Fable III Reader Review
Fable has always been an excercise in perception realignment. In a medium where the end product very rarely amounts to the hype preceding its release Fable has got to be a standard bearer for games that fail to amount to the lofty goals set for them. For all of Peter Moleneux's (Lionhead's founder and keynote speaker) hyperbolic rhetoric about revolutionising RPGs and promising the world to the player figuratively and literally the actual game ended up being little more than the confused love child of Ninja Gaiden and the Sims filmed on location in Devon. The world of Albion that you adventured in wasn't even open plan , eshewing the player freedom and immersion of an open world a la Zelda/GTA for smaller areas and better graphical fidelity that became the norm with western RPGs like Mass Effect and Deus Ex Invisible War. The interactions with characters amounted to nothing more than glorified emoticon recitals and the morality system that was to define your actions and ultimately the fate of the world was purely black and white in nature. Despite the fact the game didn't encompass even half of the original design document the game was solid enough as an action adventure/RPG hybrid and it had a whimsical British centric charm that helped it sell in the millions, especially across the pond where they lap that stuff up. The game looked and sounded beautiful with none other than Danny Elfman handling the score and the game was easy enough to accomodate any skill level so the potential at retail at the least was very profitable. What seemed evident at the time was that the developers may have been held back by limitations of the Xbox hardware they were working with, by the time the sequel was announced for Microsoft's next console the hype train started over. This time we would see the potential realised.
However this was not to be. The developers boxed in by lateral thinking basically followed the template set by the first game but this time made it bigger and set it in an Albion 500 years later. The areas were larger in but it still wasn't open world, the emoticons were more plentiful but the method was still arbitrary, you were manipulating statistics not developing actual relationships and although some of the promises of the first game were now realised like the ability to have children, it all amounted to window dressing: distractions from the game instead of intrinsic parts of the experience. The charm was still prevalent however with popular British celebrities like Stephen Fry being roped in to help supply the several gallons of quintessential English humour that would act as the catalyst for several millions of unit sales. Fable 2 confirmed the series' status as an RPG lite/action adventure where once the ideas that created the original game would have led to a much more ambiguous pigeon hole. Despite the receding ambition the formula Lionhead stumbled upon with the first and now refined in the second proved to do bloody good business and were functional if not spectacular gameplay wise. Who could blame them for not wanting to go back to formula? Would the original concept actually have amounted to a game worth playing?
Now we have Fable 3. Released two years on from the second game and even the quick release schedule now confirms the series as less RPG and more action game. As such the ingame time between events is shortened to 50 years as opposed to the 500 years that separated the first and second in the series. The world of Albion is undergoing an industrial revolution under the despot king Logan. The main hook this time around is that as well as being an all powerful hero and all encompassing property tycoon you as the player can now be a king yourself after you eventually overthrow this malevolent monarch.
How this translates in gameplay terms is that the first half of the game is similar to anyone that's played previous installments. You start off as a young, powerless lad or laddette and through missions and levelling up you become more powerful and gain weapons and abilities. By the time the story leads up to the overthrowing of the king, who is actually your sibling, the second half follows the player as he trys to lead the country either coming good on or deliberately rebuking the promises he made to his allies and ultimately his people on his rise to power. The morality of the previous installments takes a more profound gravitas this time around, you are not just a hero/villain to be heralded or reviled you are now in charge of key decisions that will affect the world you reside in.
In theory, very ambitious. In practice, very Fable. The actual mechanics of the game do not change at all upon your coronation. It doesn't become a real time strategy game once you become king, and you do not have an army at your command. It's still very much bread and butter Fable with an added crown and a castle to move your family into. You'll still find yourself doing menial tasks like delivering letters for people and chasing petty crooks even though you are for all intents and purposes the next one down from the almighty Himself. Also quite how a world that has managed to go through an industrial revolution but doesn't have a postal or police service is beyond me. The big earth shattering decisions that await you as king turn out to be more a lesson in economics than morality. Your efforts to save the kingdom from its impending doom and also to keep the promises made to the people on your ascension all boils down to the cash flow of the treasury. Keeping to your pledges will mean that your minions will love you but it will also mean that you will not have the means to ward off the danger to come later. Will you be able to handle your people's dillusionment to save them from greater peril?
As an excercise in 'the greater good' it's an interesting idea but ultimately fundamentally flawed. All resistance can be easily sidestepped by becoming a property tycoon. Buy up all the businesses and houses in Albion, sit back and watch the cash fly in then transfer your personal wealth across to save the day. I find it a real shame that the problems essentially boil down to cash as the first major decision you have to make at the very start of the game is a lot more difficult and morally ambiguous than any conundrum you will make as king. With a healthy bank balance you're back to the choice of good or bad with little room for grey in between. I find it interesting how a game that's so mired in morality and ethics does not address issues surrounding the potential monopoly the player can gain ingame. I think if Lionhead were to add business ethics to the mixing pot then players would maybe think twice about buying up everything nailed down to keep to their moral dogma and would therefore have to answer the difficult questions that the developers were trying to ask.
