Review: 'Fable II' Simply Fantastic

Peter Molyneux is one of the video-game industry's most enthusiastic promoters, always pushing the boundaries of what games can accomplish.

He's generally credited with inventing the "god game" with 1989's "Populous" (to which this year's "Spore" owes an incalculable debt), and his other successes include "Syndicate," "Dungeon Keeper," "Black & White" and "The Movies."

Molyneux has also developed a reputation for biting off more than he can chew.

Before the 2004 release of "Fable," for example, he crowed, "It's gonna be the best game ever."

A few months later, he famously apologized for promising features that the final product didn't deliver.

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Over the last few years, Molyneux's been talking a lot about "Fable II" (Microsoft, for the Xbox 360, $59.99). But this time, he's throttled back the hype and talked about features only when he was confident that they would appear in the game.

"I hope you're going to say, 'This is a lot more than what I expected,"' he told one British gaming Web site.

As one of those players who found "Fable" somewhat disappointing, I'm happy to say "Fable II" is, indeed, a lot more than what I expected.

It delivers on most of what Molyneux promised the first time around, presenting a living, breathing world filled with adventure.

It's not perfect — which Molyneux has already acknowledged — but it is one of the most absorbing experiences you can have on an Xbox 360.

Your first choice is simple: Do you want to play as a boy or a girl?

Then you're dumped on the snowy streets of a Dickensian town called Bowerstone, where you and your sister, Rose, scrounge for coins.

After rescuing a puppy and cranking up a magic music box, you and Rose are summoned by the mysterious Lord Lucien — who promptly murders Rose and tries to kill you.

Ten years later, you're a teenager with a mission: Avenge your sister.

Your journey covers a vast, exquisitely detailed world filled with verdant fields, bustling cities and deadly dungeons, with dozens of missions leading up to your final confrontation with Lucien.

The setting, a planet called Albion, is the most immediately striking feature of "Fable II."

The landscape changes constantly, not just from night to day but from season to season. You can communicate with nearly everyone you meet, and you can enter every building in Albion.

As with any role-playing game, your character evolves as the game proceeds: Your attacks get stronger, you learn more powerful spells and you can afford better equipment.

In "Fable II," though, your moral choices are also reflected. Strangers react differently if you have a bad reputation, and real evildoers develop nasty skin problems.

You can also get married, buy a house and have kids, or have affairs with as many villagers as you can seduce. (Beware, though: Venereal disease is a real threat.)

Still, the most important relationship you'll have in Albion is with that dog you rescued in Act I. He's one of the most delightful creatures ever seen in a video game, a supporting character with more personality than most games' lead characters.

The animators at Molyneux's Lionhead Studios have clearly spent a lot of time studying dog behavior, because this mutt acts like the real thing.

And he's an invaluable companion, sniffing out buried treasure, growling when enemies approach and lending a paw when battles get heated.

"Fable II" doesn't have the most original plot. It often feels like a potpourri of elements from every fantasy epic you've ever read, from "The Odyssey" and "The Arabian Nights" to "The Lord of the Rings" and the Harry Potter series.

But genre fans are just as likely to appreciate the references as to be annoyed by them; there's even a clever shout-out to last year's great science-fiction adventure "BioShock."

More problematic, the combat is a bit simplistic: You press one button for melee attacks (swords, axes), one button for ranged attacks (guns, crossbows) and one button for magic.

Likewise, most of the dungeons are a little too straightforward for battle-hardened role-playing fans. And as beautiful as Albion is, you'll spend a lot of time simply roaming in search of your next quest.

Nonetheless, I really got sucked into the world of "Fable II."

It doesn't reinvent the RPG, but it does make the genre accessible to newcomers while providing more than enough action to satisfy the most demanding aficionado.

It's nearly irresistible. Three-and-a-half stars out of four.