Image: Fable II
Microsoft
Unlike the bright, cartoony original game,  “Fable II” is dark and menacing. The spooky Hollowmen are some of the many enemies you'll face.
By By Scott Taves
msnbc.com contributor
updated 10/24/2008 9:30:53 AM ET 2008-10-24T13:30:53

“Fable II,” a sequel four years in the making, is all about choices.

With only a minimum of linear story, you are able to live a complex virtual life: make money, get married, have kids. If that sounds dull, you’re also free to have a psychotic mid-life crisis, visit prostitutes and murder everyone in your village.

The freedom to chart your own course, morally and throughout the game's landscape, makes “Fable II” a fresh and essential game experience.

For this outing, the cartoony medieval world of the original “Fable” for Xbox has become darker and more dangerous. In it, you play an orphan who’s living on the streets with her older sister, in a setting straight out of a Dickens novel.

Without ruining any plot points, you’ll grow up and meet a mysterious figure who will guide you on a journey that instills your life with purpose and meaning. Like any juicy fairy tale, “Fable II” has an evil figure —  Lord Lucien — with whom your character is destined to intersect.

Decisions come into play early. Within the first 15 minutes, you and your sister run into a drunken husband and upset wife arguing while you’re running an errand. The drunk wants you to find his bottle of booze and the wife asks you to return it to her. If you do her bidding, she helps you on your errand. If you return the bottle to drunky, you get no assistance.

Your actions have consequences in “Fable II,” ranging from slight to monumental. If you decide to steal money from a shop, prices will go up or the shop may not be open next time; eat too many fatty foods and your belly will expand.

If you consistently commit evil deeds your character will eventually sprout horns and develop scarred, leathery skin. A life of goodness results in a faint halo and a luxurious head of hair. 

One of the many things “Fable II” does very well is that it’s equally accessible to both casual and hardcore players. It’s a role-playing game, or RPG, without the steep time requirements or level grinding of “World of Warcraft” and others of its ilk.

Any gamer, hard-core or noob, can appreciate stumbling across a treasure chest while exploring the massive world of Albion, which serves as the game’s setting. And combat is single-button simple, but more advanced skills can be earned and chained together to produce deeply satisfying destruction.

Another impressive accomplishment in “Fable II” is the computer-controlled dog that becomes your constant companion. It’s easy to become attached to this critter after he leads you to buried treasure and pounces on fallen enemies. Brain-dead characters controlled by artificial intelligence are a regular hallmark in gaming, but your dog manages to be lifelike, autonomous and cute as a button.

The game’s interface is remarkably easy to use. RPGs are infamous for clunky, complicated menus and endless grids of inventory items. “Fable II” uses the four directions on the controller’s D-pad to select items and actions that change according to the context in the game; a simple and elegant solution.

Social interactions are used in “Fable II” to win favors from the opposite sex, gain renown and influence people’s opinions of your character. Instead of the traditional list of dialog choices favored by many RPGs, “Fable II” opts for a graphical wheel of icons, always a button press away, representing emotional categories like love, anger, humor and others.

After selecting a category, the D-pad displays choices onscreen. The process still takes the player out of the moment but it’s a great deal less disruptive than a list of canned dialog responses.

Your character can live and raise a family in a home or rent it out to make the extra money you’ll need to buy tantalizing, fancy weapons. The property costs and rent fluctuate according to market conditions — just like in real life.

Of course, if bandits in the area are driving land values down in your neighborhood, you can always kill them. Prices will then rebound.

You can play the game without delving too deeply into the hours of social and economic tinkering, but the experience is considerably more engrossing and nuanced if you go beyond the sword fights and quests.

If the socioeconomic aspects sound a little too much like life — which we're trying to escape, after all — the pageant of beasties, bandits and sorcerers you get to decimate with might and magic supply plenty of excitement.

“Fable II” includes a split-screen co-op mode where your character, with all their earned powers and weapons, can be joined by a disappointingly generic “Henchman” to double-team foes. Online co-op, available as an Xbox Live download feature, should fare better since both players bring their full-fledged characters to the party.

The most intriguing online components are the blue orbs scattered throughout Albion. Each represents a real player connected to Xbox Live with whom you can chat and trade in-game goods. It’s up to you whether you see everybody in the game, your friends, or no one at all.

Even if you go it alone, there are a lifetime of quests, battles, meals, marriages, pet care and magical powers awaiting; depending on how you roll, you could add murder, divorce, gluttony and other nasty actions to the list.

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Video: Trailer: 'Fable II'

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