Format: Xbox 360
Release: Out now
Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
The Industrial Age has arrived in Albion. The throne you won in Fable II is now occupied by a son, who has since proved himself a tyrant. Player control, meanwhile, has been inherited by the louche younger sibling. Galvanised by a betrayal, the prince or princess sees the elder brother’s reign for what it is, flees the castle, and sets about fomenting rebellion.
The quests by which you secure support for your coup take us into familiar Fable territory – an RPG-lite mix of farce and fighting in a series of sprawling, bucolic environments that run the length of Albion. It feels streamlined: even the side-quests tie back into your overall progress, since proving yourself to powermongers will often involve satisfying the bizarre needs of the local people. So it is that you see off balverine threats, chaperone traders through bandit country, re-enact long-lost plays, unleash a plague of gnomes, break up marriages, steal celebrity underpants and dress up as a chicken to lure errant poultry back to roost. Fable still delights in its eccentric mishmash of British humour, from the affectionately quaint slapstick, punning and Pythonesque non-sequiturs to moments that revel in darkness and irony.
Boil off the script, however, and you’re not left with an awful lot besides fighting. Missions involve getting somewhere, pressing A and then going back. Sometimes you can choose to press B instead, if you’re feeling a bit naughty – an option outlined with a flaming ring, were you unsure that murdering hippies is considered bad form. There’s more to be said about the shortcomings of Lionhead’s moral choices later, but strictly in terms of quest interaction, there’s simply not a great deal going on.
Fable III largely gets away with it through sheer charm, through the infectious sense of fun in its detail, as you trace the trail of a serial-insulter, stumble into a parody of pen-and-paper RPGs or hunt for a malevolent gnome, shouting jibes at you from the rafters of a building. At all points, the comedy is bolstered by voice-acting of considerable panache, old hands like John Cleese and Stephen Fry effortlessly proving their adept comic timing. But such non-interactive trimmings can only go so far: because combat has been stripped of depth, the game has a tougher time keeping your attention.
If you played Fable II as a button masher, or with little interest in magic, then you may hardly notice – but for our personal fighting style it’s gutting. Fable II allowed you to stack spells on one button, powering up different attacks the longer you held it down. It made you think tactically, with early activated spells buying you time to reposition or charge up powerful attacks. Now you can equip just one magic attack (albeit one combined from two spells, later in the game). Mastery of Fable II’s combat meant elegant, elaborate dances in which you could avoid taking a single blow. It made you feel heroic. Now, the best method is to unleash shockwave spell after shockwave spell until everyone falls over. It makes you feel cheap.
The game is still generous with its distractions. Hidden caskets of loot and uncharted caves beckon you from the beaten path; houses and businesses can be bought, rents changed and tenants evicted; ladies can be wooed, married and impregnated; hats can be purchased and donned. Few of these activities, though unfailingly pleasant, are more elaborate than they were in Fable II; if anything, the game is more insistent that you get on with things rather than dally about trying on different frocks (and Fable III’s range pour homme is a little disappointing – we recommend cross-dressing).
Along the main questline you make promises to various faction leaders who join your insurrection, and later decide whether to keep them or not. Ironically, the degree of your freedom in this was exaggerated in previews – these promises are necessary to make any progress at all. Some are even made automatically. It’s not the only thing that doesn’t match up with expectation. One much-trumpeted sequence in which you choose to leave a friend to die or drag him the length of a desert simply doesn’t have the promised consequences – your decision is made irrelevant by the following cutscene. We apologise for reporting it as described to us by Lionhead staff. When will we learn?
These promises become painfully significant in the game’s second half. Having ousted your brother, the business of running a kingdom turns out to be trickier than you imagined. It’s an enticing concept treated with such a honking lack of subtlety that your stake in the fate of the kingdom all but evaporates. Morality has come a long way in games, but Lionhead got as far as Black & White and gave up: choices here are false dichotomies framed by pantomime depictions of good and evil.
Help a neighbouring nation at huge financial cost, or enslave them? Orphanage or brothel? Since the narrative imposes an impetus to save money, freedom of choice is never really present – it’s a tortuous lesson on how tough power is unless you compromise, making the dilemma crude and your intent futile. It’s a combination that feels faintly hectoring. True, Fable aims for flippancy, and the absurd choices often raise a bleak chuckle. But the game is being flippant with everything you’ve set out to do for the first six hours. That might be a joke too far.
The execution makes this doubly problematic. In its vaudevillian attempt to sabotage player benevolence, the game breaks its own logic. If you think you can raise the capital required by the plot by snapping up property, beware. With every kingly decision made, the game removes an unpredictable number of days between then and your deadline. We were sitting pretty on our property empire when 100 days vanished in a loading screen. Suddenly, we were a bad king. The choices that we wanted to make, which seemed like logical means to solve the entire problem, never presented themselves.
Despite this, once you laugh off the conclusion of the main questline, there remains a wealth of warmly written sidequests to be hoovered up, secrets to be hunted in every corner, and chickens to be kicked. There’s persistent delight to be had mucking around in Albion, and it’s difficult to harbour great annoyance for its story’s failing when it takes place in a world imbued with such a will to pleasure, and such an irreverent sense of itself. Nonetheless, for all its polish and solid production, its core combat offering is a regression and its showy centrepiece comes apart almost entirely. What lies around and beneath is joyous – but you can’t help but feel that it’s the basis for something greater than Fable III.