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Fable Anniversary review

Albion my way, then.

"Hello, Arseface!"

That cheery greeting, delivered in a broad West Country accent, sums up the Fable experience better than any marketing blurb ever did. It's certainly more representative than "for every choice, a consequence", a now decade-old promise as bold as it was hollow. Shy of a few binary good/evil decisions, almost anything you do in Fable can be reversed, or is forgotten about within minutes. In this new Anniversary edition for Xbox 360, my virtuous hero sports a faint halo as he ambles around Albion, despite having killed enough innocents to fill Oakvale Cemetery several times over. No, while Fable might have helped to popularise - if not pioneer - the kind of moral dilemmas that have become so prevalent in games over the past decade, its defining characteristics are its light-hearted and very British ambience and humour.

It's odd that such a gentle, unassuming fantasy RPG series should attract the level of vitriol that the Fable games do, but that's a lesson in the danger of failing to meet expectations. Six years in the making meant six years of Peter Molyneux promising the earth, and when Fable finally arrived and acorns you knocked down from trees didn't spawn mighty oaks, as Molyneux had claimed, some were understandably unhappy, and no amount of impromptu farting and chicken-kicking contests could appease them. And yet for others it was a delight: a whimsical, silly and engaging adventure that didn't take itself too seriously and was all the better for it.

SmartGlass features reportedly include an interactive map, new character bios and a strategy guide, though they were unavailable at the time of writing.

10 years, two sequels and a pair of spin-offs later, Fable's back, with a visual treatment aimed at bringing it in line with its successors. Director Ted Timmins pitched the idea during developer Lionhead's annual Creative Day in 2012, and while the update process proved longer and more complex than had been anticipated, Saber Interactive's fine work on Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary was the inspiration to stick at it. The result has been put together with genuine care; the problem is that Fable doesn't stand up nearly as well as Bungie's classic.

While many would argue convincingly that Halo has never quite been topped, Fable was all but superseded by its sequel, which refined the original game's ideas, streamlined its combat, widened its scope, and brought in a better script and a better cast. To its credit, Lionhead has made some smart adjustments in Anniversary, with a save system that actually works (auto-saving at checkpoints, while allowing you to manually save just about anywhere) and the option to use the control scheme from the later games; indeed, it's the default choice, though purists can switch back to the original's setup at any time. The thick coloured outlines on objects and characters you can interact with can be turned off, though given the noticeably muted colour palette - a side-effect of using the Unreal engine, one assumes - it's likely most will keep them on.

As ever, Lionhead's artists are better than its technicians. The frame-rate chugs in places, and while glitches are infrequent, you may occasionally see characters leaning back at 45-degree angles when addressing you.

For the most part, however, Lionhead has opted to preserve rather than refine. It's an understandable choice given the time and effort involved - over 100 artists worked on the new assets alone - and the developer can't really be blamed for the narrative elements that have aged, most notably the mannered delivery of the original voice cast. But it's jarring to witness characters presented to a contemporary standard jerk around like puppets in close-ups, mouths opening and closing like gasping fish. That strange disconnect is also present during regular play: characters look much better, yet their animations are 10 years old. Your avatar has the same ungainly run, and briefly pauses after every roll. Attempting to switch from melee to ranged combat, meanwhile, is a much more sluggish process than it was in Fable 2 and 3.

Fable Anniversary's biggest issue is inconsistency. Why has the user interface been significantly improved, but not the capricious targeting? You'll take out a Hobbe with a well-placed arrow before swinging wildly around to aim at a guard 20 feet behind you, although the two ugly critters you were hoping to hit next are now hacking at your shins. And surely something could have been done about the repetitive speech samples. My first go at a pub game was interrupted by a character shouting "over here" every five seconds, while so incessant was one man's chanting during the Arena battles that I deliberately took several hits in the hope that my poor performance would encourage him to shut up. And while there's little Lionhead could realistically do about the way Albion is segmented into zones, it's not unreasonable to wish for quicker loading times between them.

"It's the original Fable, rather than this update, that's the problem."

It's a bigger game than you might remember, and The Lost Chapters is included in its entirety, adding a good few hours to the campaign's runtime.

Anniversary does, however, offer the occasional reminder that not all of Fable 2's changes were for the better. The guild at which you accept each new quest makes for a solid structural base, while the game's focus on stat-boosting armour rather than clothing gives you more than just aesthetic reasons to change your outfit. The boast mechanic, too - a pre-quest wager on whether you can complete a mission naked or without being hit, for example - allows you to risk a few hundred coins at the start for a potentially bigger purse when your mission is complete. And while the whims of the aiming system can often be your undoing here (I managed to kill two traders I was escorting using the Multi-Arrow ability while aiming directly at a Balverine) it's an inventive idea that arguably makes for more interesting side challenges than, say, Assassin's Creed's full synchronisation objectives.

Meanwhile, the most successful of the changes may well be the new Achievements. Creative and funny, there are several of these that you can accomplish in two different ways - you can open all Albion's demon doors, for example, or greet a closed one with a middle-finger salute - while others pay tribute to the likes of Resident Evil 4, Zelda: Ocarina of Time and BioShock. One or two even affectionately reference Molyneux-era Lionhead in a way that's self-effacing rather than self-indulgent.

As there's no real burden of expectation on its shoulders, it's hard to imagine anyone getting angry with Fable Anniversary, and yet it's equally hard to shake a feeling of disappointment. It's the original, rather than this update, that's the problem. Fable's fundamentals already had a major overhaul in 2, and while a return to those ideas in rawer form provides an insight into the evolution of game mechanics, it also serves as a stark reminder of its age. Albion's rustic embrace is as warm and inviting as ever, but harsh reality gatecrashes this wistful Anniversary celebration.

6 / 10

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