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Long read: The beauty and drama of video games and their clouds

"It's a little bit hard to work out without knowing the altitude of that dragon..."

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Fable: The Lost Chapters

It's okay. Jim's found them now.

Too many games forget to be playful. All too often they're over-serious, po-faced, or just don't get the joke. They're the kind of game that it's easy to laugh at behind its back. Come to think of it, they're quite often the games that lead us to bash the fantasy genre unfairly: because they really don't get why we find them pompous and embarrassing.

But a few games are a lot more self-aware, and Fable is one of them. It's a bit more likely to be one of your mates, and take joy in its antics. It'll have a laugh with you, and let you muck around. In fact, that's pretty much what Fable is about: messing around in fantasyland. Of course there's a big old backdrop of revenge and dark magic too, but Fable's real strengths are in the mass of splendid detail that you get to wade through like a fat kid at a food-fight.

Toy Evil

This playful, less than serious attitude might make some keen role-players feel a bit uncomfortable about Fable's central theme, which is the choices that will put you on the side of good, or the side of evil. You get the feeling that perhaps your conduct doesn't really matter at all, and that the choices are without any real meaning. There's not much suspension of disbelief: NPCs talking about stats and control mechanisms don't let you forget that it's just a game.

Glowing swords indicate something or other. Probably how tough I'm being, right now.

But such quibbles miss the point: the big choices aren't what matters; it's about having all these choices in the first place, especially the little ones. Fable gives you lots to do and see and play with. You can get fat, thin, married, weird, hairy, bald, stinky, and even have a relationship with a gay man, as Kieron discovered in his Xbox review of the original. You can attack just about anyone, and steal or let things pass you by. Having an affair or eating till you're a blubberbeast aren't necessarily about 'role-playing' or 'narrative', they're about just playing around and seeing that Fable can do. It's a toy world, and while there's the odd ramification for whether you're going to be very good or very bad, this is generally a game that is really about finding out what is possible.

Bored with the adulation of being a good man, I was able to lure an innocent tradesmen off into the woods so that I could make a sacrifice to dark gods. No reason, I just wanted to poke the game and see what happened. Part of the reason for this is that Fable is just so malleable. You can push it one way or the other and get pleasing results. That's what I mean about being playful: it's the kind of game that ones you to experiment. You can slay hippies or protect the innocent, and all of this is wrapped up on one of the most gorgeous looking fantasy worlds to grace the PC. It begins to make the lavish Gothic series as clunky as it actually is, and takes big cues from the MMOs in how much you can put into dressing and fitting out your character. When playing Fable you get the feeling that really there should be half a dozen action-RPGs of this quality and detail kicking about on the PC every year. There should be a whole lot more dressing up, exploring and hitting earth trolls with a giant hammer.

Psychotic Interactions

Central to the joy in Fable is the ease with which you interact with the world (especially when interacting via a giant hammer). People chat away constantly, either inanely babbling about how you kicked a chicken or offering clues, guidance or things to react to. Most people have something of a story and get pulled into the network of quests in many different ways.

Getting facial tattoos and some goth-shirts allows you to make a statement about intended evil.

What it mostly comes down to though is the fighting. Fable's real-time combat is so natural and so easy to develop that you barely notice how refined it is. Making your character tougher and faster is a short but smooth curve, allowing you to quickly max out certain areas and move onto something else. Dodging, blocking and stabbing is immediate and satisfying. The fight with the bandit boss is one of the early highlights that really demonstrates how convincing the ducking/dodging dynamic really is. (We should mention that the bow too is totally excellent, and pleasingly meaty in its missile-delivery.)

The only thing that's irritating about the PC version is that there is a slight wiggle in the following camera, which niggles after the rock-steady third-person cameras we're used to. Granted, that's a crap thing to get annoyed with, but the devil is in the details. And Fable's devil is one that draws you in through dozens of delightful touches and little flourishes - keep attacking in the direction of a fallen enemy and you'll perform a finishing move or even kick the corpse. Fable is rich with character and nuanced design. You feel like it knows it, too. It's a game in full command of its faculties.

Chickens Are Hatched

But what about those lost chapters? Well the PC is gifted with a few new quests, aside from those Xbox Fablists will already have defeated, including some of the most delightful Withnail & I psychedelic hippie druggists and a few extra jaunts across fantasyland. There are new items and a few new abilities too - so it's the usual gamut of extra content you'd expect from these souped-up versions, the kind of additions that don't much affect to he beat of the whole game. The one significant difference is that it is a little longer than the original game, allowing you to continue on for a few more quests after the original resolution of the storyline as it plays out on the Xbox. For those who complained that the game was too short (those being power-gaming zombie-men) this might offer some (little if they've already played it to decide it's too short) consolation. Okay, so The Lost Chapters don't really constitute a hugely different experience, but there's more of Fable of PC than there was on the Xbox, and that should count for something. Maybe.

Killing bandits with the bow as they charge toward you is consistently excellent.

Anyway, the PC version of Fable makes perfect sense. It works superbly with keyboard and mouse, and runs and lovely high resolutions on your expensive PC and plays joyously. It's not exactly the perfect RPG, but it's hard to say what's missing. Perhaps it's because there aren't many third-person action-based RPGs out there, but Fable sometimes feels like a missed opportunity.

For all its beauty, the areas you explore do seem rather small and hemmed in - especially when we're so used to expansive, open-ended RPG worlds. As mentioned, the folk of Fable react to you in all kinds of amusingly different ways, and that is hugely entertaining throughout, but that can leave the backbone of the game seeming a little forced and false. "Go and collect a quest card from the map table," says the Guildmaster, never letting you forget that it's just a game. It's almost too easy to be evil, because you just don't care about the cartoon quest you're being sent on. Like any normal person dumped into a Disneyland with no responsibilities, you're bound to run riot. But maybe that's a good thing.

8 / 10