Xbox 360 Review

Fable III

Rewriting the story

Carol is a servant girl working in the royal castle. One half of Carol's day is spent polishing the floors. The other half is also spent in service of the queen, but it's a very different kind of service - the more wifely kind. The queen's wont upon returning from her many travels is to immediately track down Carol and drag her uniform-clad lover up to the royal chambers. Carol is quite pleased with spending her days on her hands and knees; her pleasure can be heard as far as Brightwall Village.

It is a truly refreshing to be back in Albion. In a year overwhelmed by phrases like 'interactive drama', Fable III is the perfect tonic to all the pretention of the games industry. Critics called Fable II the Monty Python of gaming, and its sequel embraces that role fully. The surreal, cheeky role-play world of Albion again brims over with chicken-kicking, fart jokes, and abusive talking ornaments.

Having said all that, the industry's recent emphasis on writing and narrative has rubbed off on the developer. Fable II shone through the freedom of its emergent play. While Fable III again brings a huge world to be played around with to the table, there's clearly been greater focus on the writing. This time the script is good not only when it's going for guffaws but also when it's going for gravity. And when it's trying to be funny, Fable III is, for the most part, superb.

The game had me in stitches during an early side quest. After answering a distress call from men claiming to be wizards, you meet three guys who represent the tabletop role-players of yore. They're looking for a hero to enter their game and so they magically shrink you to two inches tall and place you in their handcrafted world with the task of saving the princess. She turns out to be a picture of a princess painted on a tiny cardboard tab with one of the guys doing her voice with a dodgy falsetto.

The base concept of the quest is brilliant itself, but the imagination displayed in how it plays out and in the buckets of self-aware humour - "a game like this is all about customization!" - is bang on the money. When the quest is done, you get the option to kiss the princess, which my female hero (of course) chose to do. "A girl kissing a girl? That's a bit of a clich, isn't it?" whines one of the role-players. "Yeah, a really hot clich!" replies another.

It's in the little touches too. Scattered across Albion are letters sent to its citizens by a man called Arthur. Each letter contains brutally blunt insults read out by Arthur in a ratty little voice, including one left for the tabletop crew that closes "by the way, how are your girlfriends doing? Oh, that's right, you don't have any!" Compared to the evil possessed gnomes you meet, though, Arthur is a saint. "I'd like to come round to dinner," one pointy-hat muses, "And then I'll have your mum!"

You almost expect Fable to nail its humour, but there are more glimmers of brilliance in Fable III than in either of its predecessors, and the glimmers are brighter too. What's more surprising is how the story comes together well when going for its serious notes.

Fable III takes your hero from prince or princess to ruler of the land in the game's first half, while the second half concerns a mix of decision-making and fund-raising as the kingdom prepares for trouble ahead. Without going into details, the story feels cohesive this time. There's a simpler progression from start to end, maybe because of the constant involvement and accompaniment of Sir Walter.

Sir Walter is a revered former soldier who helps guide your hero from ruin to rule, and in an understated way the game is as much about his story as it is your hero's. Sir Walter initially seems a very trite military character, but as the game wears on you learn about his make-up, and he becomes surprisingly vulnerable. While it's hardly Wordsworth, around midway the plot takes some interesting turns around Sir Walter which connect well with the emphasis on moral choices.

Some of the big hitters Fable III was going for with its moral choices sadly don't come together so well. I'll avoid details about the much-hyped, allegedly important choice you have to make in the first 15 minutes, but for me it lacked attachment to anyone involved. It was just too early, and there wasn't enough there to latch onto. After playing through both possible choices, I also feel that the ramifications are superficial and entirely forgettable. Skipping ahead a bit more, the ending is nothing to write home about either. It is abrupt, unspectacular, and ultimately an odd culmination of what could have been a strong second half of the game. While a lot of what's in between is finely tuned, it's unfortunate to start and end on such bum notes.

The second half revolves around raising funds for the kingdom by making difficult choices. There's obvious political resonance regards the global recession and the choices facing the British government. Regretfully, the gravity is lost because it's so simple to raise funds through the easily exploited property market. Any gravity is lost by not putting some kind of financial pressure on the player. I understand wanting to allow for freedom and accessibility, but sometimes a tighter grip on play is needed. While it's somewhat interesting to see how different choices affect Albion and how its citizens treat you, the ramifications are superficial and entirely predictable.

