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New Fable 2 Screenshots and Brief Impressions

The soothing British voice floating in over my shoulder scared me out of my mind.

"Oh, you missed such an opportunity there."

I had been playing Fable II for hours, headphones clamped around my skull like horse blinders. How long had he been watching? Had he always been there, on my shoulder, whispering in my ear, trying to guide me? nope "If you hadn't married her, you could have taken her back to the ghost and killed her in front of him."

"I thought I'd try playing it good for a change," I explained to the evil Peter "Jiminy" Molyneux.

"Ah, but is that really good?"

He had a point. She had broken off her wedding with the deceased, ruining his life, sending him to an early grave. Why should she get a happy ending?

But I didn't have much time to consider these moral quandaries, as many as there are in Lionhead's RPG sequel. Series creator Molyneux had given us an open-ended three hours to delve into the game, so I chose the speed-run approach, blasting through as much content as possible.

Of course, as it turns out, Fable II starts slowly. Your childish appearance is matched by the basic tasks you are given--talk to this person, find these pieces of paper, repeat.

The opening would be a disappointing bore if not for the beauty of the environment. Fable II feels much more like a fairy tale than Fable ever did. It's also much more British, a welcome source of real-world, grounded inspiration for a fantasy game. Watching the snow blanket the Renaissance-era cityscape, I felt transported, rather than alienated.

Despite the dull nature of the introduction gameplay, it's all over quickly enough. After a major plot point, which I am not at liberty to spoil, the game fast-forwards your character to young adulthood. I spent the rest of my time in this phase of development: running quests, exploring the world, and leveling up my young adventurer.

Rather than a back-to-basics overhaul, Fable II seems a more iterative approach. This is a Fable game, but polished and fleshed out in a way that the first was not. In addition to the main storyline, there are a multitude of features to keep players busy, including job minigames, side quests, random encounters, marriage dilemmas, and a canine companion to keep watch over.

Marriage, property management and the dog were the highlights of the sideshow attractions. The dog is probably one of the more charming AI sidekicks put into a game--just watching his tongue loll out of his mouth was a compelling effect. Marriage also seemed an entertaining affair; at one point I received a notice from my wife calling me back home, her status update reading, "Wants sex."

The jobs are probably the weakest of these distractions. Gigs such as blacksmithing and woodcutting present the player with identical minigames, a timing-based task that is repeated over and over. Though these games weren't ever frustrating, I can't imagine spending time to master them over mastering a new spell.

On the plus side, beating up those monsters is a fun time. Each face button is mapped to a different type of attack--X is melee, Y is ranged, and B is magic. It's a simple approach, but is made more complicated by the leveling of skills across all three branches. Even with basic sword combat, the animations are context-sensitive, leading to monsters being thrown off of bridges or dispatched with a slow-motion flourish.

Much has been made of Fable II's breadcrumb trail, a system designed to eliminate the necessity of a mini-map. The game instead lays a golden trail at your feet, which leads you toward your next quest. In my experience, this mechanic worked quite well--if the trail faded, I simply had to stand still for a short momen, the crumbs reappearing about as fast as it would take to glance at a minimap.

The result of this is a much cleaner screen through which to view the world of Albion. And as a world, Albion is now idyllic to an extreme. Walking through a forest, sun beams blasting through the leaves, a lilting oboe and harp-heavy score, I frequently forgot what I was actually doing. I found myself pausing frequently to explore the detailed landscape and take it all in.

Nothing about my time with Fable II set off any alarms. Just the opposite, it finally had me getting excited about playing the completed version. From an RPG standpoint, the early moments present a more focused, better-paced adventure than found in the original Fable. From a Molyneux perspective, the game's various features seem more complete and entertaining--if still mostly optional.

Fable II is set for an October 21 release on Xbox 360.