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Birthday Honours

As with The Queen, I feel it my duty to recognise those that have impressed me over the last twelve months and so I welcome you to the second annual BIGsheep Birthday Honours.

For services to music: Rock Band 2

I used to think the solo guitar experience was exhilarating, making you feel like an instant rock star. However, as I have already stated this week there were few experiences last year better than playing in your own plastic band. This iteration on the series builds on its already strong core, whilst the drums and the copious amount of downloadable songs have been a revolution to me, revitalised my interest in this genre.

For services to the Capital Wasteland: Fallout 3

If there was one game in 2008 that I had to force myself to put down as I was in danger of forsaking all others, that game would be Fallout 3. Some may have found the desolate wasteland they were wandering through a chore, I regarded it as a mammoth game of hide and seek. Over each ridge or round the next canyon turn you never knew what you were going to find, from crashed UFOs to museums dedicated to fizzy drinks. The sheer scale of the game was inspiring.

For services against the undead: Left 4 Dead

Despite my original muted response towards Left 4 Dead, the zombie apocalypse has grown on me. It is a game where no story is needed, your goals are obvious and tight teamwork is rewarded. This simplicity is its strength with new players able to delve right in and get just as much from it as grizzled veterans.

For services to engineering: Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts

Not only does it feature one Trophy Thomas, but also the ultimate Lego set. Once you reach a certain point in the game a light bulb flicks on inside your head and all sorts of crazy ideas begin churning out. To add to my trebuchet, Thundertank, Thunderbird 2 and Seaking, I’ve seen ferris wheels, walking robots, space shuttles and a myriad more creations that make you realise what a flexible toolset you have at your disposal.

For services to puzzlement: Professor Layton and the Curious Village

A delightful DS game that takes a different slant on point-and-click adventuring, combining some devious logic puzzles with a colourful brand of animation. The whole game oozes charm, from a village that is populated with those obsessed with testing your brain to Professor Layton’s nemesis who would prefer you out the way so he can presumably have all the puzzles to himself.

Honourable mentions

Whilst they may be my Top 5 games of the year, I do think a few others deserve the nod.

The continued presence of Halo and Rainbow Six: Vegas should be appreciated. Excluding those with zombies, no shooter has come close to dislodging these pair as firm favourites.

In terms of controlling green clad pixies, Zelda: Phantom Hourglass for me was second only to Link to the Past in terms of enjoyment. A great debut on the DS for Link.

Mirror’s Edge would be held in far higher esteem if only the combat wasn’t so frustrating. For me this has great parallels with Sands of Time; if only enemies were completely removed from both games then I would champion them to anyone who would listen.

Although there seems a backlash for Fable II, I still really loved it for what it was. There may be no sandbox world on the scale of Oblivion but I liked what it did for it did it really well.

Review: Fable II

One of my main issues with the original Fable was that the “are you good or evil?” premise was never fully realised. You could be bad, true, but it never had any more effect on your experience than causing people to run away muttering something about that messy rampage that may have accidentally taken place last week. The world changing shifts, however, just weren’t evident.

The sequel to Lionhead’s action-RPG begins with a very subtle and engaging tutorial. Wandering around a snow covered old town, basic mechanics are explained and the story is unveiled. Early quests are constructed in such a way as to allow a nice or nasty path to completion, or even a hint of both. For instance, whilst clearing a warehouse of bugs a leering old man offers gold in return for the destruction of the stock. Certainly a tempting offer and an indication of how a personalised moral maze can be mapped through the land of Albion.

Choices will affect more than just how citizens react a hero’s presence. There are key moments that can affect the look and feel of the land itself. Helping or hindering a lawman will see a suburb flourish or sink into disrepair; not donating to a renovation fund for a remote village could cause it to be taken over by criminal elements; and turning a blind eye to bandits in the forest early may allow them to run riot.

Realising that these differences are down to your actions (or lack of) can be quite striking. Though knowing a community has been condemned or helped can only truly be appreciated if you are either in constant chatter with friends going down different paths or are willing to play through Fable II multiple times.

Whilst these grander effects are clearly evident, more minor inter-person misdemeanours are seldom as weighty or permanent. Most can be laughed off with a quick jig or arm pump meaning that some negative actions can be performed time and time again without fear of reprisal, causing a disconnect from the larger principle of Fable.

The main story line is even less affected by a player’s behaviour and is played out extremely weakly, possibly to cover this fact. Whether you create the biggest, baddest, most corrupt and ugliest son-of-a-balverine that the poor citizens of Albion have ever happened upon or a character on a path that will ultimately see you walking on water, the main quest will continue undeterred.

Alignment does, however, open up different side-quests and whether they are enough to replay the whole experience is down to personal tastes. Following the path of righteousness has its benefits whilst the darker route definitely offers more comedic highs. Nowhere else can offer Social Displacement missions (“’kidnapping’ didn’t poll very well with the public”) or enlistment into the Temple of Shadows (where the Wheel of Misfortune keeps its members happy until poker night).

Personally, this is where the strength Fable comes from: in the distractions that it has to offer. Much like the framework set out by other open games, if progress in the storyline is tough then choose from a wide variety of additional activities. Try some socialising, economic expansion or just some simple light hearted side-quests. Hours would literally pass by before I remembered about the main quest and I would have to excuse my current activity (usually Gargoyle hunting), grab my sword and head off into the forest.