What also disappoints is the presentation. True, the visual upgrade is definitely palpable. There are obvious improvements in terms of lighting, facial animations, and frame rate. Nonetheless, like Fable II before it, Fable III could've done with a few more minutes in the cooker. The game has bugs all over. The golden breadcrumb trail has a propensity to get confused, as does the dog when he barks at treasure and then fails to find it. Background audio can flit in and out of decipherable volume which makes it especially difficult to track down the well hidden but usually audible gnomes. These are just to name a few, but what they represent is serious imbalance regards attention to detail.

Take for example the interactions between your hero and other Albion citizens. Each possible action has a number of different voice recordings but only two animations - one for holding down the button press, one for essentially tapping it. The animations are initially funny but they quickly tire, and seeing them over and over takes all the fun out of interactions. It's like going back to the very first Sims. This lack of detail extends to the supposedly individual quests which you can undertake to befriend these citizens. These are just generic fetch and delivery quests. Even a unique, short written piece for each citizen's quest would've saved them from being dull, but it's not there. Besides, the quests restrict creative play by sticking down a time-consuming barrier that is totally unneeded.

The voice acting is similarly inconsistent. Fable III may boast a star cast, but the performances aren't all star quality. Stephen Fry and John Cleese are predictably superb as the wicked Reaver and your loyal butler respectively, but some high-billed others fail to shine. Simon Pegg is the worst culprit as the rough-and-tumble soldier Ben Finn. His accent goes back and forth between Oliver Twist and Spaced like a tennis rally. It doesn't help, mind you when dialogue cues place one audio segment immediately after another. Like the animations, the individual quests, and the bugs, the sometimes sloppy dialogue cues scream of a game that could've done with its release date being pushed back.

It is so frustrating to raise these criticisms of Fable III because when it clicks, it so beautifully clicks. Certain quests, like the role-play one outlined above, were the most fun I've had in a game all year.

Beyond the writing and imagination, there are so many sensible additions to celebrate as well. The new hub of operations, a room called the Sanctuary which can be accessed at any point in the game, is very useful. It lets you select your weapons, customize your clothes - including your own colour scheme - view all your accumulated money in a pleasingly giant pile of gold, and view all your Achievements pinned up on the wall. It gives you access to a map which allows you to teleport to any location or quest point in Albion. The map also lets you buy, rent out, repair and sell properties from the comfort of the interface rather than having your hero physically locate it, all of which makes it easy to manage - maybe too easy to manage given the game's second half.

The Road to Rule also represents a good idea implemented splendidly. It's a magical path full of treasure chests, and these chests contain upgrades for the hero. While it can also be accessed at any time, players need the right amount of guild seals to open each chest. You earn guild seals by finishing quests, forming relationships, and through general combat. What makes the Road to Rule work, though, is that only certain parts of the path are available at any time. As the plot progresses, a gate will open and more of the path will be revealed. This helps to ensure the hero doesn't get empowered too easily, while also making hero progression enjoyable and easily available.

The combat itself sticks to the one button style of Fable II, but with greater emphasis on dodging and blocking. This forces the player to make different components work with each other. A destabilizing spell should be followed up by sword and gun attacks, for example.

Fable III also introduces spell weaving, which is very similar to the power combinations of BioShock 2. For example, your hero can mix up a fire spell with an electric spell, and this sets your enemies on fire as well as shocking them into a standstill. Different combinations allow for different strategies, and all these things together make the combat more engaging than it was before. Having said all that, it remains far too easy to stay alive. Most players will rack up the Achievement for no KOs.

The online side of the play hasn't been outlined in this review because it isn't up and working yet, but if it's anything like playing locally then it will be very enjoyable. Essentially, it's all that was promised to us with Fable II. Players can get married to each other, form business relationships, quest together, trade, and affect each others' worlds - no dots! The developer is confident that the online play will fit the bill this time around, but I'll of course reserve judgement until I see it in action.

Beyond all of this, though, Fable III has so much give. In terms of a single playthrough, there's a good 30 to 40 hours to be enjoyed fully exploring Albion and trying to track down each gnome, each silver key, each book and so on. Side quests are plentiful, and many of them are just so wonderfully written. From Max and Sam trying to get an undead party going to rounding up fleeing poultry in a giant chicken costume, Fable III constantly entertains, and it's hard to ask for much more.

Well, not that hard I suppose. It would have been nice to see consistency in the detail, and the big ideas supported by more well thought out design. Nonetheless, genuinely funny games remain few and far between these days, and the laughs Fable III will inevitably bring you are worth the flaws and failings. Heck, it's worth it just to seduce the castle's lesbian servant girl. Talk about a hot cliche.

E3 Trailer