It was hardly Milo & Kate. When Peter Molyneux trotted out onto the stage at Microsoft's E3 press conference two weeks ago, it was to slap a 26th October release date on Fable III, introduce a new trailer - and then get out of the way of the bullet train of ultra-marketable Kinect software steaming onto the stage, sharpish.
Molyneux's blue-sky thinking is a great asset to Lionhead and Microsoft Game Studios, and he can still generate excitement and debate like few other game designers. But he's learned the hard way about over-promising, that sometimes it's best to shut up and let the games do the talking. So it was at E3 2010, not just at the conference, but with Fable III itself.
Lionhead felt it had something else to prove this time - that its game was real, full of the stuff that it had been talking about, and you could play it. To that end, it landed what must have been one the largest and most comprehensive playable demos of the year on the E3 show floor.
The demo comes in two parts, one doing the ramshackle rustic comedy thing with a bit of freeform questing, trading and conversation dotted around the village of Brightwall. The second showcases combat, storytelling and a more serious and epic mood in Shadelight Dungeon. I get to sit down and explore them both at relative leisure, in the company of a couple of Lionhead guides, away from the hubbub of E3 itself.
"It's all there. This is a bit of a different Lionhead, really," scripter Ted Timmins tells me. "There's no broken promises this time around... In the past it was all talk and no show. What we've come to E3 with is a message that everything we talk about, we can show you in some form on the screen."
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The difficult third Albion.
DLC missions available now.
Well, not quite everything. We still didn't get to see anything of Fable III's Big Idea, which will see your character become the ruler of Albion halfway through the game's story, and have to manage the expectations of the supporters you've gathered en route, while making decisions about the future of your kingdom even as you continue your quest.
It's a fascinating prospect, of course, but one with a huge and potentially unwieldy scope that could be hard to reconcile with the streamlined accessibility Molyneux was so keen to highlight when we saw the game earlier in the year.
To be fair, Lionhead is hardly saying more about kingship than the nothing it's showing. But Timmins - who along with senior artist Jon Eckersley is overflowing with pride and enthusiasm for the game, even after a long day of demoing it on the show floor - isn't above teasing us a bit.
"What's great about [the ruling stuff] is the game doesn't actually end when you think it should. It carries on for double the amount of time. We feel we've crafted a longer experience, almost two games in one, a game that changes so much halfway that it feels like the second half is a completely new experience," he says.
"When you're King, some of the decisions you make will change a level from what you've seen it to be to being something completely new and different."
Enticing stuff, but in the spirit of the new Lionhead, let's get down to what's in front of us. The cheerful, pastoral, sunny town of Brightwall shows no signs of the creeping onset of industrial revolution, so evident in the smoky metropolis we saw back in February. Clothing fashions have moved on, but otherwise this is the Albion you remember: equal parts Tolkien, Jane Austen, Monty Python and Disney's Camelot; saucy, scenic and stereotypically English.
Wander close to any other character and a prompt pops up inviting you to press the left trigger to hold hands. This is the "touch" mechanic Molyneux is so proud of, allowing you to physically lead characters around in a style reminiscent of the PS2 classic ICO. I don't find a use for it beyond dragging a comely wench round the back of a barn and flirting with her, but that seems use enough, to be honest.
Later, Timmins and Eckersley show me "touch" working in a more structured story setting, at the end of the Shadelight Dungeon episode. The hero needs to lead her blinded companion Sir Walter out of the cave, dragging the slow old man by the hand, the animation noticeably different to my exploits as a rustic sexual pest. Timmins explains how something as simple as letting go of that left trigger at this point could make a profound change to your game.
"This is a completely subtle choice. At any point, we can let him go and run off. We don't say you have to go back, we never make it an objective or anything like that. Just cross the desert and leave him... If you were playing the retail game, he'd remember what you just did. There's ramifications."
Otherwise, back in Brightwall, everything has been freshened up considerably - with the exception of one creature and some of the hero models, Fable III's artwork is 100 per cent new - and the game feels more seamless and effortless to play, but also distinctly familiar. Your dog gambols around your feet and helps locate quest objectives, and the sparkling breadcrumb trail is there to tempt you towards something to do next, if you want it.