For the vast majority of my initial playthrough, I spent my time starting a family and providing for them through my ever-expanding business empire. Getting my wife Jessica the Farmer to notice me at first was easy enough, with a few heroic poses and dance moves gestured in her direction, but wooing a fine maiden comes at a price. So came the graft at local jobs (wooding cutting, blacksmithing and bar tending, which all come in the form of a mini-game to raise cash) to buy her presents and overtime at the chopping block filled my purse enough to buy a quaint cottage on the outskirts of town. Not content with that, we saved enough gold to buy the fruit and veg stall on our doorstep and slowly the profits from that went into buying up half the village.

For Fable to turn out to be a wannabe-property-mogul’s dream was surprising. Investing in the housing market is a sure-fire way to earn money, with rent being collected every few minutes. This is offset by having to pay maintenance on any families secreted about the landscape but before long money will not be an issue.

Cash on the whole is moot point, anyway. Considering the game’s scope, there aren’t that many items to buy from the world’s shops with only a comparatively modest selection of weapons and clothing. If Too Human had too much loot then Fable sits at the opposite end of the spectrum with not enough variety to make characters feel truly unique. A hero will know which getup best suits them so don’t expect to be rooting round dungeons or stalls at midnight expecting to find a hidden gem of an epic hat.

Whenever that pesky matter of saving the world does crop up a solid quest line is presented, throwing bandits, goblin-like Hobbes, ninjas and werewolf-esque Balverines around liberally. No fear, though, as each hero comes equipped with a melee attack, some form of ranged weaponry and a bag full of magic at their disposal. Each is assigned to their own button respectively and fights play out as you see fit, bashing on the attack of your choice.

Extra abilities and combos can be bought and upgraded by spending accumulated XP to open up a more interesting brand of combat. Initially my hero started out as a brawler but as time went on I unlocked the ability to raise a horde of the undead to do my bidding and swamp my foes. Eventually I stepped away from necromancy and I finished my heroic career as a marksman with the skill to snipe a man in the crotch at a hundred paces.

The melee and ranged combat are reasonably standard no matter what weapon is being wielded and so the variety will be down to the type of magic employed. Force pushes, lightning strikes, fireballs, time control and flying daggers are all on offer. Mixing and matching those on the fly is where those wanting stylish combat can truly find it and it seems that no two people have the same fighting style. Some opt for teleporting behind a target and stabbing them in the back whilst others have the common decency to at least flame them face to face.

It would be nice to think that these skills could be shared with a friend in drop-in/drop-out co-op but I would not recommend it. Fixed to the primary player’s camera view, co-op partners are limited to making expressions and bashing people over the head, all with a character that has no resemblance to your hero, too. The whole premise is far too limiting to be a worthwhile experience.

Fable II to me is like Crackdown: a game where I loved being involved in a journey through a world from the beginning to the end. However, now I’m done I’d prefer to start over rather than tour that same world now it’s been saved. Aside from the very poor payoff for doing so, I loved building up a reputation, taking my first steps to owning all the property in the city and generally fighting my way up from the bottom of the pile. When the biggest boss in the game has been defeated, what else is there to do?

Restarting is not something that would be a chore, either. After you’ve played Molyneux’s game through once you’ll want to try and explore the avenues that you missed, both in the world and in your moral judgement. What would happen if I joined that dark cult? If I were faster to that person’s aid could I have saved them? Where is that last blasted Gargoyle? Don’t expect stories to be rewritten but there is enough charm and depth to make it well worth your while.

9/10

First Impressions: Fable II

After Peter Molyneux started rating his own game before it had been launched, I began having a few worries that we were going down the route that Dennis Dyack took with Too Human. Both developers have been known to occassionally talk a little too much but the difference here is that Fable II actually seems to be worthy of your attention.

Lionhead’s new title really has its hooks in me and I’m currently running around Albion raising a family, setting up a thriving business portfolio and occassionally even finding the time to go and bash some fat goblins over the head. If you’re looking for a box quote: it’s like Oblivion but with character.

That’s true, too. As great a feat as Oblivion was, I always felt it was always a little flat. Fable may be smaller in terms of scale but the game’s softer, caricatured style can be equally both more friendly and much darker, leading to a more engaging world.

He, you'll not be surprised to hear, isn't friendly.

If you’ve played the first game then the feel is very similar but with one big positive in that the combat has been reworked and streamlined. Very much like Force Unleashed, you have three different weapons linked to three different buttons allowing you to easily swap to a fighting style that is suitable to your situation without having to learn countless combos. Although effectively one-button combat, it never feels overly limited as you have the option to pull many magical spells from your bag to liven things up should you so wish – making a horde of zombies rise and do your bidding is always useful.

For me, the sign of a good game is one where you keep getting distracted from what you originally intended to be doing. Older GTAs have had that and so does Fable as my march towards the next quests gets put on the “to do” list as an interesting path takes my attention, which then leads to a new village to explore, which leads to new jobs, and the job to a different quest, and is that an attractive maiden over there….where was I?

The one utter disappointment, though, is co-op as it is fundamentally broken. At any point you can jump into a friend’s game. This may sound cracking but when you do jump in you are playing a nameless henchmen and not your hero, you are constrained to their camera view making for extremely restrictive movement and you cannot interact with any of the characters or shops. It is frustrating and utterly unproductive as you cannot do anything without coordinating movements with the main player. Any one of those on their own would prove annoying but the mere fact you cannot move around freely means that I am never touching co-op again, usually a feature that elevates a title in my eyes.

That aside, Molynuex’s score may be right, it’s probably why he marked himself down.