Fable III (X360) Review
So it is time once again to revisit the land of Albion... This time the storybook is opened to reveal a tale from a dark time in the land's history, the on-going industrial revolution providing a suitably grimy backdrop for a tale of tyranny... and chickens. It turns out it's time for a change at the top and in this game the player has the not so enviable task of trying to usurp the king and bring about the changes that are so desperately needed. This being a Fable game though it's not so simple and there's plenty of opportunity for the character to succumb to the same corruption of power as the predecessor.
In a way it is a fitting metaphor for the game itself. The previous title was ambitious and arguably overreaching and for all its brilliance came with some flaws. Will this Fable title too succumb to the lure of over-indulgence or instead will it take what was exceptional about the previous title and build on it?
The first thing to be mindful of when playing Fable 3 is posturing. The game might well want us to believe that it is some open ended, decision driven, sand-box style RPG. The reality is that for the first 25% of the game it couldn't be any more linear or identical to any title in this genre that anyone may well have played. The choices that are initially presented are nothing that hasn't been explored before and it's telling that Lionhead Studios, who went over similar gimmicky but insubstantial territory with "Black & White", are behind the development of this game too. Shake hands or belch in a guard's face? Sentence some random but well-meaning peasants to death... These broad strokes are hardly revolutionary in the same way that the game keeps bandying the word about.
The plot couldn't be more stereotypical to the genre if it tried. Evil king, oppressed populace, heir to the throne, journey of discovery under the watchful eye of an old mentor... It literally is the same sort of thing any fan of the genre will have come across countless times. Even the way that the game drip feeds information and skills / items as the early storyline fulfils the roll of tutorial has become somewhat old hat by now, so players will be forgiven that sense of déjà vu.
Indeed, once the game is underway in earnest all the RPG staples come tumbling out of the closet. Weapons that improve with use, magic spells that get stronger as the game progresses and the development of the overall attributes of your character with the passage of time. Sure, it might not be called an "experience" system but it behaves exactly the same, so why pretend? The closest we really see towards innovation is the menu and inventory which is replaced by something called "The Sanctuary". Here John Cleese will guide the player through weapons, clothing, travel and everything else required without the need for clumsy menus.
Here's the thing though... Why do games in the Fable series always make this rod for their backs? Innovation is great when it can be done well but it isn't necessary with every release. The strengths of the Fable games are here in spades... The broad storylines, the quaint "middle England" feel to the world of Albion, the clever subversive comedy that lurks in the background and lives long in the memory and - of course - an in game world that actually feels worth exploring every inch of. Forget criticisms over things like the "breadcrumb trail" - an in game guide as to where to go to next that means quests require little in the way of thought - and instead bask in a game that has an embarrassing wealth of riches that exceed that of the king's treasury.
These range from the nice little touches such as the constant attention of your faithful canine companion, that has the practical use of locating hidden items and buried treasure, to the note-perfect characterisation of everyone encountered. Each quest comes with a range of twists and turns that are infinitely more rewarding than anything along the lines of "find these three items". Some of them are completely off the wall and unlike anything else experience in mainstream role-playing games.
Without wanting to spoil it too much as well this game is just getting started where most finish. Once the throne is reclaimed the game throws moral quandaries at your newly appointed monarch, all presented with a deft comic touch from everyone's favourite "wit", Stephen Fry. The sheer scope of the game is not something to be taken lightly and at a time when most single player campaigns are usually tacked on as a way to teach people the finer points of online play, how refreshing it is to have a game that - even without the exploration that is as much fun as the game itself - provides genuine nourishment rather than slim pickings.
The control system is simplicity itself too; assigning one of the buttons to different type of attacks that ensures there's no need for menu screens or complex combinations of buttons. It keeps the game surprisingly fast paced and at times it feels more like an action game as opposed to something more stuffy. In that sense it has all the characteristics of the classic Zelda games, the perfect blend of both worlds that compromises little. With the speed that new things are learned there's always something new to try out yet it never feels overwhelming either. There's a real craft to the way the game is set-up, a light touch that leaves nothing but the stamp of quality behind it.
While there are some noticeable glitches in the graphics that show off a lack of polish in places, it still has to be said that the game is very impressive from a visual perspective. There's always been a unique look to the Fable games, somewhere between the Tolkien-esque and the cartoony feel from eighties classics. Here though there's some breath-taking scenery as well as some colourful characters.
The palette is also something that has clearly been thought about. This isn't the same Albion as it was decades ago and the use of washed out colours in the settlements in snowy mountains, or the soot stained walls in the main city, contrast wonderfully to the untamed wilds that some quests lead to. The characters in game are too suitably looking, the effects of forced labour and starvation clear on the afflicted peasantry, while the vast array of monsters all carry a suitable level of menace without straying too far into the darkness to be out of place.
It's not perfect of course and there are some things that take the edge off... Poor lip-syncing, some clipping and poor camera angles are among the chief offenders. However, there's nothing bad enough to detract from the genuine sense of awe that comes up as the game reveals another part of the vibrant Albion landscape.
With the talent in the cast it's no surprise to learn that the voice acting is great and even when there's a genuine act of hammery in the progress there's no sense that it is out of place or stupid. Stephen Fry's character is a revelation and puts the devil back in Devil's advocate. It's clear a game is in possession of something special if they can get John Cleese to sign up for the role of a butler and deliver more exposition than Data used to in The Next Generation.
The ambient noise is also something that is well realised... The countryside is never quite silent, always something coming through and the settlements have a genuine presence to them. In the crowded cities this is especially true, the constant noise and drone of people going about their daily lives coming through in a relentless assault to the senses.
Sound effects are fairly run of the mill for this sort of title and some will quickly become repetitive. There is however a benefit in being able to recognise what beasts lurk in caves and dungeons by the noise that is made and a lot of the time the action is so engrossing that the sound is an afterthought on the player's behalf.
The score features some medieval period music and flits between the quaint and the dramatic as required. It's certainly nothing revolutionary in itself but it underpins the story nicely and never feels out of place or too overwhelming.
Forget all the talk of it being revolutionary, forget the propaganda that implies the game is more sandbox than scripted. It's not true but it doesn't mean that the finished product is in any way bad. With a tight, well written script, the usual injection of humour and a plethora of interesting places and people, it is a benchmark RPG regardless of anything new it brings to the table. In truth, the areas where it does try something new are often little more than gimmicks that do nothing to add to the gaming experience, such as the "Road to Rule".
The game succeeds by telling a story that everyone will want to see out to its conclusion and by setting it in a universe that everyone will want to explore. It's not reinventing the wheel, it's not anything mould breaking, it's just good old-fashioned quality and care. Some of the quests will genuinely stir emotions, causing the player to think about things in a new light and the latter stages of the game turn the first part on its axis with an intelligence that is rare in writing of any form.
It may not be ushering in the new era it wants people to think it is but when it's this good there's no need to deviate from the ways of the old order. If anything it's less open and free than the prequel and it's all the better for it.
||Simple to learn, no steep learning curve and plenty to do... An epic game that emulates the classics in the genre and provides plenty of positives.
||A lack of polish in places does detract from the overall experience, yet the game throws up some memorable vistas and characters.
||A great cast of voice actors trumped by Stephen Fry and everything else fits the game perfectly.
||A vast game that is as ambitious as its predecessor yet with a better structure, the game demands a lot of attention and rewards it in spades.
(Not an Average)
||Some flaws but a brilliant tale told in a way that is smart beyond the average fodder in the genre, it could conceivably be the best Fable game of the lot and is one of the best RPG titles of the year.