Version tested: Xbox
Honestly: one thing just led to another.
If you want to blame it on anything, blame it on insecurity. I'd decided I was too thin. A 34-year old hero, hailed throughout the realm of Albion and I still had the lithe figure of a boy, since my sporadic snacking hadn't done anything to fill me out. Something a little more determined was needed, I thought, as I cleared the shopkeeper out of meat and sat, gorging myself on thirty or so portions.
I went too far. I was morbidly obese. Oh dear.
So I decided to start my own personal fat-club, and proceeded to run everywhere. It did the trick, at the expense of making me visibly stink. However terminal BO wasn't enough to prevent the romantic adventure I was tumbling towards. You see, if I wasn't running, I'd have never had ended up jogging through the class room, welcomed by the welcoming waves of cheers from the kids and the instantly smitten glance of the teacher. The male teacher.
Now, I presumed that there'd be gay men in the game, but in all my time criss-crossing Albion I'd never seen evidence of it. I had to investigate. Some mild flirting and heroic posturing in front of the class and he's infatuated. He asks for a wedding ring. I, forgetting about my wife on the other side of the kingdom by simply recalling the adventurer's credo "What Goes On Tour, Stays On Tour", offer him one.
We're married. We move into my comfortable town flat. We have the sex.
All of a sudden, I'm bisexual!
Except as soon as I've done it, I realise I probably shouldn't have. I need this apartment for another part of my increasingly unheroic plans and - the cynical part of my mind screams - I didn't even get a dowry off his clearly disapproving parents. I need to be out! So, leading him out on the town, I proceed to flirt outrageously with various adoring women, causing him to spit curses at them in displeasure. I even propose to a barmaid before him. It's not enough. So, at the end of my tether, I lead him back to the privacy of our own home where, away from the prying eyes of the town guards, I proceed to beat the hell out my partner. His cries and protestations grow louder, the blows increasingly hard to deliver as I ask myself What On Earth Am I Doing. "Where did it all go wrong," my husband mournfully cries, before demanding a divorce. Our tie is severed.
I wander out into the street. The greatest hero of Albion: just a dumb bastard wifebeater.
I feel dirty. Genuinely dirty.
I probably should get back to saving the world or something.
So... why have I wasted far too much of my word-count on this anecdote rather than saying how many levels the game has or whether it uses the left trigger for targeting or the right? Well, to pretentiously paraphrase top-potato headed poet "Big" Phil Larkin, to some that says nothing - to others that leaves nothing to be said. Either that little piece of game interests you or it doesn't. If it doesn't, it's unlikely Fable is the game for you. It's the fresh-faced poster-child for the irrelevancy is the new relevancy movement.
Which isn't to say that it's all gloss. While clearly in the lineage of the Bullfrog high-concept games, (And can we stop solely crediting all their failings and successes to Molyneux, please?), its constructed around the framework of a solid action-RPG. Think, for ease of reference, Zelda cross-bred with Morrowind. However, if you're solely devoted to Getting To The End in a game, chances are you may find it somewhat slight. Its flaws - and most of those reside in the main action parts - will weigh more heavily, and the relatively short length of the game's main arc could make you feel a little unsatisfied. People have been known to quote ten hours from start to finish, which for any RPG is a little pitiful.
However, to steal a surprisingly funny line from a forumite over at Evil Avatar, boasting about how quick you can finish Fable is a little like a man boasting how quick they come during sex. We're very much in Journey over Destination territory.
Fable is, essentially, about being a Hero (or rather, a figure in Heroic Fantasy, removing the necessarily positive connotations of the word "hero", since the option to be King Shit is very much open). Starting in childhood, you rapidly progress through your training in a guild before being released into a standard, if cleverly and gloriously skewed, fantasy land to find your destiny and save the world or something. This involves standard RPG mechanics of taking quests - accepted from the Hero guild itself - and so earning gold and spending experience points across the available skillsets (Strength, Skill and magic related ones, basically, with the player being able to pick and choose which areas interest them, getting experience both for sole spending in each based on how much they use each, as well as general experience to be assigned to anything they fancy). As you complete missions, you open up more of the map which you can then explore using teleporters as blessed shortcuts.
However, where Fable tries harder is its setting, which features a more extensive attempt to model a living world which responds to your actions than we've seen in an Action RPG. In other words, you have an external life. Get married. Get divorced. Get your hair cut. Age. Flirt. Sneer. Laugh. Break laws. Break wind. Buy property. Influences from the Sims and GTA are pretty clearly evident.
While if you approach it with the years of hype in mind you're sure to quibble, Fable actually goes further than any game ever to put you in those over-sized boots that bestride the earth. So depending on your successes and failings on quests, people will respond appropriately. As your reputation grows, you're cheered as you pass, women grow faint and... well, life becomes a ticker-tape parade. You can draw lines to City of Heroes' recent highly-atmospheric superficial additions of civilians congratulating you, but here it's even more effective as it's only you who are receiving this blessed attention. No, you don't literally age from birth to death as was described earlier in the Project Ego genesis of the game, and those expecting the wide-open spaces of Morrowind are going to be sorely disappointed by the interconnecting corridors which make up its world, but in terms of what it does model, Fable generally succeeds in its quests.
It fumbles its sword more when the player's fumbling his sword (that pro-noun reveals another fault: no option for a female lead). The amount of equipment and options available is pretty hefty, requiring a fairly elaborate control system that does lack elegance. Digging something out of the depths of your inventory can really feel like rooting through a backpack, which isn't exactly fun and can lead to mistakedly using objects in the midst of battle. While combat against small numbers mostly operates well, as the mobs increase things become more fuzzy. The lock-on target system creates moments of screaming when it flips you to face the opposite direction to an attack. Even worse, when it decides that you actually were interested in targeting a friendly despite being knee-deep in some vile lycanthrope-sorts. The camera also starts to fall apart in these intense situations, and wasn't exactly being world-class in the first place. Niggles abound - for example, if you're being followed by a henchman sort, an icon floats above their head. If they're jogging behind you, the icon has a terrible tendency to obscure the entire screen. Man!
However, it should be stressed that even if we removed all of Fable's unique positive qualities, and left it as a straight Action RPG it'd still be a perfectly passable example of its genre. This isn't a surface over content thing. Or, at least, purely surface over context.
Plot-wise, well... China Mieville won't be cribbing notes. Clichéd fantasy of the boylostfamilypowermysteriouslineage type abounds... However, Fable manages with considerable panache to transcend these base ingredients. Rather than being po-faced or twee, it keeps it light. While stopping short of open Pratchett-esque parody, its tongue is very much kept in cheek. It's gloriously, idiosyncratically British. The voice cast are gathered, virtually exclusively, from north of the Watford gap, with Brum and Scouse tones clashing into each other, and shouted exchanges between philandering villagers reminding you of out-takes from Coronation Street. Hell - it's so British that when stripped off, the lead character has Union Jack underpants. If the fairy-boy-isms of Zelda always made it difficult for you to love Ocarina of Time as much as you know you should, then Fable's adult-but-not-too-adult stance is a blessed relief.
So Fable is, essentially, a Christmas Tree of a game. It uses the solid Action RPG as a frame to hand every random, glorious, playful bauble Lionhead and Big Blue Box could construct off. It'll certainly gain the ire of the sort of person who furiously states that the vast majority of the decisions don't "matter" in games like Knights of the Old Republic or Deus Ex. For those of us who understand that while true non-linear storytelling is never going to happen, personalising a linear narrative in meaningful ways according to your own inclinations is far from inconsequential, then it's another significant step into the future.
8 / 10