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In this latest instalment of the Fable series, Peter Molyneux – a developer with something of a reputation for letting his promises run away with the hyperbole – has a third crack at realising his lofty ambitions of creating a world of unrestricted freedom and genuine emotional attachment. A veteran of “God” games, from Populous to Black & White, Molyneux has Fable 3 go one further than its predecessors in being more than a standard good-takes-on-rottenness; there’s an aspect of this here of course, but once one part of the game ends, another more intriguing one begins – where previously Fable’s decide-your-destiny angle only shaped your own character, your ultimate position as King of Albion here sees the entire kingdom sculpted to your will.
This isn’t the object of gaming perfection that the Fable franchise aspires to be – but at the third time of asking, it’s probably the best realisation of its creator’s sky-high aspirations yet.
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Fable 3 will be instantly familiar to players of the previous games, set some fifty years after the previous instalment and finding the land of Albion in the throes of the Industrial Revolution. Playing as the son or daughter of Fable 2’s hero (or heroine …), the rather dull and little-seen villain of this previous game is replaced by Logan, King of Albion and the protagonist’s brother. A heartless, cynical despot, Logan looks out over a country wracked by poverty; filthy streets lined with crumbling houses and factories staffed by child workers. Fleeing the castle, you assume the role of the would-be revolutionary, but won’t be able to do it alone, and need to raise an army …
So goes the first half of Fable 3, with the game unfolding along very familiar lines, albeit underpinned by a fresh plot; you travel between destinations completing the standard missions to secure the trust of various groups and characters – and their pledges to join the looming revolution. Along the way there are all the usual flourishes that come with Fable; the sub-quests, property-buying and job-doing, romantic entanglements and roaming exploration. As per usual, few of these are mandatory, and you could whisk through the main plot of the game in relatively little time, but it took me at least twenty hours to proceed through this first stage of the game, pursuing some but not all of these extra quests. In any case, however much or little you explore the expansive world of Albion, and however you raise your army, all roads ultimately lead back to Bowerstone Castle and a showdown with your slimy, greasy-haired brother for the throne.
As a side-note, I was one of many disappointed with the anti-climactic denouement to Fable 2, with the forgettable Lucien surrendering with barely a whimper – this isn’t a lot better (Molyneux and co seem to view big set-piece boss battles as being a bit old-hat), although the superior, more consistent and engaging storytelling this time round rescues the battle for the throne from being quite such a damp squib. With the revolution over, the real business of Fable 3 begins – leading a nation back to health, complete with the requisite good-or-bad decisions (decisions which, to the credit of the creators, are genuinely difficult ones). Questing and grunt-slaying takes a bit of a back seat to lining the walls of the treasury and satisfying the demands of your citizens, and it’s a fun shift of gear that sets this instalment apart from its predecessors.
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As familiar as many aspects of the game may feel, this latest part of the trilogy has seen some tweaking – mostly for the better. The major innovations of part two are in place again here – the ability to choose your player’s sex, marry and have children, the dog, the movement from bows and arrows to firearms and gunpowder – but there are changes, too. Perhaps the most telling of these is the ditching of the levelling-up system that aligned Fable with the RPG-norm – instead, Guild Seals are accrued and spent, built up by winning the trust of civilians, running errands and completing sub-quests and slaughtering villains. The freedom to build up your character’s physique and powers is dramatically stripped-down here, and you are given the option to purchase selected upgrades after significant stages of the game. In all honesty, I’m not sure I see the point of this – as much as Fable 2’s reams of menus were criticised, the essential system didn’t seem especially flawed, and this restriction of creativity and freedom is peculiar, and seems to run against the grain of all things Fable. What’s more, weapons, clothing, hairstyles, tattoos and the like appear to be less readily available this time round, further obstructing your abilities to personalise your hero. It’s not a bit deal, and barely affects the gameplay, but it’s an odd bit of fiddling.
This trimming-down of freedoms is represented in the ways in which you can interact with villagers and the like, too – although there are hundreds of people to talk to and express yourself with, you’re pretty much always limited to a choice between dancing with them and belching in their face. There are plenty of other expressions in the game, but you’re rarely given the option of using them. In a game that’s all about forging your own distinctive path, it quickly becomes tiresome, and feels silly to be wandering around towns dancing with everyone to gain a few Guild Seals in a shallow, binary illusion of freedom.
The magic system, too has been given an overhaul. Fewer individual spells are available, but the introduction of spell-weaving brings greater variety – specifically, the option to wear two magic gauntlets at once and blend together their powers; electrocuting your opponents to your satisfaction whilst raining down streams of hail from the heavens, for instance. It is, frankly, enormous fun, and one of the strengths of a fairly basic combat system.
