Challenging a player’s sense of morality whilst engaging them emotionally within a game world has been a formula that Peter Molyneux and his diligent team at Lionhead Studios have been aiming to crack for a while. Brief glimpses of such genius were first seen within popular God-sim Black & White and furthered by the birth of the Fable series on the original Xbox, yet the developer has never truly conquered such vision... until now.
Whilst the original is still widely recognised as having seriously fallen short of prior promises, it was the current-generation sequel Fable II that begun to get things rolling in the right direction, providing the player with a certain degree of influence over the game world. However, it didn’t prove to be enough to wow players as Peter and Lionhead wanted.
In the end, the design of the choices were more about the player than the world - it allowed you to make selfish choices with no consequence, almost always putting yourself first. Fable II touched on deeper themes, but never quite made it. With Fable III, all that is set to change.
Placing the storyline into some form of perspective, fifty years have passed since the events of Fable II. In the years that followed its conclusion, Albion flourished under the guidance of your father or mother the great Hero as they sought to stabilise and strengthen the land in forging a kingdom. Due to their skill and decisions, a period of peace, prosperity and technological advancement was able to be enjoyed. Yet that is a far cry from the Albion that is visible today.
With the crown having passed to Logan, your brother, when the previous hero and monarch died, Albion continued to be ruled with a strong yet merciful hand. Yet recent years have seen Logan become more unforgiving, tightening his grip on the population with more aggressive, strict policies and taking much of the population’s wealth causing many to fester in poverty. Pushed to their limit and seeing Logan for who he truly is, Albion’s people stand on the brink of revolution, and they await one who is worthy enough to lead them in successfully overthrowing their merciless ruler.
That, as you can expect, falls to you. After picking your character's gender, the early portion of the game sees you learn that your brother has once more taken things too far by unnecessarily authorising the execution of a factory worker earlier that morning. With a group of citizens performing a demonstration in protest at the news outside the castle gates, you are determined to investigate the matter further, eavesdropping upon a meeting that Logan is currently holding in regards to the matter at hand.
Hearing that he is to take it upon himself to have all those demonstrating killed, you step in to intervene only to be caught out and it is here that you are first presented with one of the many challenging decisions that are regularly scattered throughout the game’s plot. Following your choice, you flee the castle with trusted butler Jasper and life-long mentor Walter as you seek to incite a revolution.
This leads me straight into Fable III’s greatest triumph, the moral decisions. Right from the outset these become a true test of character, with the consequences of each choice you make having some form of defining impact on the land and its inhabitants. Further down the line, these are extended to an unprecedented level and those that value their morals will find themselves taking plenty of time to question their decisions before acting upon them.
Of course, there is no right or wrong answer... but this doesn’t stop you doubting yourself every step of the way. Such an aspect was a promise made during the very genesis of the Fable series, and one that is certainly a delight now that it has finally blossomed into fruition.
Alongside the central storyline you’ll also find yourself able to delve into a multitude of varying side quests. These, as seen with both Fable and Fable II, allow the development team the perfect excuse to inject plenty of British humour into the mix, whether it be wearing a Chicken Suit to allow you to gather troops of chickens, seducing a married woman to ensure she doesn’t cruelly claim all of her husband’s belongings during a divorce settlement or going out and killing a card shark's rival because he lost a lot of money to him.
Side quests will also throw up some more light-hearted morality decisions, enhancing the variety of decisions and ensuring that the decisions that shape your character aren't all major life-or-death moments. You’re always tempted to see what surprises the next quest holds in store, ensuring that you’ll more often than not immerse yourself amongst the side-quests rather than venture solely along the central storyline. Some quests can be repetitive fetch quests while others - 'friendship' quests and so on - are almost all identical - but there's still a very decent variety of things to do here.
Lionhead talked up the voice cast a lot prior to release - but a lot of developers do. Playing Fable III is pretty amazing, however, as the amount of top notch British talent on show is simply astounding. The engaging performances provided by Stephen Fry, John Cleese, Michael Fassbender, Bernard Hill, Zoe Wanamaker, Ben Kingsley, Simon Pegg and even Jonathan Ross really add to the overall direction of the title in a way that is easily best experienced for yourself. Fry, as always, excels and both Cleese and Hill provide particularly noteworthy contributions in their respective roles.
Fable III has a few story firsts - cutscenes where the player loses control, and a voice for the lead character. Your hero will speak to and engage other characters throughout the story, which in turn feels more engaging to the player. It's a shame that the cutscenes, while well directed, are a little bit dodgy, with the lip sync out and the overall production values of them leaving much to be desired. They're a welcome addition, mind, and allow the plot to be more complex than ever.
