Fable III Review

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Fable III Publisher: Microsoft Games
Developer: Lionhead Studios

Platform: Xbox 360 and PC
Reviewed on Xbox 360

The land of Albion is restless. Her monarch has raped the land, taxed the populace into poverty and pressed children into labor to fill the palace treasury. Brutal oppression and horrific executions have become the norm, and Albion's people are bubbling over with revolutionary sentiment. Only a "Hero" of royal blood has the talent, power and lineage to lead the people in revolution. But after ascending to the throne, will that hero have the courage to make the difficult decisions to save Albion from a threat even greater than its cruel nobility?

Kyle Ackerman

The more games from Lionhead Studios I play, the more I've come to think of Lionhead (or perhaps I should attribute this to Executive Producer Peter Molyneux personally) as the studio of unintended consequences. Buried in some of the "innovative" trappings that set Fable III apart from other role-playing games, there's an impressive and entertaining (albeit short) game. It's the innovation that crushes what is good about Fable III, obscuring its shining moments of success. So many things went wrong in Fable III's effort to transform our use of menus, our understanding of in-game relationships and even moral choices that It was a struggle to stay engaged with the actual game.

Flatulence Never Fades

What's an unintended consequence? In previous installments of Fable, if you killed innocents and farted at passers-by, your visage transformed into something demonic and you reeked evil. If you helped the populace and struck heroic poses, you glowed angelic and were worshiped by street-folk. Aside from some minor side-quests, rather than presenting moral quandaries in Fable III, Lionhead Studios presents a world in which state ownership of all property and production is the ultimate good. More on that later, but Fable III's morality has more in common with Marx's partner Engels than it does with the Ten Commandments. Of course, you can still belch.

Lionhead's effort to simplify Fable III, making it more intuitive and immersive, is noble. Largely, this comes down to using fewer buttons. That's laudable but also makes for fewer player choices. Combat options are shoot, swing a weapon, use magic or evade. That's not so bad, but all choice of expressions from previous games has been winnowed down to do something nice, do something nasty or do something weird. If you're a do-gooder, your first interaction with many townsfolk might be an intimate hug or slow dance. (At least children use a different set of interactions.) It makes most character interactions feel more alien and less intuitive than in previous installments, despite simplifying the controls. That would be fine if I could avoid such interactions, but then I miss out on so much of Fable III that it's not a realistic choice.

"Would You Like A Dog Suit?"

Worse yet, Fable III gets rid of most menus. That sounds like the Holy Grail of role-playing game development, and it would be – if it worked. It doesn't. Instead of hitting a button to pause and go to an array of simple menus, Fable III introduces a central hub called the Sanctuary I have to visit anytime I want to travel around the world of Albion, change weapons, change spells or change the path of the helpful glowing trail that leads me by the nose to complete quests. The Sanctuary is a fully 3D area I could walk around, interact with and explore, but after the first two trips, it was just something that took a lot longer to use than a menu and was clumsier, to boot. To change my quests, I still had to teleport to the sanctuary, walk over to a map table, activate the table, and then press the button to see my quest list. I should point out that the quest list I finally got to was still poorly organized and irritating to use.

The first two times I went to the Sanctuary, I was thrilled that it was tended to by my faithful servent Jasper, voiced by John Cleese. I positively adore having Cleese as a voice actor in the game, and he does a marvelous job as Jasper, explaining the functions of the Sanctuary and commenting on your various actions and choices. What quickly became grating is that there is no pausing in Fable III (with rare exceptions, when Lionhead doesn't want you to visit the Sanctuary). Instead of being able to put things on hold to answer the phone or take a bio-break, I'd have John Cleese regaling me with the same few witticisms I ultimately heard hundreds of times. Often, he'd invite me to purchase new content (with real, not in-game, money). Sadly, the only such content available was a suit that let me dress up as a dog.

So, every time I had to answer the phone, I'd be asked by friends if I was watching Monty Python. When I complained about the damnable dog suit to friends, when they called or stopped by, it became de rigueur to ask if Cleese was trying to sell me a dog suit again. I would have enjoyed Fable III so much more if I'd had a few traditional menus as an option. Developers, if something takes longer than basic menus, make it optional (at least after the first time)!

If You Give Me Your Juice Box I'll Be Your Friend Forever!

If I had to pick a single feature that epitomizes all that is Fable, it would be relationships with the ordinary citizens of the world. You can make friends with nearly anyone, greet (or spurn) anyone you pass, marry, have children and ultimately become a famous (or infamous) public figure. Fable III even gets the dog right. He'll stay close, with his tail between his legs in terrifying situations, show affection and bark to alert you to danger or treasure at other times. He really contributes. The townsfolk, on the other hand, are more of an irritation than in past Fable games.

After a successful revolution, the entire kingdom of Albion recognized my deeds, and would cheer me as I passed by in the street. But if I wanted to be someone's friend, I still had to play patty-cake and go digging around in the woods for an old book that person lost. These relationship quests quickly added up, and became impossible to distinguish in the quest log, such that my dog was always alerting me to lost property for someone or other. Worse yet, if I held a friendly expression too long, that person would fall in love and further clutter my quest log with requests for dates. If real relationships were this hard, either no one would have friends, or the landscape would be full of holes dug by folks from the next town over trying to find lost property of passing acquaintances.

A Slumlord is the Most Moral Kind of Lord

The economy is Fable III's biggest failing. There are a lot of ways to make money. You can bake pies, play the lute, smith blades, purchase and transport trade goods and even flip houses, but these options pale compared to owning the world. