>Fable 2 / Saints Row 2 / A brief meditation on Tim Schaffer

>If I were forced by some unseen, uncaring editorial hand to describe my initial impressions of Fable 2 in only one word, I think that word would be: sluggish. But I would also have to then try to say that it feels a bit unfinished, specifically in terms of the audio, which constantly feels like it’s going in and out and is either too quiet or is flailing about trying to catch up to the on-screen action. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that the graphics aren’t really that impressive; the art direction is superb, as always, but it doesn’t necessarily feel all that removed from last-gen’s Fable I. And yet, here’s the thing; I ended up playing it until WAY past my bedtime last night, and I had non-stop Fable-y dreams right up until my alarm clock went off this morning.

But back to the sluggish thing. This is kind of a big deal, and it may end up being a deal-breaker if the game’s story doesn’t end up being all that interesting. Your hero character’s default walking speed is just a bit too slow, which means you have to press A to run everywhere, which feels unnecessary and cumbersome. Engaging in dialogues with NPCs is tricky, too – it takes the game a while to catch up to what’s happening on screen. The dynamic “objective trail” is especially laggy at random intervals, which means it’s distracting instead of helpful.

And yet, as I said above: I was still strangely captivated by it all, and I’m eager to get back into it. I’m playing as a good guy (as I pretty much always do during my first go-round in one of these morality-based RPGs), and I’m sure I’ll want to play it again as a bastard when I’m done.

Just the other day, I was reading this Kotaku thing where Peter Molyneux compared Fable 2 to Oblivion:

Well, Oblivion was a fantastic achievement. But for me, that was a true ‘blood and guts’ RPG. There was an initial dungeon that you went through that was fantastic — but then you came out into that open world, and I just thought: “What the hell do you do now? Where do you go? Who am I? What do I stand for? Who am I against?” And there was this huge, vast rolling story. And to finish Oblivion would take sixty or seventy hours.

…So in Fable 2, the story lasts thirteen to fourteen hours and by the end of that story what you are like, what you look like and how the world treats you is completely up to you. If you want to be evil or good or kind or cruel, then that’s totally up to you. With Oblivion it was basically all about me killing things.

…In Oblivion you were just a hero. You couldn’t do anything else, other than be a hero. In Fable 2 if you want to be a gigolo and go out and chat up everybody in the world, and have three wives (or ‘one in every port’) and have sex all over the place, then fine! Of course, you will have consequences to that. You might pick up a social disease.

Interesting points, all. But I’ll also say this: it’s certainly true that you can do all those things in Fable 2, but they’re not necessarily fun, and the truth of the matter is that Fable 2’s user interface is incredibly clunky and, as mentioned before, sluggish. The social interaction thingy takes just enough time to load when you hit RB to be somewhat annoying, so instead of farting or showing off or giving a thumbs-up, I kinda just want to go to the next objective. What I found so captivating about Oblivion is that I really could do whatever I want, and the gameworld itself was incredibly immersive. Fable 2, on the other hand, is constantly reminding you of all the things you can do in it; it’s telling you pretty much incessantly that you’re playing a game, which absolutely suspends your disbelief.

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Meanwhile, I’m also in the middle of enjoying Saints Row 2, which also suffers a bit from a lack of polish but is still fun as hell. It too reminds you that you’re playing a game, but this is actually kinda refreshing. Where GTA4 was serious as all hell, SR2 is completely insane.

Here’s the main thing about SR2 that I love. In GTA4 – as with all GTA games – I feel a sense of pressure to play the game correctly. It’s true that you can do all sorts of crazy things, but when I’m going through the single-player campaign I feel obligated to not get too ahead of myself; I stick to the story, and I don’t really do all the side missions until I’ve finished the story. In SR2, on the other hand, the penalties for dying and fucking up are much less severe, and you can save at any point, which means there’s considerably less pressure to do something wrong. I’ve hardly touched the main story in SR2; I’m instead doing lots of the side stuff and the activities. The city of Stillwater is still somewhat related to the one in the first game, geographically speaking; every once in a while I’ll turn a corner and realize that I sorta know where I am, which is actually kinda cool.

Still, though, it is a bit rough around the edges. Not nearly as bad as Mercs 2 in that regard, but it’s still noticeable. The driving model is a bit stiff; the graphics are a bit ugly; the “Insurance Fraud” minigame, which was one of my favorite bits in the first game, feels broken somehow in this one, or maybe I’m just not doing it right (which doesn’t make sense) – I seem to be only making money when I launch myself out of a car, and when I hurl myself in front of oncoming traffic, nothing happens.

I’m not sure how I’m going to playing either SR2 or Fable 2 when the juggernaut that is Fallout 3 hits next week (alongside a newly delayed Little Big Planet). And I also downloaded the Portal thing on XBLA this morning, even though I’ve already beaten it on 2 different platforms. AND I’ve got Dead Space on loan from Gamefly (quick impressions: Bioshock, but more startling and less interesting).

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My brief meditation on Tim Schaffer is not even really a meditation, but more of a comparison. I was thinking this morning about the developmental hell that Brutal Legend is apparently in, again, at least in terms of securing a publisher, and I remembered reading a quote from someone at EA about how Tim Schaffer’s games constitute “creative risk”, and while creative risk isn’t inherently a bad thing, it’s still risky, and a lot of publishers are not interested in taking on risk. And it occured to me that what’s happening to Tim Schaffer is very, very, almost eerily similar to what Terry Gilliam’s career has been like. Both are incredibly talented, visionary pioneers in their field; both experienced great success early in their careers as part of a larger creative ensemble; both struck out on their own and made critically lauded works of art that failed to resonate with consumers beyond a core group of diehard fans. And, as we see today, both have a very difficult time getting their work out to the public these days – Gilliam has trouble securing funding, Schaffer has trouble securing publishing – and as a result, both of these geniuses have had a limited creative output as a result. It’s maddening and frustrating; I’m a huge fan of both of these guys, and I’m powerless to help them.

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