Whilst talk of revolution may be a staple element of the storyline, it is also a word that could easily be associated with two fundamental elements within the game. The ‘Sanctuary,’ which is best described as being an interactive menu system, is a complete revamp of a rather dull aspect seemingly overlooked by most developers.
Although we don’t expect pressing Start in any other game to instantly provide us access to a virtual wardrobe, seeing the innovative approach of being able to immediately dive into a selection of different rooms proves to be a far speedier way of altering weapons, clothes or even allowing the player to trace their achievement progress. It also allows access to an even more important addition; the Map.
Discarding the mere list of locations, the Map is now a living, breathing version of Albion viewed from a perspective not dissimilar to Lionhead's Black & White. Predictably allowing you the opportunity to fast travel between locations, it is the level of detail on offer that truly allows the new functionality to impress.
Players are now able to zoom in to see details regarding quests on offer from villagers and set markers to their location, manage properties and even ensure their families are happy without actually travelling to them from the new map. It’s clean, smart and effective. Such design completely overshadows the somewhat cumbersome methods seen not only within Fable II, but also within similar titles across the industry.
Another facet that has received a fundamental alteration is the way in which players level their character. You’ll now find yourself systematically progressing along the ‘Road to Rule’ which not only allows you to further enhance aspects of your character, but is also used as a visual aid to see how far you are from ascending to the throne.
Divided into a number of gated sections that are unlocked at specific points throughout the storyline, each is populated by a number of chests that grant you a variety of rewards such as new expressions, the ability to purchase, rent and redecorate houses, or improved Melee/ Ranged Weapon/ Magic proficiency for example. However to be able to open them to acquire such treats you’ll need to amass, then spend, ‘Guild Seals’ (which replace Experience Orbs seen within previous titles) that are awarded for completing quests, defeating enemies and interacting with villagers.
It's an interesting approach to levelling and while it seems it's not impossible to completely max out your character (there's even an achievement for opening all the chests), it'll take you some time and effort to open every one - other players will have to make some difficult choices between the various chests on offer to open. It's an interesting approach to levelling up, and it works well, giving Lionhead a degree of control over when you level up, as they'll throw a bunch of guild seals your way at major turns in the storyline, but you can also grind for Guild Seals by fighting, interacting with villagers and completing quests.
In addition to improving your character on the Road to Rule, your weapons can also be improved. As noted previously, weapons change and morph based on how you act - a spendaholic may get a gold-plated trim to the handle of their weapon while one who kills a lot of Hollow Men - essentially skeletons - will find that their weapon looks as though it's made of bone. The physical changes to weapons are a fun and unique system, and different players should have significantly different looks to their weapons by the end of the game. It's fun, but it doesn't seem to have much significance to gameplay.
What does have significance are the goals you can see on any weapon to level it up. One gun asked that I spend 10,000 of my own personal gold, for example. When I did, it levelled up and did more damage in subsequent battles.
Requirements can be anything from taking down a certain number of enemies to spending money, eating food or slaying innocents - or even killing your wife. Again, it's about getting a more powerful weapon but it's also about morality - are you obsessed enough with having an all-powerful weapon that you'll kill innocent villagers, or someone that loves you?
The Road to Rule and the Sanctuary are both superb additions and clever spins on the manner in which this game handles now traditional aspects of RPGs - menus and character growth. Both feel more interesting, though without the game installed the Sanctuary often takes a few seconds to appear after pressing Start, and any time you head to the Road to Rule you're met with a loading screen. This is a dampener on a brilliant idea, but Lionhead are definitely taking massive strides in the right direction.
For those familiar with the combat system, it still retains its one-button mechanic seen within previous titles, with X, Y and B commanding Melee, Ranged Weapons and Magic respectively. Holding X allows you to perform flourishes as well as the ability to block attacks, with the Left Trigger also providing you with the option to aim with a ranged weapon if equipped. It’s far more streamlined and fluid than that seen before, and no longer do you need to annoyingly purchase such abilities as upgrades through the levelling system.
New spells come from chests in the Road to Rule, while several generic Melee, Ranged and Magic chests give you upgrades to the overall damage output and fighting capability of your hero as you progress. As these chests are unlocked you'll see new combat animations and awesome finishing moves, all of which execute on their own in a context-sensitive manner.
Magic was a bit of a problem in Fable II, becoming incredibly overpowered towards the end of the game, and so Lionhead of overhauled the magic system completely. The hero must wear 'Spell Gauntlets' to channel his or her power, and whilst spell power is still charged by holding the B button, the spell that you use is specified by whichever gauntlets you wear.
