There are few games each year that the whole gaming community hangs on, and Fable 3 is one of those for 2010. It might be because this series from Lionhead Studios nicely straddles the RPG and action genres or it might just be that the first two in the saga were huge hits. Either way, Fable 3 doesn't disappoint - well just a tiny bit, but nothing serious.
Those who played and enjoyed Fable and/or Fable 2 should stop reading now and just go down to the shops and buy it. However, chances are that if that's the case, you've probably already got the thing on order and you're just taking a look at this review to get yourself keyed up for its arrival - half hoping that you pick up something juicy and you don't spoil anything for yourself. Well, we promise to tread that line carefully.
The game is set in the very same land of Albion that the other games are although you won't necessarily recognise it to begin with. Not only has the action moved on 50 years from when the last hero - you - trod the plains, but it all seems to be presented at slightly different angles. As it happens, the more adventuring you do, the more you realise you do recognise many of the same paths and city plans. The difference is that industrialisation has hit Albion and everything's all gone a little bit brown where it was generally green before. All the citizens are looking much more 18th century, only with an added twist anachronistically, from Earth's history.
To put it slightly unkindly, and don't let this put you off, the closest thing to it is probably the mechanisation meets frontier-land fantasy of the movie the Wild West. But the bottom line is that it works and it's a nice change from the classic taverns and fireplaces of your average goblins and battle axes fantasy RPG. That said, Fable 3 still contains all four of the above, but somehow it doesn’t quite feel like that's the main event.
One thing that helps it on, as ever, is the star studded cast of voice actors used for NPCs. Zoe Wanamaker and Stephen Fry reprise their roles as Theresa the Seer and the entirely selfish, bisexual pistoleer Reaver respectively, and they're joined by a supporting cast which includes Ben Kinglsey as a mountain dweller with a Welsh twang, Simon Pegg and even a cameo from Jonathan Ross as well. Most familiar of all though is John Cleese who plays Jasper, your loyal manservant, who you'll spend most time hearing, given he's in charge of what is essentially your 3D character sheet known as the Sanctuary.
The idea of the Sanctuary is to remove all need for on-screen menus and, for better or for worse, it works. You don't need to muck around highlighting different options and shoulder buttoning your way through pages, and you don't need to spend two-thirds of your high-end graphic adventure in 2D enterprises. All the same though, that's all the Sanctuary really is - a 3D set of menus - and while it looks great and is very easy to use, it does involve around 5 per cent more running around and loading than the other method. It's well worth the trade off, but one can't help wondering if it's just for the benefit of the non-RPG hardcore so they're not put off by Strength stats and potions and the like.
The central feature of the Sanctuary is the map of Albion right in the middle, which you can zoom in and out of, and acts as a method of fast travel as well. It's also an excellent way of keeping tabs on what you've still got to achieve in each part of the world. From here, there are four rooms to explore: the Armoury, where you can switch in and out of different weapons; the Dressing Room, which provides a much needed improvement to the clothing organisation system from Fable 2; the Live Room, for all the co-op gaming which hadn't gone live at the time of writing, and the Trophy Room which features a couple of very large pinboards displaying your achievements as well as your bank account which is an area you get to fill with a mountain of gold as you amass your fortune. There's an excellent riddle on the back of the chest, but you can work that one out for yourself.
In-game, the lack of menus works particularly well during battle. There's no need to go in and out for food and potions. Each is automatically assigned as a quick option so you can just tap to consume as you go. That does remove a natural in-fight break, but you can still instantly transport yourself to the Sanctuary and back again if it's all getting a bit intense.
The action itself is largely the same with the same choice of hammer or sword for the hand-to-hand combat and either a pistol or rifle for ranged attacks. The control system is the same as before with both flourish attacks, blocks and that superb slow motion effect when you start pulling out some really good moves. As ever, it's possibly a little too samey all the way through the game, but it delivers you just enough to relish the next encounter while balanced against simplicity and the fact that it's basically impossible to die.
