Friday, August 27, 2010

Sequelitis: Fable 2

Sequelitis is another in what will become the regular features of this blog. In these articles, I will examine a game with an implied, likely, or announced sequel, and discuss what changes, improvements, etc. are neccessarry in order for that sequel to be justified and successful.
With Fable 3 now clearly on everyone's collective radar, and soon approaching. I figured I might give some brief thoughts on my experience with Fable 2, and what improvements to the formula I believe should be made for the sequel.

While designer Peter Molyneux has a reputation for wild exaggerated claims, this title actually lived up to most of them. For those that were fans of the original Fable, there was little to be disappointed in.

 Fable 2 is set in the same world as the original, Albion, with the timeline advanced by 500 years. The game makes only passing references to the original, so one need not have played it to understand the plot of the latest chapter. Then again, this may not necessarily be a good thing. An opportunity was missed here to take the Mass Effect rout and deliver on some of Molyneux's promises about the original Fable. Choices made in the final acts of Fable 1 could have effected the world and player character, such as their lineage (assuming they descend from the original game's hero), the state of Albion (depending on the original player's alignment and influence in the world, and the existence of some NPCs (depending on weather or not you killed your sister and other NPCs.) This would have retroactively given the studio a bit  better favor over the perceived lies surrounded Fable 1, allowing them to spin these as very long term intentions.

The biggest change from the first game lies in the streamlined combat system. Now the player has one button each to control melee, magic and ranged weapons, including guns. This sounds overly simplistic, but the system is build around context. Mashing a button as quickly as possible has one effect, holding it has another, and pressing it rhythmically has yet another. Making a melee attack against an attacking foe executes a riposte, while attacking an enemy near a ledge, wall, or other environmental feature produces another effect. This really works, providing a fun and cinematic game that's quite easy to get into regardless of skill level. It's reminiscent of Assassin's Creed, though less rewarding of your commitment than that somewhat more complex system. For Fable 3, I'm totally on board with these design philosophies. Just layer on more depth and you should be set. More contextual actions, interactive environments, variety in the moveset, etc. Some of what was shown in pre-release media (see screenshot below aswell) implied a bit more depth to the system, but there's no reason that couldn't be 100% accurate and then some for the follow up.

Looks pretty, but fence jumping is in no way integrated into combat. In the actual game, this was  a bad decision.
Molyneux has exaggerated on a few counts however. The world does not shift as dynamically as he suggested and the co-op play is serviceable, but poorly implemented.

At two particular points in the game's storyline, locally limited changes to the geography will occur. These are binary and determined solely by the player's choice of quests. When one of these changes occurs, the game explicitly points them out. Therefore, even if you haven't seen the alternative outcome, you'll know what it would have been. All of the possible outcomes can be seen in only two playthroughs. Nobody will ever be surprised by someone else's game world. I felt more control over my world in GTA: Vice City, buying up properties left and right, than I ever did here. Moloneux needs to go back to the drawing board and found where he hid all those wonderful acorns. For the sequel, I believe they should focus less on these huge overarching shifts and more on the details. Simple economic systems, based not only on what the player buys and sells but on their actions, would go far. If I kill a blacksmith, the town should be out of a blacksmith for a while. The prices of metal items should go up in the absence of a local distributor. His old shop will become devalued, and, though the player may buy the property himself, eventually a new smith will move in to fill the niche. Though this type of thing may be somewhat complex, Fable is quickly becoming outpaced as other RPGs are implementing these kinds of features. Fable will not be able to continue existing as a franchise if it's one shining, unfulfilled promise becomes overshadowed by the realities of the market.

In co-op play, the second player can import the stats of his own character, but not their avatar. Six pre-made avatars are available, none of which are aesthetically pleasing. The game tethers players together with an invisible rope, one that is often smaller than the battles, so you'll constantly bicker over control of your collective direction. The camera doesn't aid much either. I love co-op when it works, but here it feels rather tacked on. The game as a whole is an RPG - but the co-op experience is strictly hack n' slash. In several instances, I intentionally logged off of the game during story-heavy sections in order to make things easier on the primary player. Bad sign. We've already heard plenty of talk about the improvements to this system in the sequel, so I believe I can chalk up the obvious improvements to be made as taken care of.

What makes a Fable game are two things, a relatively simple setup easily acceptable to more casual audiences, and the ability to do many non-combat activities in town. Both are present and improved on here. There are more of these extra curricular activities available, but they remain minor distractions. The money earning mini games are absolute busy work - monotonous and ill-conceived. Those more enjoyable mini-games still feel somewhat tacked on and none of them will bring me back to the title. Contrast this with Red Dead Redemption's mini games which, while merely versions of classic gambling games, are handled with so much finesse and atmosphere that they are my go-to way to play blackjack, poker, and liar's dice when I lack human company. If it doesn't add to the game, it detracts. This was one of the few areas, for me, where the company's commitment to polish really seemed to fail. Hopefully, in Fable 3, everything you can do will be something someone might actually want to.

The other half of the non-combat activity is intended to be your interaction with the world and it's people. This functions almost identically to how it had in the original Fable, with only a few extra bells and whistles to provide token improvement. I've felt far more connected to my character, the world, and the NPCs in games like the Mass Effect series than I ever did in any Fable game. This is largely because Fable's NPCs are a very predictable hoard of simplistic automatons. You know, absolutely, that, if you just keep spamming these three emotes, every identical woman in town will fall in love with you. Visually and emotionally, they are all alike. There is no mystery to it. It is for this reason that the only NPC with which I felt any empathy was my dog. While not perfect, they did get the essential element, to me, of NPC companions. They are not you. You do not control them. You can not ever fully know them. The dog, to some degree, has a mind of his own. He will take actions without orders and, while still rather predictable, is never entirely so. This logic needs to be applied to all NPCs in the Fable world.
All of these women find fart jokes hilarious.
I very much enjoyed Fable 2. There's no real replay value there though. After playing through the full story, which I did twice over my rental period, the remaining open-ended quests are pretty much busywork. It's not a game like "Oblivion" that takes weeks of play to fully experience. It's a great rent for RPG fans, but far from a must buy.

Going forward into Fable 3, what I'd really like to see is an overhaul of the clunky co-op system and some real depth added to the extra curricular activities. The first, which we have already been promised, is really the only objective gameplay problem in the title. The latter is what Moloneux, it seems, has always wanted to make Fable about - but, in my opinion, has yet to succeed in. The minor ways in which the world can be influenced are all very direct, predictable, and functional. It all feels so very sterile. Hopefully the next title will really dig in, get dirty, and provide us with a real playground.

My fear, however, is that Moloneux's wonderful tendency towards experimentation might bight him in the ass again. You see, he's big on new ideas. An important part of what makes Lionhead a unique development house is that they do a lot of experimentation. Mr. Moloneux encourages his team to prototype original ideas. These quick prototypes, however, are uncommon because a prototype that doesn't carry into an actual feature is essentially wasted money on the business level. More common with Moloneux, I think, is that what works ends up being these odd little quirky things which aren't necessarily what the audience was looking for. The dog in Fable 2, for example. I thought it was great, but I would have preferred that the promises about the interactive world to have been fulfilled.

This being said, I am looking forward to Fable 3. Many of the concepts the dev team have mentioned aren't so much based on improvements to the Fable 2 formula as referendums on standard gaming tropes as a whole. As a designer, it's hard not to love listening to the guys as Lionhead and to look forward to their new products.

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