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Lionhead Studios Fable III
Peter Molyneux must be the world's most restless designer. Every sequel he touches has to reinvent itself somehow. Populous II traded vague polytheism for Greek mythology and deicide. Black & White 2 banished creature inscrutability by putting in behavior gauges that made it easy to predict what your demigod-like cow, ape, or lion would do. Fable II added the world's smartest treasure-hunting dog to a Renaissance-themed fantasy world called Albion and solved the question of player death by essentially annulling it.
And now Fable III--still an Xbox 360-exclusive action-adventure, but set five decades on in Albion's fantasy steam age--attempts to wriggle out of roleplaying conventions altogether by backgrounding character progress checkmarks, abolishing fussy game menus, and letting you depose its tyrannical overlord before the finish mark.
The Road to Rule
It sounds bold, but in truth, Fable III tends to be less progressive than it thinks it is. You still play a hero who starts with nothing and gradually accrues killer weapons, spells, and enough gold to wipe out a budget deficit. Along the way you'll chat up townsfolk, get married, buy a house, have kids, try your hand at pie-making, solve puzzles, check off quests, explore the usual fantasy caves and ruins, and smash through mobs of skeletons, goblins, and bandits. Moral choices still fork "good" or "evil," only impact the world in limited, essentially gameplay-neutral ways, and alter your physical appearance as you'd expect. Even the end battle with its inscrutable adversary--all movie villain bombast slathered in gooey special effects--commits the cardinal cliches so many villains and end battles do. It's not that any of that's bad, and Fable III's packed with plenty of Fable-y things to do, but you've already done the bulk of them in Fable II.
What it lacks in intrepidness, Fable III makes up for in fine tuning, offering a story with a clearer beginning, middle, ending, second middle, and yes, second-ending. Instead of a lifetime, events transpire over a handful of years, upping the dramatic stakes and better grounding you in the narrative. Every aspect of your advancement has a visual analogue now, and your path to the throne enjoys a literal trackway, called The Road to Rule, partitioned by locked gates that symbolize your progress. Even 2D-style menus get the boot, supplanted by visible swords, suits, gems, and potions on interactive store shelves, just as real stores would.
That interact-with-what-you-see approach carries over to pretty much everything, including inventory management. Instead of conjuring a 2D screen with a bunch of menu tabs, the START button now warps you to a "sanctuary," where you walk up to weapons, outfits, trophy walls, and online options to admire or change something. Want to mix and match spell gauntlets? Stand by them in your wardrobe and tap a button. Model goatees, arm tattoos, and dreadlocks on your hero? Same thing. Even peripheral stuff like audio and video settings get neatly folded in beside a 3D map that you'll use to check quests, warp between regions, or monitor your real estate holdings.
Navigating in three-dimensions sounds like a time sink, but it's actually faster. Think about it. How much time do you spend thumbing through tabs and screens in these kinds of games? Fable III's approach works like one of those memorization tricks where everything's placed in drawers or containers. And if you still want shortcuts, the d-pad has them, shaving a few seconds off jogging between sanctuary rooms by warping you instead. The only bit of weirdness? For all your popping in and out of space-time, none of the game world's inhabitants ever seems to notice.
In Fable II, interacting with Albion's citizens involved conjuring a wheel and dialing up an expression--dancing, pat-a-caking, belching and the like. In Fable III, the wheel's gone, and you cultivate relationships with housewife's, vendors, crate carriers, tailors, and the occasional prostitute by selecting from just two or three expressions at once. The benefits are simpler and easier to realize as well, smoothing your progress. Instead of gathering multicolored orbs after combat to spend on ability increases, you earn points toward guild seals that open treasure chests harboring new abilities and expressions along The Road to Rule. Hold down a button while interacting with someone until your controller vibrates and presto, you've got points, and you can visit The Road to Rule to spend them anytime you like.
High Road, Low Road
If Fable III feels less revolutionary than its age-of-muskets tale, it's because some of its vaunted features don't quite live up to their promise. The touch mechanic, for instance, which lets you take people by the hand and lead (or if they hate you, drag) them around, feels undeveloped and superficial. At times it's actually superfluous--while rescuing someone who'd been tossed down a sewer system, I let go of her hand and she kept jogging behind me anyway.
When you finally take the throne after fomenting a revolution by winning followers, you're only a handful of monarchal decisions from the credits roll, making it less a "second story" than a breezy coda. And the emotional reactions you earn from subjects for the choices you make as head mucky-muck (essentially keeping or breaking promises) may seem nuanced thanks to clever writing, but in gameplay terms, they're just elementary good angel, bad devil stuff--hold the sparkly button down for your halo, or the flame-engulfed other to jab home the pitchfork. The payoffs tend to be visual only, altering the look, say, of a landscape, but not the way you interact with it.
Fable III also tends to be a little rough around the edges in ways Fable II wasn't. Books, people, enemies, and most of all your dog often hang in the air exactly the way books, people, enemies, and dogs shouldn't. Sometimes the sparkling "breadcrumb" trail that guides you to your next task disappears inexplicably and won't come back until you load a new area. Your quest list doesn't turn up until several hours in, leaving you wandering without a guide if you choose to poke around the world before completing the tutorial installment that adds it. And while your dog's slightly better animated here, it's also notably dumber, prone to chase its tail when you throw a ball, or get stuck behind an object when pointing out dig spots and treasure chests. Even the new cooperative and local online modes, which let you adventure with, marry, and go into business with a second hero, involve a lot of waiting around while the game struggles (often and visibly) to keep things synchronized.
Standing in Fable II's Shadow
While "released to soon" would be going too far--all the quests and basic play mechanics work well enough--Fable III feels like a less even and at times slightly cruder revision of Fable II. It's still attempting stuff more interesting than anything else in its slightly-hard-to-pin-down genre (call it action-roleplaying if you must), and for that alone it's an easy recommend. But if you come to it expecting the sort of profound-at-the-time ideas Fable II executed with panache, you're probably going to come away a trifle disappointed.
Lionhead Studios Fable III
Fable III isn't quite the roleplaying revolution it thinks it is, but it's more than competent as fantasy adventures go, and you won't find anything else quite like it.
- Friendlier menu-free interface
- Droll, clever storytelling
- Streamlined character interaction
- Surprising number of glitches
- Endgame over too quickly
- Superficial consequences for actions
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