Fable 3 Review
Fifty years on and it's time to return to Albion, but has it really changed for the better?
Peter Molyneux has certainly never been one to shy away from the gaming media spotlight. Fueling our expectations with visions of grandeur and promising us the unattainable in hype inducing speeches at conferences and expos. In fact, it would seem that the Albion inside Mr Molyneux's mind has never really been replicated to be representative of his game's potential, or fully realised the undeniable scope of the Fable universe. Something felt strangely different this time around however.
The usual bold claims and confident predictions of pre-release gave way to a more subdued, perhaps arguably even a defeatist approach from Lionhead's head honcho. In an interview a week prior to Fable III's release, Molyneux went on record, saying that “He'd made a lot of good games, but never a great game”; even citing elements of Fable II as being “crap” and “gimmicky”. Hardly the most assuring statement for those of us hoping that the third instalment would deliver a Fable experience that didn't just teeter on greatness as previously, but finally took that illusive final plunge.
Fifty years on from its predecessor's heroic exploits, and Albion has evolved into the age of industry, although the world predominantly retains its rural fairytale essence. Locales range from the picturesque thatched roof cottages of Brightwall Village and snow-capped mountains in Mistpeak Valley, to the down-and-out entrapments of Bowerstone Industrial. As you'd expect it's the most aesthetically pleasing incarnation of Albion yet. Sunsets over towns and villages are complimented by suitably entrancing musical scores, instigating the occasional 'stop and absorb' moment to appreciate your surroundings. It will all feel very familiar to Fable fans, yet the enchanting world of Albion has always maintained a mystic and charming allure that is firmly evident here.
Whilst in design terms the world around you is nicely implemented, Fable III does suffer from some pretty apparent technical issues from time to time. Scenery will often pop in and out of focus without warning, occasionally stuttering slowdown affects certain areas at random, and the lighting effects - particularly in dark, cavernous areas - look decidedly deficient. Whilst such shortcoming are not glaringly detrimental to the game, they can detract from the otherwise engaging environments. Suffice to say though, that journeying around Albion is generally a pleasurable and vibrant experience, yet one that you'll feel acquainted with from the outset if you follow the series. In that respect don't expect any wholesale redevelopments or vastly ambitious changes in the game world; if Albion has enraptured you in the past, at least initially, it should do so once again.
The primary premise of Fable III is that of revolution. As the son/daughter of the hero from Fable II; you assume a prince or princessly role and set off on a quest to overthrow and dethrone the king (your older brother), who's tyrannical rule over Albion has caused distinct discontent amongst its inhabitants. From here on, the story bares more than a passing resemblance to that its predecessor. Where finding and recruiting the relevant heroes drove Fable II's narrative, Fable III tasks you with locating and convincing the leaders of certain peoples throughout Albion to join you in your revolutionary uprising. In terms of advancing the series, a bolder attempt to implement a more original plot device would have been beneficial here. Whereas in Fable II this concept was engaging, in the third instalment it feels like we're treading on terrain we've only recently just covered. It would be unfair to say that you'll be subjected to a completely mundane narrative however. The notion of an impending revolution sufficiently excites, albeit without achieving a great sense of epicness that such an event should do. It's a concept that would have benefited from a grander scale; a greater feeling of momentum and of impending change would have helped to distinguish what is an undeniably intriguing idea.
Interaction between characters has always been at the forefront of Fable, opting for a dose of self aware humor over pretentious Tolkienesque dialogue. It's a choice that has worked in the past, adding an extra layer of charm to proceedings and giving Fable its distinctly British comedic feel. However, an over reliance on this formula has detracted from what was originally a positive novelty. Fable III still has its moments of comic brilliance though. One quest involves an amusing parody of 'roleplaying geeks', whilst poking fun at generic villain caricatures and sloppy level design. You become shrunk down and placed inside a game that three squabbling wizards have created. Enemies appear as pop-up cardboard targets, and the dialogue between the three creators is priceless; satirizing RPG's, live roleplay and traditional 'good versus evil' yarns. Highlights such as this this though are somewhat of a rarity. Sometimes it feels that Fable III is trying too hard to be funny, and often strays into 'just for the sake of it' territory regarding the joke elements. There are some great moments, but too many times you might be left thinking that in terms of scriptwriting, Fable III is a bit of a one trick pony.
Luckily we're treated to some (for English audiences at least) recognizable voice talent which helps the dialogue on its way. The Omni-present butler Jasper is played by national treasure John Cleese; the ex-python delivering his vocals in a typically gusto fashion, with the face of evil industrialization Reaver enthusiastically portrayed (contradictorily, to but to great effect) by the lovable Stephen Fry. Jonathan Ross also pops up with a cameo performance before meeting and abrupt end. Molyneux has obviously gone for staunchly English and familiar cast members, and it's nice to see them approaching videogame acting with such exuberant and animated performances. Although skeptics might cite the inclusion of Cleese, Fry and Ross as being more of a gimmick than being genuinely favorable, their appearances are in truth, well warranted. With the established Fable humor becoming in danger of burning itself out, perhaps its fitting that these stalwarts of British Broadcasting are on hand help out.
