How much enjoyment you’ll get out of Lionhead Studios’ Fable III will depend a lot on how much you got out of this popular British developer’s previous entries in the series. You see – and I’ll whisper this quietly for fear of recrimination - it’s not actually all that different to Fable II. A fact which is actually very surprising considering the typical bluster and hyperbole that comes out of company mouthpiece Peter Molyneux’s gob on a daily basis – we love you really Peter, please make another Syndicate game.
Like so many sequels these days, Fable III iterates, tweaks and expands upon the core fundamentals of the previous game to deliver an improved and enhanced experience that’s more than familiar to existing fans, but simultaneously manages to remain easily accessible to newcomers to the series. This is great if you’re already a fan, but is certainly going to do nothing to convince you otherwise if you’re not.
And normally at this point I’d wax lyrical something about how this sequel has added a tremendous amount of spit and polish to the franchise, but I’m afraid in this instance, you’re more likely to notice a lack of the aforementioned. While Lionhead has managed to build yet another magical, vivid and inspiring interpretation of Albion, at times some of its elements look like up-scaled Xbox-era assets. Rubbish lip-synching, frequent loading issues, low-polygon models, bland textures, horrendous slow-down and sub-standard RPG-tropes mean things don’t get off to a brilliant start. For the first couple of hours it feels oh-so-predictable. The initially-limited variety of NPC interactions feels stifling and restrictive. The clichéd fairytale about a prince turned bad with his younger brother waiting in the wings to take over the throne, lacks impact when compared to the glorious innocent opening of Fable II. And the inescapable been-there done-that feeling makes you wonder if you’ve wasted your hard-earned cash.
But then thankfully things do start to progress, and slowly but surely the subtle additions to the series start to show their worth. For instance, one of the biggest changes is the removal of an in-game menu-screen. It’s instead been replaced with a sanctuary, where your loyal butler Jasper - brilliantly voiced by John Cleese - will look after your weapons, costumes, gauntlets and other in-game paraphernalia. What would previously have been an option on the main-menu screen is now represented by a room. For example, your weapons are stored and selected in the armoury, while clothes are hung on mannequins in the changing room. It’s a really nice touch and carries on the Fable tradition of cleverly disguising the serious RPG elements other similar games would instead choose to represent with convoluted spreadsheets and detailed statistics.
One thing Fable games have always had is humour by the bucket-load and Fable III is no exception. We British are well known for our base and often crude sense of humour and this is perfectly represented throughout. Nowhere more so than in the myriad ways in which it’s possible to interact with the many people you’ll meet throughout your quest. As ever you can interact both positively and negatively with them and the dance interaction, which ends rather camply with the famous lift from the Dirty Dancing movie, is brilliant realised. While at the other end of the spectrum, grabbing an NPC’s head before breaking wind in their face and watching as they vomit and often pass out is childish, puerile, immature and bloody brilliant.
The further you progress through the game the more interactions you’ll unlock and the clever use of these helps aid your progress as you either unleash a charm offensive to get people on your side, or conversely, make enemies of all and sundry. Similarly to both previous games it’s possible to play as a good or evil character and how you engage others throughout has a dramatic effect on their feelings towards you as well as your own visual manifestation.
The visuals of the game have also been heavily influenced by the fact that in this version of Albion, the industrial revolution is in full swing. So rather bizarrely you'll encounter monorails, artillery weapons and power-stations. The game also deals with the dark oppressive themes asociated with this period such as child labour, poverty and horrendous working conditions, but delivers them in that typical pantomine style that takes the hard edges off what would otherwise be a sombre and melancholic subject matter. This industrial revolution also has an impact on your inventory, with guns taking on a more prominent role. Pistols, shotguns and rifles are all present and correct with each giving you a choice to make between power vs. range.
What’s also refreshing is how the game often presents you with binary choices – do this or do that – but delivers them in such a way that’s it not always obvious which is the good choice and which the bad. For instance, early on you’ve to decide between killing a group of villagers or killing a single solitary love interest. Neither option is particularly heart-warming but which will benefit you the most?
And in addition to the already mentioned John Cleese, Fable III continues the tradition of hiring an ensemble cast with Stephen Fry, Zoe Wanamaker, Simon Pegg, Sir Ben Kingsley, Jonathan Ross and Jason Manford among the more recognizable voices you’ll encounter throughout the game. And while many games have featured renowned actors in the past, they’ve usually always been let down by an awful script. Thankfully the writing in Fable III is mostly excellent with genuinely laugh-out-loud funny moments prevalent throughout.
The game’s also at its best when it escapes from traditional gaming conventions and breaks that fabled fourth wall. One mission in particular involving medieval pen and paper RPG players is an extremely witty allegory of the processes of game development and is well worth hunting down. Another sees you dressing up in all manner of outlandish costumes as you take on the roles of various characters in a collection of scenes from a play. Each one poking fun at common videogame tropes while simultaneously rewarding you for taking the time to deviate from the main quest.
But then this high quality writing is occasionally let down by numerous examples of typical RPG fodder including the obligatory and hideous fetch-quest, and it's this constant battle of really high quality moments running parallel with hideously low quality ones that make it difficult to come to a firm conclusion on either side of the fence.
To return to my opening salvo, if you played and enjoyed the previous games in the series then there’s plenty to here to love. It’s not revolutionary by any means but it’s consistently well written, engaging and full of depth. But the graphical shortcomings, including possibly the worst screen-tearing I’ve ever seen in an Xbox 360 game, regularly and negatively contribute towards the overall experience. Sure, installing the game to the hard-drive helps massively, but this should never be used an excuse for – like so many other games during this quarter – being rushed out of the door in order to maximise the profits of the pre-Christmas sales boom. The addition of a more polished Co-Op experience also gives you another reason to visit Albion, just don’t go in expecting the streets to be paved with gold.