Microsoft's magnificent role-playing sword-and-sorcery sequel Fable II (Lionhead: rated M; Xbox 360 exclusive) is all about choice. It's up to you to explore the limits of value and morality.
During the quests in the vast mythical medieval land of Albion, your decisions dictate what sort of good or evil person you become, plus determines your skills and appearance.
Beyond the swordplay and magical quests, you can marry, have children, make money, buy a house and business and be a good person - complete with a faint halo. Characters can even sleep around (condoms or not condoms? - they're found lying in the dirt) with either gender, drive people mad and carry out a range of evil, criminal misdeeds including murder and slavery. By that time, you have literally grown horns.
You start as a Dickens-type poor street orphan with the reigning dignitary hauling you off to his castle and slaying your sister as soon as he detects a scent of magic in her blood.
You fast forward a decade, meet a wise woman who gives you instructions on the meaning of life and in the art of magic. You waken your heroic abilities and rekindle the magic of your forebears and set off on the trail for vengeance.
The ethical choices you make are obvious to see as they have an impact when you observe the neighbourhood, high shop prices lead to a sour public opinion but lower rents mean greater town profitability.
Game creator, Peter Molyneux, of Black & White fame, always intended Fable to be the ultimate in the 'god' game genre that he is credited with starting but the original, four years ago, never quite lived up to the hype.
This time it feels as if he has finally figured out how to succeed in creating an absorbing, more adult and much darker game in which you get totally lost in your characters life and its development all the while easily mistaking it for real life situations.
An important character in the game is a dog who becomes your friendly, trusted companion and aids you throughout your quest. After a while, you forget it's a computerised animal as the dog convincingly helps you locate treasure, fight off enemies and snarls when someone is sneaking up on you. You can train and educate not only your dog, but yourself, in disciplines such as trade or black smithing.
Fable II is also a breakthrough in solving the annoying interface issues typical of such RPGs. Selecting expressions has been simplified by using the D pad and instead of the usual on-screen text dialogue options you have to click on, there are wheels of icons with your choice simply activated by moving the thumbstick and pressing a button. That way, you can love or loathe any character you meet along the way, or just dismiss him (if you opted for the female character).
Visually, this game has etched fond memories in my mind, of lakes and lush grounds, bump mapping and monsters. The European dialogue is highly professional and carries throughout the game. Whilst the game is beautiful, there are few slowdowns and you can move rapidly through the terrain.
That's the good news, now for the frustrations.
Five hours in, the game froze for me. The disc was still spinning but I could get no more. It crashed big-time. I lost my game and started with a new profile (only one save per profile) with no other alternative. But to start all over again with a new character is heart-wrenching for those who absorb themselves in such fantasy games. None of the testing could redeem the game as it suddenly took a horrible turn where every time I loaded up there would be a minute of game before the end. The error was odd but there's a first time for everything.
Not good enough, Lionhead, to release the game with such a dramatic fun-stopping bug. Hurry up and put out a patch so we can all get on with it and finish the 15 hours or so of idyllic gameplay.
Because I couldn't progress further into game, aside from the disappointment, I have to mark it down from an otherwise near-perfect game.
MadGamer's rating: 8.5 / 10
Gears of War II
360 fans need to play it now because Gears of War II is only days away (well November 7) from release. I've played a 2 hour preview and on the next-gen console, it's gob-smacking and armed to the hilt with crass individuals, powerful weaponry, a decent storyline and cinematics, as hoped. What's more, this is an even gorier on-the-edge third person shooter with the story set six months after the original.
The underground Locust Horde have not only survived but become stronger and a disease called 'rust lung' has wiped out most fighters, with Jacinto being the last standing settlement the humans have left. There are new weapons, a faster pace, five-player co-op, a deathmatch mode that lets you team up with a mate to take on other tag-teams. The next-gen graphics uses an improved Unreal 3 engine with little to no slowdown and impressive detail on textures as well as smoothing and fading to achieve maximum frames in gameplay.
Get a taste of it here:
What's on your buying list for the next month?