Those little-loved mazes of menus are another victim of the revolution, giving way to an original twist on the theme; press Start and you’re transported to the Sanctuary, a curious chamber that exists in some strange, pseudo-magical way and place. Presided over by your butler, Jasper, this is essentially a large, 3D version of the conventional menu system, in which particular branches of options are represented physically, housed in separate rooms – one for weapons, for example, one for clothes, another for money and trophies. A giant map in the centre of the hub enables fast-travel around Albion, and everything you need can be interacted with by walking up to it. It takes a little getting used to, but it’s a nice spin on another of the staples of RPG-dom, tweaked for mass appeal and accessibility.
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The things that have made both the previous Fable games great are certainly in evidence here, and then some – the graphics are quite wonderful, especially the backdrops, with some wonderful environments to explore – and the world of Albion has really evolved since its first appearance; even where the plot is a little linear, there’s a wealth of secrets hidden away within the game and it’s easy to while away hours wandering its nooks and crannies. If it’s not perhaps as well-designed as the various incarnations of Hyrule have been in Zelda games, it’s nonetheless a sprawling world that rewards exploration.
Voice-acting is another huge strength of the game, with Ben Kingsley, Stephen Fry, Simon Pegg, Jonathan Ross, John Cleese, Michael Fassbender and Zoe Wannamaker voicing key characters, adding life and believability to the plot and breathing a sense of attachment into gameplay; the scripting is sharp and sporadically funny, and you can feel the extent to which this is a labour of love for its creators. Whilst owing plenty to the legions of generic dwarves-and-daggers RPGs that have gone before, Fable plays out with a blend of drama and humour that isn’t afraid to poke fun at the conventions of its genre (most transparently so during a lampoontastic sidequest which throws you into a mission conceived by a group of nerds). The plotting has stepped up a notch since Fable 2, and if the idea of leading a revolution isn’t ground-breaking original, it is well-realised and leads well into the latter half of the game when the dynamic changes.
Combat has its pros and cons, as ever in Fable – on the plus-side, it’s intuitive and easy; melee, ranged and magic attacks are each assigned to one button and though charging, rolling and parrying add some variety and freedom to battles, it’s essentially just button-bashing that’ll see you through encounters. What’s more – it’s *too* easy, by far. For the vast majority of the game there are no enemies worth worrying about – hello, bats and lumbering mercenaries – and by the time the trusty Balverines and new-to-the-series Sand Furies turn up to pose a challenge, you’re so absurdly powerful you can just stand there slapping them with endless obscenely devastatingly spells.
It’s a shame that some aspects of the game have been improved without thought of the implications – your blade changes its appearance to reflect the way in which you use it, which is neat, but it’s rarely worth getting it out, so ridiculously puny is it compared to your new spell-weaving abilities. There’s just no point fighting engaging a grunt in hand-to-hand combat when you can just back off, slapping them with rounds of fire and lightening. Even if you get bored of magic, your gun is plenty devastating, too – there’s just no need to even get near the enemies. This grotesque imbalance between weapons might have worked if enemies were intelligent enough to counter your strategies – why don’t they surround you, corner you? – but instead they just lumber moronically into your line of fire, piling up slain at your feet. Likewise, managing your cashflow is more a part of the game than ever, but this does render other aspects of the game rather redundant – why perform initially cute but quickly monotonous jobs for cash when you can just buy and rent out every property in the land and watch the money roll in? This, too affects combat, as you’ll never run out of cash with which to load up on potions, on the off-chance that one of the pathetic grunts might land a blow on you.
Throughout, the level of challenge is pitched too low – granted, this seems to be the way games are going, with “experience” being more valued than difficulty – but it’s a little unsatisfying when you might as well be wandering around in God Mode, so feeble is the opposition the game provides. If Lionhead wanted to appeal more broadly than just to hardcore gamers though, then, fine – it works – and that “experience” is immersive enough that you only periodically notice how little you’re being challenged.
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Enough whining. After a dozen paragraphs of grievances, it seems strange to say it – but this is an excellent game. It’s something inherent about the Fable experience that you expect perfection – oh, and one more thing; the map really, really sucks, it’s like a three year-old’s crayon sketch of Albion, which is understandably useless when you actually need to find your way – but it’s easy to overlook how brilliantly-designed the whole game is, how ambitious it attempts to be and the extent to which it actually realises these dreams. Fable may not be the greatest game ever, but it certainly tries to be, and you feel the efforts that have gone into polishing up the game according to the complaints directed at the one before.
Gameplay is largely excellent, characters are well-shaped and worth caring about, the choices thrown at you, though occasionally a little binary actually make you stop and think, and you’re always motivated to pursue the game to its conclusion. Even the weaknesses should be qualified; challenge may be low for veterans of the franchise, but it's immediately accessible to newcomers and unfailingly intuitive, while the combat, if easy and a little simplistic, is nonetheless enormous fun. The strongest entry of the series so far, Fable 3 comes very, very close to achieving the ambitions that drive the franchise – and is easy to love, for all the quibbles.