and a fairytale-like visual presentation. There's little you can't see and do in Fable II, and playing through it just once barely scratches the surface of its amazing depth.
A quick glance reveals familiar fantasy role-playing game fare sword-wielding heroes, mythical monsters, medieval villages, and treasure chests overflowing with gold coins. Dig a bit deeper and you'll discover Fable II adds to these genre-defining staples with imaginative design choices and engaging storytelling. Much of this can be attributed to the title's exploration-fueled nature, as it encourages players to take paths both figuratively and literally that ultimately shape a unique quest for each and every armchair adventurer.
Players begin as a young villager, who, barely surviving on the streets of Fable II's Albion, soon finds himself (or herself) on an epic quest. Gamers can choose their journey to be one of good, evil, or somewhere in between, as reflected by their actions throughout the course of the game. These actions affect your appearance and how other characters react to you. Choose to become a murdering, gold-hording tyrant and your character now bearing facial scars and swarmed by flies will be feared across the land. Display selflessness and bravery, and your handsome, well-attired hero will be worshiped by a grateful populace.
More than that, Fable II also provides players with an unprecedented set of choices in how they fill their time in Albion. Action fans can stick to the main story, exploring creepy caverns and dark forests. (Here, you'll learn how to utilize an intuitive system that arms brave battlers with a variety of melee, ranged, and magic-based weapons our fave is a spell that raises the dead to fight by your side.) But gamers craving a bit more depth can opt to partake in countless side activities and missions: earning money by working as a blacksmith, purchasing property and becoming a landlord (the unscrupulous can raise rents to reach slumlord status), even courting a partner in marriage and starting a family (though unprotected sex, even in this game, can lead to you catching an STD).
Even with all this goodness in Fable II's detail-drenched world, its most effective life-simulating feature is its inclusion of man's best friend. Very early on you'll take in a stray dog that quickly becomes your most faithful pal. He'll growl at bad guys, sniff out treasure, and bark when trouble's afoot. The bond you form with Fable II's four-legged friend is surprisingly deep, yielding an emotional attachment rarely found in video games. Of course, keeping with the experiment-encouraging gameplay, you'll be able to play with, train, praise, and even scold your pup as you see fit.
The game stumbles just a bit in that it offers only a modest challenge. Its difficulty has been clearly dialed down in an effort to attract more casual fans gamers raised on more hardcore RPGs may crave a bit more bite from their good-versus-evil epics. However, what it lacks in challenge, Fable II more than makes up for in charm. Few games so successfully make visitors feel at home in their virtual worlds, and for this feat alone, it's worth the trip to Albion. Matt Cabral
WHAT WE LIKE:
• Endearing presentation has style to spare
• Rich with content and gameplay opportunities
• Dog companion is an inspired inclusion
WHAT WE DON'T LIKE:
• Could offer a bit more challenge, especially to die-hard gamers
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