Gauntlets are interchangeable within the Sanctuary, and as you progress along the Road to Rule you’ll be able to unlock further additions and even the ability to perform ‘Spell Weaving,’ allowing you to wear two gauntlets to combine the effects of two differing spells together.
As you can guess, such a feature allows for some particularly destructive gameplay with the Blades/Ice Storm combo being a potentially messy favourite. Interestingly, some spells seen previously within the series, such as the ‘Slow Time’ or ‘Summon Creatures,’ don’t gain their own gauntlets and are instead cast through the use of magic potions. Such a move is certainly surprising, but it is one that doesn’t necessarily detract.
For those who've played Fable II the combat will feel familiar, but it also feels refined and bettered from that previous game in the series. With levelling streamlined players can focus more on what matters in weapon choice and actual fighting. The decision to remove the health bar in favour of regenerating health like Mass Effect 2 is welcome, too. If you stay out of trouble, you'll heal completely, but if the enemy is on you a potion will probably be necessary.
The graphics will also feel familiar to those who've played Fable II, and while less impressive in 2010 than it was in 2008, Fable III's streamlined engine still kicks out some very pretty, lush environments for players to trek through, though the player models are starting to look a bit ropey now. Several locations return with 50 years' worth of changes to them - and this isn't some excuse to reuse assets - significant changes have happened within Albion thanks to the industrial revolution.
What assets that are reused are tastefully so, and Fable II players will likely have a few moments of shock as they realize certain monuments from Fable II are still there under the new urban sprawl. The soundtrack is a mixture of Fable I and II tunes and some beautiful new stuff, some of which has an Arabic theme to it - we'll leave why that is to your imagination. In other places, old themes are reused - for example, the music that plays in the Sanctuary is actually a slow-paced, relaxed take on the Heroes Guild music from Fable. It's touches like this that make a game universe rewarding to revisit, and Lionhead clearly love Albion very much.
The radial wheel that provided the user immediate access to the range of expressions available to be performed has now been removed, and players will now find themselves interacting with villagers one-on-one. You'll now approach a villager, press A and then perform actions from the selection that appears.
Needless to say, it's just as fun and intuitive as before with some of the animations sure to raise a smile. Alongside this is the new 'Touch' mechanic that allows the opportunity to hold any NPC by their hand and take them wherever you choose. Whilst this is perfect for those romantics at heart who'll take their betrothed on moonlit dates, those with a more sinister ideas are also able to drag people into the wilderness and kill them out of sight if you so wish. Although, we don't actively encourage that...!
The much talked-about touch mechanic is interesting, and the game throws some interesting situations at you - leading a blind man, for instance - but overall it doesn't feel like it is as big an emotional hook as Lionhead said it was. It doesn't help that NPCs will get stuck on scenery and break the handhold and catch you up once they free themselves and grab your hand once more, or that sometimes two characters are holding hands but their hands aren't even touching at all in the geometry, like they're using the force or something.
Bugs were something of a sore point in Fable II, and, to be honest, there's still problems here. There's the aforementioned hand-holding issues, and there's the fact that your faithful dog (who is still overall brilliant) sometimes barks to say there's a dig spot and then pads around a small area for five minutes not showing you where it is. There's also a strange bug where some enemies stop dead-still in combat, frozen on the spot. They come back to life if you get close enough - so best just so shoot them from afar, right?
It's disappointing and to be completely honest a pain in the backside that such a wonderful experience of a game has been sullied a little by bugs, but it's perhaps a testament to Fable III's greatness and how much it does right - the combat, the Sanctuary, character growth and the Road to Rule - that the bugs can be at least partially ignored.
One thing we haven't touched on is your time as King of Albion as that is beginning to tread into spoiler territory, but to be clear it's an interesting twist on the Fable formula yet again, providing you with the same kinds of difficult moral choices and a goal to work towards. It's fun stuff - we just wish there was more of it - and we wish the ending wasn't as abrupt as Fable II's was - which it is.
With Fable III, Lionhead have finally achieved the perfect balance through offering their most impressive script streamlined through a quantity of refined features that provide a core experience where your very morals are repeatedly put to the test. Fulfilling promises made since the series’ conception, players are now able to truly shape the very kingdom that they traverse - an accomplishment that makes the title one of the most compelling and rewarding additions to the Xbox 360 library this year.
There are problems, yes, but in a nutshell Fable III is a flawed diamond, and it's one that shines pretty bloody bright as a fun, unique twist on RPG traditions of old. It seems by testing the player's ability to keep promises, Lionhead has been able to keep a few old promises of their own.
Now if you'll excuse me, I'm off to kick a chicken...