The monarch metagame as I call it is the single big addition to the Fable 3 formula, the rest can be argued as regressions. The way in which you levelled your character in previous games was through experience gained in the fields of Skill, Will and Strength. If you were to favour melee combat then you would gain Strength points with which to spend on new abilities related to that field. Similarly if you were more magically inclined you'd gain Will and if firearms or ranged weapons were more your thing then you would be rewarded with Skill points. In addition you could build up a combat multiplyer through stringing attacks without reprisals that would exponentially increase not only these three fields but a pool of general experience points that you could spend in any area. It sounds a lot more complicated than it actually is. What it translates to is the more you do something the better your potential for improving it. Apparently Lionhead thought it was too complicated and would alienate new players so for the third game they stripped away all of this pesky experience for a simpler solution.
The 'Road to Rule' was added to offer players a physical representation of their levelling up. Experience and the individual skill sets are now replaced with Guild Seals earned through killing enemies or performing tasks and missions. Gates that segment your progression through this metaphysical 'road' open after every major plot point is completed with the seals being used to open up chests through the course. These chests contain everything from packs that let you buy shops and houses to levelling up the key Melee, Ranged and Magic abilities of your character. What this effectively boils down to is an over simplification of every trope of the Fable experience. Putting everything in boxes makes for a game easy that's easy to follow but also reins in the once organic way of defining your character. The combat suffers from being extremely one note and repetitive, even the magic system has been stripped down to the ability to wield only one spell or a combination of two. You do not unlock any new abilities other than different spells that are only incrementally different from each other. As such the refinement feels like a step too far in simplification to lure in more users. Most missions are spent following a linear path being swarmed by a greatly increased number of enemies from previous titles and the combat mechanics are just not robust or satisfying enough to carry the game. You don't even have to avoid attacks anymore. There is no combo multiplyer to maintain with the only punishment for getting knocked out (there is no death here) being the resetting of the current seal being earned. The fact that the carrot dangled in front of the player to keep them motivated is now so limited that it is really just the plot that will really keep the player invested for the 8 hours or so it takes to complete the game.
Luckily this is an area that Fable 3 greatly improves on it's forebears. The story in previous games always felt superfluous; the characters growth and affect on the world at large was always more important. Although the narrative in Fable 3 won't light any fires and is often riddled in cliche it is still fairly well written and well delivered by pretty much everyone who's anyone in the British celebrity circles. Stephen Fry reprises his role as the morally bankrupt Reaver and is joined by everyone from Ben Kingsley to John Cleese (who performs an excellent turn as your butler) to a lengthy cameo by Jonathon Ross. Although the actual mechanics of the game suffer from oversimplicity, for a lot of players the voice acting and story will be enough to pique their interest and keep them going to the endgame. For anyone else (like me) who believes the mechanics maketh the game then it can be argued that Fable 3 suffers from an over reliance on that olde' English charm and the much beloved personalities who lend their voice talents to the proceedings to paper over some massive cracks.
The actual missions are often amusing in their set up but extremely samey in their execution. Whatever the premise may be, the reality usually boils down to following a linear path cutting a swath through a relentless onslaught of enemies. Some of the missions in particular are just tired retreads of the same instance in previous installments with a smaller bestiary to flesh out the encounters. The arena mission makes it's third outing and there are no longer any trolls in Albion it seems. At this point in the series Fable could really do with looking at some of the more highly regarded action RPGs like Zelda for inspiration on it's quests. Other fetch missions are even less interesting (with the exception of one task requiring the use of a chicken suit) and don't even pay out enough Guild Seals to warrant their undertaking.
You still have the ability to marry and have children this time around but they stay as perfunctory assets to the meat of the game and prove once again to just be ways in which to unlock achievements other than to actually enrich your playing time. NPCs (Non Player Characters) still wonder around aimlessly and still offer pointless -if sometimes amusing- asides when confronted with the player character. You can still undertake menial tasks to rake in some money but no matter how different they sound they all amount to the same recital of prompted button presses. The lack of any real development to these areas means that you will never truly feel like you live in a living breathing world, something that the first Fable promised and now three games in we're still nowhere near the potential the series promised.
As I said at the start of the review Fable has always meant perception realignment and when you got over the fact that the games up to this point were nothing more than solid action adventures and the inherent disappointment subsided you could appreciate them for what they are. However by the third time out of the gate we should by now know what type of game we're getting. Past titles in the series benefitted at a critical level from the ambiguity in the game design; it was so unlike anything else. The fact that the developers now seem so hellbent on pigeonholing the game combined with the evidence that no effort was made to develop the parts of the experience that used to set Fable apart leaves me in no doubt that we're dealing with a straight Action Adventure with some RPG overtones. It therefore has to compare to other games of the same genre and the truth is it just doesn't come anywhere near the cream of the crop. The excellent art direction and sound design as well as the top notch voice work can not disguise a game that is so regressive and ultimately mediocre at it's core. As an RPG it's too simple and rudimentary, lacking any real depth or any real incentive to develop your character and as an action game the combat is too basic. The combat: the foundation of any action game offers no resistance and is too easily beaten by mashing one button. This coupled with the fact that the enemies you face have a swarm mentality and combined with the sheer number of them means that there is no motivation to develop any other way of dealing with them. Everything Fable offers in its current guise has been done infinitely better by many other games for many years. It's not a terrible game but if it wasn't for the top grade wallpaper then you would see the walls starting to rot underneath.
The irony with Fable 3 is for a series so often cited as being too ambitious to deliver on it's promises the third title suffers from a serious lack of ambition other than to make something quick, easy and throwaway and that's a real shame. The most nonconformist action I can level at Fable 3 is that while other developers are adding features to their sequels Lionhead are taking them away. RENT
Adam Dyer 15th November 2010