"More than half the people that played Fable II understood and used less than half the features in the game. As soon as you see that you think, 'Oh my God, what a talentless bastard I really am'."
If one quote informs the entire development of Fable III, then it is surely this one, from the game's Creative Director Peter Molyneux. Both inspired and horrified by the statistical revelations of Microsoft's research department, with Fable III Molyneux has taken the opportunity to streamline, redesign or completely abandon vast swathes of its predecessor's features, while attempting to retain much of the series' charm.
In doing so, the world of Albion prepares to fling open its portcullis this October without a health-bar, a menu system or the experience point orbs that have been a Fable mainstay for the past seven years. In a climate where every conceivable genre is falling over itself to add RPG elements, Fable moves bravely in the opposite direction.
You could never accuse Molyneux of lacking the courage of his convictions.
Yet really it should come as no surprise. Molyneux has been banging the drum for increased accessibility in games for years now. In doing so he has slowly shifted the focus of his quintessentially British series away from role-playing adventure towards a purer form of action-adventure.
We sampled the evidence of this transition at a Microsoft event in London earlier this week, getting hands-on time with two demos showcasing Fable III's distilled systems, and offering a tantalising glimpse of the game's key innovations. It was an experience both surprising and comfortingly familiar.
The first of the two playable chunks was Brightfall, a tranquil, cobbled village immediately recognisable as belonging to the chocolate-box world of Fable. Set half a century after the climax of Fable II, Brightfall gently bustles with the rhythms of village life. Children frolic around, while blacksmiths and market traders go about their daily business. Taken from an early stage of the game, its a welcome return to the series characterful charm.
Similarly, Fable's quirky humour remains intact, as evidenced by the first mission we encountered. Following the now familiar fairy-dust navigation trail, we were led through the square to a small chicken run tucked away in a corner of the village. Here we met the owner who, unsurprisingly, has a problem. All of his chickens have gone missing.
So, in a feat of mental agility only possible in the world of Fable, it is decided that in order to lure the little fellas back home you must explore Brightfall's numerous nooks dressed in a giant feathery chicken suit; clucking, scratching and flapping your fake chickeny wings as you go. It's the only sensible option, of course. So far, so Fable.
That is, until you press the pause button to change your outfit.
When Molyneux recently threatened to do away with labyrinthine RPG menus, he wasnt joking. A quick click of the start button pulls up not a dizzying selection of options, but an entirely new environment, The Sanctuary.
Here you will find a hub space with a world map at its very centre and a series of doors signifying the rooms reserved for your weapons, clothing and achievements. Unfortunately the achievement door was locked, but the other rooms work exactly as you would expect, allowing you to approach the item in question, and click a button to equip.
As a route to making the game's menus more accessible, The Sanctuary works perfectly well. However, it is ultimately a less efficient process. What was once just a series of clicks now involves navigating from room to room, a much slower process. At least your Butler, voiced with eccentric charm by John Cleese, adds a little flair to proceedings, making humorously snarky comments about your inventory choices. Time will tell if prolonged exposure breeds admiration or contempt.
With the pastoral beauty of Brightfall successfully negotiated, it was time to sample some altogether more hazardous environs. In the second demo we tested, our hero finds himself descending into the inky depths of the Shadelight Dungeons.
The dungeons themselves represent a bit of a visual departure for the series, with an impressionistic monochrome aesthetic far removed from the warm orange hue of the villages and towns. A stark light throws creepy shapes along the walls and floors as hordes of shadowy figures and bird-like armoured warriors stalk your every move. Its incredibly menacing.
Featured in a quest mid-way through the game, Shadelight provided us with a look at the revised combat mechanics, another example of the refinement of the series. Where Fable II offered a simple attack system based on wringing depth from a single button press, Fable III's combat is even further distilled.
Now, the transitions as you swap-out ranged, magic and melee attacks are far smoother. The one-button approach remains, but battles now have a graceful flow that the game's predecessor could never provide, accentuated as-ever by stylistic slo-mo finishes and flourishing camera swoops.
It certainly feels better, yet a little more time will be needed to discern if theres any more to it than the button-mashing we indulged in.
Perhaps the most noticeable change in combat, however, comes from the lack of experience points. Previous installments of the series saw stat-buffing orbs erupt from your fallen foes, yet Fable III ruthlessly culls them.
Instead, all the statistical faffing about goes on behind the scenes. There is no XP screen, or stat-allocation requirement. Level-ups are handled a little differently. When your weapons strengths grow, youll hoist it into the air in slow motion and it will emit a blast of power. The developers are calling it the Greyskull moment.
Similarly, where Fable II abandoned death, Fable III does away with energy bars entirely, favouring the de-saturation effect employed to great effect by numerous first-person shooters.
Typically, previews of sequels focus on what has been added to the franchise. Yet Molyneux's merciless pruning means that were mostly identifying the things that have been abandoned.
Feature after feature has been hacked away or refined and streamlined to such an extent as to be unrecognizable. Yet Fable III looks, plays and feels remarkably similar to how it always has done. Somehow, Molyneux has managed to distill the Fable experience down to its very essence, retaining all the charm, adventure and humour, while cutting away at all that is superfluous.
The most intriguing additions, however, are still being worked on behind closed doors over at Lionhead Studios. The political aspect that comes to the fore later in the game and the much-vaunted Touch features which may offer Kinect functionality - are yet to be revealed. Based on what weve seen we can safely say Fable III will be a good game. These innovations have the potential to make it great.
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