I end up dressing up in a chicken suit to bring some hens home to roost, and subsequently get involved in an animal rights debate with the farmer and his wife about whether to slaughter them. Then a local worthy asks me to help him get a divorce by seducing his uptight wife (in a scene revealing that the hero has a voice in dialogue this time around). If you were worrying about Fable losing its lightness of touch and sense of humour as it goes all political, don't.
One remarkable change is the game's menu interface. Incredibly for a role-playing game, there isn't one. Press start and, in a neat bit of technical sleight-of-hand, you're instantly warped to your Sanctuary, an otherworldly home, map and options interface in one. Here you'll find your John Cleese-voiced butler Jasper who offers explanation, guidance and dry comment. (Fable III's impressive voice cast also includes Bernard Hill, Simon Pegg, Michael Fassbender, Zoe Wannamaker, Jonathan Ross and Stephen Fry.)
You change your weaponry, wardrobe and other options in this dark chamber by walking through a series of doors, and there's a 3D map table in the centre to interact with. You can use it to see all open quests and warp to them. A treasury room houses your records and stats, and a Live room leads to the game's online co-operative mode for two.
This, as we've heard before, is much improved over Fable II's. "We do admit, the co-op in Fable II was rubbish," says Timmins frankly. "We'd be restricted to being within 10 yards of each other, I'd have to be your henchman. What we've done this time is, if you bring your hero into my game, you bring your hero, your stats, your weapons, your interface... Together we can run anywhere in the same region." You'll be able to pursue entirely different tasks as you go, as well as trade weapons, even get married.
"If I'm playing with my girlfriend, I can get married to my girlfriend in the game," says Timmins. "Have a wedding, get down on one knee like in real life. When you actually get married in the game, you have a shared bank account. So one day you might turn your game on thinking yeah, I've got 1000 gold, I can have that weapon that I wanted, you run over you press A, you've got no money. The reason is, you go to your house, you've got pink wallpaper and a new bed."
On to Shadelight Dungeon. This thoroughly spooky cavern is situated on the new continent of Aurora, a Middle Eastern desert land as stark and mysterious as Albion is bucolic and friendly. You land here after a shipwreck, your vessel destroyed by a cannonball during an escape from the tyrant Logan who you're trying to depose.
It's hauntingly beautiful. Outdoors, sandswept dunes and crags under a glowering sun would be the most spectacular desertscape of E3 if it wasn't for Journey, but it's a close run thing. In Shadelight, the huge, misty spaces of the cavern are populated with crowds of pure black shadow beings with glowing eyes and fantastical, vaguely Egyptian monsters that steer refreshingly clear of fantasy norm. Bearing in mind the industrial and pastoral moods we've already seen, Fable III is clearly exploring a much wider tonal range than its predecessors, in terms of its art at least.
We've already heard about the weapons that will grow in power and morph with your hero according to your actions and decisions. As with everything in Fable III, including your own hero's levelling and status - even the health bar relegated to an action-game-style desaturation effect - this happens organically and is translated into in-game effects rather than interface readouts.
"There's no convoluted level-up screens, there's no having to spend experience on certain things; it all happens in the background, it's all subliminal," says Timmins. "When your weapon becomes more powerful, the hero stands up, throws his weapon in the air, everything goes into slow motion, and it blasts all the enemies away."
"We actually call it the Greyskull moment, as in Castle Greyskull," says Eckersley.
Combat's had a complete overhaul: although Lionhead likes the simplicity of Fable II's "one-button" combat, they felt it was sluggish and clumsy, especially when switching weapons. Now, with ranged and melee attacks mapped to separate buttons, combo attacks, slow-mo finishes and swift animation transitions, it feels even more like a third-person action game, albeit one that's played at a slightly more relaxed pace. The timing could be more crisply defined, but there's plenty of time for Lionhead to refine that.
Given how solid and sleek and comprehensive this demo of Fable III is, that's a reassuring thought indeed. There's every sign that one of Molyneux's two great ambitions for the game - to make a sprawling, emergent RPG as approachable and slick as the most mass-market action game - will be realised. On the other ambition, its political dimension, we'll have to accept his promises for now. This time, though, we're inclined to take them on trust.
Fable III will be released on 26th October, simultaneously for Xbox 360 and PC.