AMBITION is something that isn't lost on Peter Molyneux. The creator of "Populous" and "Black & White" practically oozes it when he talks about his games.
When Molyneux first mentioned the original "Fable" almost six years ago, he said he wanted to create the "greatest role-playing game of all time." That was a tall order, considering projects such as "Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic" were already on their way.
But on paper, "Fable's" original concepts sounded promising if they could be executed properly. Players' avatars would age and change depending on how they fought. For example, if they used a sword, they would have bulging biceps and sport lingering battle scars. If they blasted magic, they would age prematurely because throwing fireballs uses life force.
Decisions made in the past, like massacring a village, would alter the hero's future. On top of that, the main character could endow power to any item such as a frying pan and make it a legendary weapon.
Although "Fable" failed to make good on some of those original claims, it was still a good Xbox game, despite never living up to the weight of its ambition. And now, four years later, Molyneux returns with another attempt at his dream RPG.
Fortunately for fans, "Fable II" brings his original vision closer to reality. Set in the same kingdom of Albion, the game follows a street urchin named Sparrow, who along with his sister, Rose, buys a music box that grants a wish to its owners. But instead of living in their dream home of Castle Fairfax, the siblings become prey to a power-hungry noble named Lord Lucien.
The villain invites the pair to his home and shockingly betrays them for unclear reasons.
After the ordeal, Sparrow ends up being adopted by gypsies, and depending on the sex of your character, he or she has to stop Lucien from rebuilding a structure called the Spire that could potentially destroy the world.
Saving Albion is an epic task, and it's a finale worth working toward. But "Fable II" seems to be a game about the means, not the ends.
Molyneux is more intent on focusing on Sparrow's journey and the choices players make to shape the character and world. Like a mix between Rockstar Games' "Grand Theft Auto" and Bioware's "Mass Effect," "Fable II" offers an overwhelming amount of freedom that's tied to a morality system.
While adventuring with their trusty dog, players can free villagers from slavery or keep them in servitude. They can succumb to torture and do immoral deeds or keep their honor and lose some hard-earned experience points.
But no matter what decision players make, their choices will influence Sparrow's appearance and dog. Play the game like a saint and players will endure suffering that would intimidate Job.
In the end, though, townspeople will flock to the hero, and he'll be treated like a rock star and have a halo to boot.
On the other hand, players can kill villagers, intimidate store owners for lower prices and sacrifice an innocent to demons. They can also have multiple children with multiple wives.
Those actions will create a character with chapped skin and horns atop his head.
Despite the two extremes, "Fable II" offers plenty of quests and opportunity to stay in the grayish middle. Players can take on adventures that earn them renown. Most of these involve slaying bandits, ghost pirates or balverines.
But the more interesting ones have players doing unconventional tasks, like helping a gay man find a date or helping a group reform a corrupt town. Molyneux's team, Lionhead Studios, has a wicked sense of humor, and it shows during these scenarios.
Unfortunately, there aren't enough of them. Players will often be slaying monsters with a button-mashing combat system that encourages them to use magic, melee and ranged weapons.
This is all a formula for success, but Molyneux trips up when it comes to the most important RPG-element — the story. "Fable II's" overarching plot is conventional. Although it has its moments — particularly in the Spire — the game won't make you cry. It won't be mistaken for "Knights of the Old Republic." In fact, the story isn't that memorable.
A lot of that has to do with the ending, which is anti-climactic at best. The game's finale makes "Fable II" feel truncated, leaving players without much closure.
It's an unsatisfying conclusion for a sequel that did so much right.