When it launched in 2004, Fable might not have turned the action role-playing genre on its head, but it was definitely a rewarding and imaginative adventure and one of the best Xbox-exclusive role-playing games. One of the highlights of Fable was the ability to guide your hero down the path of good or evil and see how his appearance and reputation changed with the choices you made.
Four years on and it's time for another adventure in Albion. We had a chance to sit down with the near-finished game and its designer, industry legend Peter Molyneux, at a recent event in central London. Five hundred years have passed in the storyline, since the fabled Hero of Oakvale defeated the Jack of Blades in the original, and it seems Albion is again in desperate need of a hero. As was the case in Fable, you'll take the role of a child at the beginning of a game, and you can choose to be a boy or a girl. We started off as Little Sparrow, a poor young boy who seems to be orphaned along with his sister, Rose. Living on the streets of Bowerstone is hard, but the kids are harder, wittier, and more streetwise than children their age should be. They won't have to do it alone, either, because early on they'll earn the gratitude of a stray mutt, which will follow them faithfully, it seems, whether they like it or not.
Soon into the action you'll meet Murgo, a trader offering all sorts of useless treasures, except for the one that catches the attention of the children--a music box that's said to give a wish to whomever uses it. Scoffing at the notion, Rose is told by a mysterious woman called Theresa that the music box is in fact magical and is worth far more than the asking price of five gold coins. To get your adventure off to a start you'll need to complete a few quests in town to earn the coins and buy the box.
The first quest required us to help a nearby guard whose arrest warrants have blown away in the wind. You'll need to track down the warrants, thereby protecting Bowerstone from a number of ruffians, including Leroy "Unremarkable" Stone (aka Leroy-ten-fingers, Leroy-one-nose, Leroy-two-eyes, Leroy-has-hair, or Leroy-is-alive), who is wanted for "suspicious though otherwise unremarkable behaviour." If you're unsure where to go at any point, there is a trail of gold dust that indicates where you have to go in your current quest. Around town you'll also need to find a tramp's stolen grog, deliver a clandestine love letter, and clear a warehouse from some pesky beetles by using a ranged weapon--in this case a popgun. It should come as no surprise that in a shady town like Bowerstone you'll be given two options for each quest: either to help the quest giver or to accept an offer from an adversary (such as the drunk's wife who asks you to give her the bottle and help her husband on the path to soberness, or the lover's mother who wants to stop her daughter from marrying that "good fer nothing" slob). Each decision you make will incrementally increase, or decrease, your favour with fellow citizens.
Early on you'll learn of Lord Lucien, the ruler of Bowerstone, who lives in a remarkable castle high above the town. It seems Rose's wish is to live in such a castle, and with the help of the music box her dream may come true sooner than expected. Without revealing details of the plot, you'll soon fast-forward to adulthood--as you did in Fable--where Theresa reveals that it's time for your epic quest to begin.
In a gypsylike camp on the outskirts of Bowerstone it appears our Little Sparrow has become a man and even has his own caravan. Given that we were about to embark on such an epic journey and it might be some time before we came back to the camp, we decided to rent out the caravan, earning gold every five minutes in the process. According to Lionhead, you'll earn gold even when your Xbox 360 is turned off. If you forget to play the game for a few weeks you might find your coin bag overflowing when you come back to Albion, but thankfully there's something to do with all that money. In addition to buying the usual weapons, upgrades, clothes, and items, you'll be able to buy, sell, and rent properties. In fact, Molyneux told us you can become very well off buying properties all over Albion then leasing them back to the citizens, which is good because it will apparently take 15 million gold coins in the game's currency to buy everything for sale in the game.
Interacting with the people of Albion is always an amusing pastime, and so we headed back to Bowerstone to see how things had changed since childhood. While it was business as usual in town, characters remembered us from the past, and the choices we made earlier in the game still reverberated (such as the guard who was promoted thanks to our help). While waiting for Theresa to continue our quest, we decided to get a job at the nearby blacksmith shop. We started out as a level-one smithy and tried our hand at a minigame that involves striking an anvil at the right time using an onscreen meter. After forging a few swords, we'd earned a few gold pieces and received a promotion. As you get promoted through a total of five levels, your wage increases with your skill. Once we'd pocketed a bit of spare cash, we quit and then interacted with a few of our fellow citizens.
If you've played Fable before you know you'll have a wide range of expressions, including flirting, mocking, laughing, posing, and farting. You'll also be able to express your pleasure or displeasure with a few commands to your faithful dog; while exploring the wide-open spaces, he'll sniff out buried treasures of all sorts, including books to teach him new tricks. You'll then be able to access these commands from the expression menu, such as playing fetch with a ball or getting him to hop like a rabbit. When interacting with others you can choose from standard expressions and extendable expressions, which are indicated by an "e" next to the expression's icon.
Extended expressions are performed much like the minigame we saw as a blacksmith. A white dot and coloured line rotate back and forth within a semicircular reticle, and the goal is to release the button while the dot and line overlap. As you hold down the button, the line gradually shrinks, making it more difficult to time it right. However, the longer you hold the button the greater the result. If you get the timing right you'll earn less favour, or potentially even soil yourself if attempting to perform a fart. It seems that we've just scratched the surface in the number of expressions, jobs, and colourful people you can discover throughout the game.
Of course, it wouldn't be Fable if you couldn't wreak havoc in town and evoke fear in the hearts of the townspeople. When you get caught breaking the law in Fable II, you'll choose between resisting arrest, accepting a fine, or undertaking community service. We decide to accept the latter, which involves a small quest, such as clearing beetles from a cellar, and also helps to restore some of your cred with the common folk.
Fable II doesn't appear to stray too far from the original, but with the addition of numerous jobs, minigames, properties to buy and sell, and what looks to be a solid multiplayer mode, fans should have plenty to do. This is, of course, in addition to the single-player campaign, which Molyneux estimates will take around 10 hours to complete if you rush through without experiencing the full gamut of what's possible. Fable was two and a half hours by comparison. Ambient orbs, which we didn't get a chance to experience, allow you to jump in and out of friends' worlds over Xbox Live at ease, promising to extend the gameplay even further. Fable II will be heading to Europe on October 24 and to North America on October 21. Stay tuned to GameSpot for more on the game as it approaches.