It's the weapon system that brought us most pleasure though. Rather than going out to hunt down the ultimate tools for the killing trade, your hammer, sword and guns evolve as you use them. They both gain new abilities and take on altered physical appearance as they level up, and indeed you also change in your own physicality depending upon which you most often employ as you wade though the hobs and hollow men of the land. Best of all, you can even find the odd legendary weapon which requires you to complete certain challenges with it before you can unlock its special abilities. A lovely touch and an interesting way to turn levelling on its head.
On the other hand, spell casting appears to be all too similar at first. The spells themselves are identical - fire, shock, vortex, blades, etc - and all as powered through a gauntlet. However, it starts getting very interesting indeed when you uncover spell weaving which allows you to mix two of them together at any one time. For example, you can choose vortex and fire so that your enemies are blown out of control and burnt - an excellent tactic in combination with pulping their flying bodies with melee or pistol attacks as they do so. Again, your casting efficiency and range will improve as you attain higher levels.
As for the story, the plot for Fable 3 is typically good. You start as a prince/princess in Albion's castle where your corrupt brother rules and very quickly you find yourself hopping about trying to raise an army of support to overthrow him. Guided by ex-soldier and military aid Sir Walter Beck you travel a rather too linear journey of proving yourself to various local leaders before earning their trust. Part of that involves being forced into a few side missions and, as a result, Fable 3 doesn't quite feel like the free adventure that its predecessor was. Being led by the nose by Sir Walter doesn't help much there either.
All the same it's a rollicking ride with beautifully thought-out stories, superb scripts and all with that uniquely tongue-in-cheek style typified by a side quest where you are made to go inside a mini-RPG adventure as Dungeon Master by some local Albion D&D geeks. Ultimately, you get to take control of the land and it's up to you what kind of ruler you become, as it is your call with many of the decisions within the game in general. The trouble is that although Lionhead talks up how different the adventure can be, more often than not, there are only two choices per dilemma which really just offers you the option of playing the good guy or the bad guy, and most will opt for the same one all the way through. So, actually, the effect in practise is that there are only two paths through the game that you can take without feeling a bit schizophrenic.
Beyond the main decisions, there are still plenty of minor fancies in terms of diet, sexual preference, theft, marriage and children - all of which effect your appearance, moral compass and social standing but, ultimately, they're a bit of an irrelevance. They don't make any difference to how many bad guys you can slay with a flick of your joystick and, well thought out though all of that is, it does take away the incentive to bother with all the role-play and customisation elements in the first place.
If you are still interested in that side of Fable 3, you'll be pleased to see that the interaction of NPCs has got even deeper. You can now touch citizens in all sorts of amusing ways from kissing and dancing to breaking wind on their heads and all of that will dramatically change their feelings towards you, sometimes unlocking the odd gift. Still though, it's quite possible to go through the whole game with absolute minimal contact of this kind.
A second issue of apparent over-design is that when all the best gear is found and then developed, it does make a nonsense of money or buying much of any interest from the shops in general. Likewise the financial incentives such as the entrepreneur skills and landlord skills seem pretty superfluous too, leaving the pie-making, blacksmithing and Lute Hero rhythm sub-games as just amusements rather than of long-term importance.
Let's be clear. Fable 3 is another hit from Lionshead. Buy it. It's really good. It's easy to play, it's fun and something all gamers will enjoy. The one question it leaves though is how different is it from Fable 2? Is it like an entirely new game or is it a very large expansions pack? It still has the same excellent talking puzzle doors and the equivalent of the Gargoyle chase (this time in the form of gnomes) but has it really delivered an experience that's 2 years on?
The answer is that it does enough with new systems such as the Sanctuary, the weapons and the spells, and the story and setting, making for an improved experience. However, neither the gameplay nor the fighting actually represent much of a departure from what we already know. In fact, the biggest risk of all taken in the creation of this title is allowing the hero to have a voice which ultimately makes little difference as you quest your way through.
All the same, it's a minor gripe and, we say again - this is an epic adventure with the very finest production values you can hope for. Pick up your old, leather backpack and your trusty wireless gamepad. It's time to be a hero again.