Core gameplay is once again built around the mechanic of primary and side quests, the latter being initiated by conversing with the various citizens of Albion. Both primary and secondary objectives allow your hero to gather Guild Seals, which effectively replace the orb gathering of Fable II and act as a tool for powering up your character. Although the most numerically astute method of seal collecting lies in the main, plot driven tasks, you'll want to engage in side missions in order to excel in combat and effectuate conversational prowess. Again we see no drastic alterations to the underlying formula, but rather a slight and effective remodeling of what was already in place. Guild Seals can be traded for greater powers in 'The Road To Rule', an interim 'hub' of sorts which you can access at almost any time in the game. Often however you'll be purposefully placed here immediately after the more important quests in order to further your skills and techniques; meaning that the more carefree hack 'n' slashers or trigger happy players are reminded of their need to empower themselves.
'The Road To Rule' not only serves as a method of strength ascendancy, but also as a progression marker towards your goal of revolution and subsequent regal authority. It's a nice implementation, and feels like a more interactive way of progressing rather than simply a button press in a menu or viewing a completion statistic. Accompanying this notion is the complete eradication of a pause menu. Hit start and you'll be taken to 'The Sanctuary', which acts as a location to choose weapons/clothing, access the map, view achievements and save your game. Jasper will happily witter on, the only slight irritance being that he constantly reminds you to visit the sanctuary shop to spend real money (MS points) on overpriced items of clothing. Suffice to say that only the most dedicated will feel the urge to spend their own hard earned on in-game outfits for their hero.
Very little alteration to combat has been made between the second and third game, which may please or irritate depending your disposition. The simple and accessible button layout: X for melee/block, Y for ranged attacks and B for magic is certainly geared towards ease of use, and can lead to some pretty spectacular attacks with very little effort. If your hoping for a system with greater depth than previously you'll be let down with the lack of change here though. But, as basic as fighting is, instigating a slow motion finishing move on a hobbe or hollowman is sure to bring a smile to the face, especially when the weapon is question is colossal hammer or a precisely aimed rifle shot from distance. Magic gauntlets can be combined for devastating spell hybrids, and with fifteen in total you'll spend a bit of time figuring out which are the most lethal and visually striking assaults. Almost identically similar to Fable II but still satisfying enough to be justly included; the combat system won't require a great deal of expertise, only a degree basic competence. In fact, death will be a rarity in Fable III, with most players being able to see the end credits with less than a couple of KO's at the very most.
Strangely the whole 'Good/Evil' choice system that was so prevalent in previous games takes rather more of a back seat this time around, at least in the bulk of the game leading up to your coronation. You'll still have the choice to make rude remarks or gestures at people, but a sense of morality doesn't really cement itself fully until the last couple of hours of the title. As you've made promises to the leaders of those who've helped you in becoming King, you'll be presented with some pretty tough decisions. Fulfil your obligations to those who've aided you or shun them in favour of long term protection of Albion? You may well feel like your genuinely letting down you allies, but all for the benefit of a greater good; a process which does at the very least stir a sense of royal duty in the player. This moral decision making does alter the pace and feel of the game sharply, especially as it's packed into such a small space of time. Perhaps a slightly less rushed integration process would have resulted in what is undoubtedly a worthwhile inclusion, becoming a more prevalent factor in the game as a whole rather than seeming all too abrupt.
It's worth noting that although predominantly a single player experience, co-op will offer longevity for those who like to dabble in weapon trading or inter-profile matrimony and baby making. You're able to hop into a random Xbox live player's world and do as you will in Albion, be that starting a business partnership or engaging in henchman duties. This certainly prolongs the playtime for those who are looking for more than the single player game offers as well as being compulsory for completionists and achievement hunters.
Fable III is destined to divide fans of the series. It provides the same elements that are intrinsically formulaic to Fable and that are established features, as well as integrating a few new concepts that it fails to ever really maximize the potential of. It just feels like a rather underwhelming experience that misses out on achieving a sense of grandeur that Molyneux so clearly craves. On the other hand, there will be many people who are content with the minimal changes made to the Fable formula and are happy with the world of Albion just the way it is. There's much to enjoy about Fable III, and to call it a bad game would be criminally unjust; but if Molenyeux seeks to take the franchise to the next level, expect a small revolution within Lionhead's offices when Fable IV is being crafted.