The idea behind Fable 2 Pub Games is a Peter Molyneux special: gamble fictional cash and one day you can merge your Pub Games drunkard profile with your Fable 2 hero profile for a wodge of extra green on the streets of Albion. Or in this case gold. Pub Games will be bundled with Fable 2 - the standard and special editions - and is also available as a pre-order incentive for people who pick the game up at specific retailers, including branches of GAME in the UK. (Update: Lionhead now says something's up with this and codes aren't being distributed after all. We'll look into it.)
The question we've got to answer today though is whether Fable 2 Pub Games is good enough to stand alone, which is what it does on Xbox Live Arcade: you may be able to get it for free elsewhere, but otherwise it costs 800 Microsoft Points, or the equivalent of GBP 6.80 / EUR 9.60. Does it do enough to justify that?
Booting it up, you're presented with the choice of six playable characters, each with a fancy Robin Hood-style wanted poster avatar, and there are six "Hero" slots to fill as well, which is where your Fable 2 characters will be offered. Once you've made this initially arbitrary choice, you'd best head to the Tutorials page to get acquainted with the three gambling mini-games on offer.
Each of them is unique to Fable 2 Pub Games, but fairly familiar. Spinnerbox, for example, is a slots machine where you specify how much gold you want to bet and then spin the box to try and match symbols and bank prize money. The number of spinning symbols varies from box to box and there are a range of bonus variables, along with a winnings calculator to help you manage your bets.
Keystone, meanwhile, is a variation on roulette or craps. A keystone bridge is assembled over a semi-circular board, and each of the bricks in the arch is given a number between 1 and 18. You stack your chips on the bricks, and in segmented areas beneath them, and then win or lose cash based on the roll of three dice.
The third and final game is called Fortune's Tower, and is a bit more unusual. You place an initial bet and then three cards are laid out - one is face down, while the other two are face up in a row beneath it. You then blindly lay additional rows and get the option to bank the total number they add up to in gold.
The element of risk is that every time a card in the new row lines up diagonally with the same number in the previous row, it burns out and potentially ends the game. The only things that can rescue you are that single, face-down card at the top of the pyramid, which swoops in to save the day (providing it too isn't a match for a card in the previous row), and special hero cards, which save the entire row from any problems with diagonals.
There are a few potential pitfalls with all this. The obvious one is that, if you make tons of gold, it could unbalance Fable 2's difficulty curve - even in a game that hopes to be extremely open-ended. Of course, we won't be able to judge the impact of a pile of free money until Fable 2 itself launches on 24th October, but if our Pub Games experience (mountains of debt!) is anything to go by, only the lucky few will get to find out whether it breaks Lionhead's opus.
More worrying is that all three of the games are very simple once you've absorbed the windy tutorials, and that none of them boasts accompanying depth. There are a few strategies you can adopt to achieve greater gains (don't keep going in Fortune's Tower when you've used up the card at the top and you're already set to make a bit of money, for instance), but for the most part these are games of chance with the odds stacked against you. Just as it is down the pub.
There's a Tournament mode, in which you can compete against the AI over several rounds, but no online multiplayer. There are leaderboards (it's a technical requirement for XBLA games, remember), but whether you will be able to take much pride in achieving a big tournament total is debatable. The most fun we had was fluking a victory against the AI by placing ludicrously large bets in Fortune's Tower.
Virtually the only other things of note are the 200 Gamerpoints you can unlock by questing after the Achievements (in theory this means Fable 2 is worth 1200 out of the box, since Pub Games comes free - assuming that's the way it's bundled), and the 15 unlockable "unique" items you can then transfer into Fable 2. These include plaited hair, backflip training for your dog, some tattoos, a couple of weapons and a magical ring.
It's difficult to argue that these represent an 800 Microsoft Points value (the phrase "horse armour" springs to mind), and, overall, it would be impossible to argue that Fable 2 Pub Games represents value for that money. The marriage of XBLA and boxed game is a nice idea, but the Pub Games themselves are lightweight and boring, and the potential benefits for Fable 2 players are the sorts of things typically bundled on Collector's Edition bonus disks in the first place - and typically overlooked by the majority of players who can think of better ways to spend the extra money. Down the pub, for instance. If you're looking at this without an eye to buying Fable 2, definitely don't bother. If you're itching for Fable 2 and can't resist, make sure you take advantage of a pre-order deal. Either way its inoffensive composition isn't enough to escape censure.