Peter Molyneux has a habit of talking up his games to the point that you expect them not only to rock your world but to make you a margarita and iron your shirts while doing it. So when he assured me that Fable 2 was far more just a retread of its predecessor after my lukewarm impressions from E3, I took his comments with an entire shaker of salt. This time, though, he wasn't wrong. Fable 2 is not more Fable with a few new spells and a dog thrown in. Fable 2 does everything Fable did, but better.
Much has changed in Albion since the days of Fable. The Hero's Guild is gone, destroyed by a public that was sick of watching its so-called saviors grow fat and corrupt at the expense of the populace. The Heroes themselves have long since disappeared into the mists of time, but their blood runs through your veins, making it your destiny to one day rise above your humble beginnings and save the world from devastation. But first, there's a dog to save.
Very early on in the game, you rescue a dog from some neighborhood bullies, and he soon becomes your constant and loyal companion. Being saddled with a partner is usually a swift ticket to aggravation in gaming - unless you like being told to "Hey, listen!" that is - but your pup is an ideal companion. He growls to let you know that enemies are nearby, attacks any that you knock down and will bark to draw your attention to events or locations that you might otherwise miss. He can even lead you to chests, keys and buried loot, including books you can use to teach him tricks or improve his combat and treasure-hunting skills.
Fable's combat took a lot of heat for being unsatisfying. According to Molyneux, the goal for Fable 2 was to make the combat simple, yet deep, so that both casual and more devoted players could enjoy it. The melee and ranged combat succeed, for the most part. The one button control allows button mashers to make it through a fight nearly intact, but learnable skills and combos provide enough depth to keep more skilled players happy. It's somewhat irritating that you have to spend experience to buy techniques like flourishes and blocking that were available from the beginning in Fable, but you'll get over it. You can also discard unwanted or unused skills to get your experience back, so there's no real penalty for experimentation.
Magic, on the other hand, can be more difficult to use, especially in the heat of battle. You access all of your spells with the B button, which supposedly makes them easier to use, but in practice seems to complicate things. You stack your spells according to level, either specializing in one (say, Inferno or Blades) or mixing and matching as you please. As you hold down B, a meter on the left side of the screen lets you know what level spell you've achieved; release B to set off the spell. Sounds simple enough, but in the middle of a fight, it's all too easy to hold the button down longer than you'd like or release it too soon, and accidentally cast the wrong spell. Playing as a pure magic user is far more satisfying this time around, but pulling off the right spell at the right time is far trickier than it should be.
In between quests, be sure to head back to town. Fable's world of Albion was a charming and beautiful place, but even larger towns like Bowerstone felt a bit sparse and empty. The buildings of Fable 2's Bowerstone crowd for room in the city streets, as throngs of people hurry down the alleys and gather in the town square. Posh shops squeeze in between the residential areas, while drunks and prostitutes linger in the seedier parts of town. It's a living, thriving city that doesn't stop churning simply because its resident hero is out slaying balvarines. It feels more like a real place, populated with real people, as opposed to a way station for you to fuel up on potions and weapons. You'll spend hours just mucking about, discovering what's around the next corner.
Being a hero might get you legions of fans clamoring for your autograph (you can buy autograph cards at most general stores), but it doesn't actually pay very well. Fortunately, Albion is chock full of ways to earn some coin for those who are willing to put in a hard day's work. There's always at least one odd job to be had in town, like bartending or chopping wood, or you can always go the more leisurely route of becoming a real estate tycoon. Every single home, shop, and stall in Albion is for sale; you can buy entire towns, or just purchase key locations. The rent money keeps coming in even when you're not playing, making it a particularly appealing way to pad your wallet.
There's so much to see and do in Albion that it's very easy to get distracted or lost, but you can always follow a glittering trail of breadcrumbs to your next destination. At first, I really hated the glowing path that constantly stretched out before me, because I felt compelled to follow it. Once I was able to ignore it in favor of exploration, I began to truly appreciate how useful it was, and how it actually encouraged me to leave the main path. I could go wandering around wherever I liked without fear of ever getting lost or too off track. The trail is smart enough to adapt to your surroundings; it doesn't just stick to the road, or try to send you off a cliff or through a wall. You can also adjust it to suit your needs at a particular moment, whether that's guiding you the next location for the main quest, or to a shop that's having a sale. If you'd rather trust to the tracking skills you learned in the Scouts, you can turn the breadcrumb trail off completely.
Unfortunately, one especially exciting aspect of Fable 2, the multiplayer, won't be fully operational at the time of the game's release. You can visit with your friends locally, but online co-op is a no-go for the time being. Microsoft and Lionhead hope to have it working the first week of Fable 2's release, and we'll cover that separately once it's up and running. It's disappointing, but there's certainly more than enough in Fable 2 to keep you busy until the update. [UPDATE: The patch to fix this issue was released today. We'll let you know how the co-op fares as soon as we get a chance to try it out.]
Fable left many players wanting more, and Peter Molyneux promised that Fable 2 would deliver. For once, he wasn't blowing smoke - Fable 2 really is that damn good. Fable 2 understands that in between the big, important quests, life - even a hero's life - is made up of smaller moments, and it makes the most of them. It's at various times funny, tragic, epic, and intimate, but it's never disappointing or unsatisfying. It's the game Fable should've been all along.
Susan Arendt can get virtually every denizen of Bowerstone to have sex with her except her husband.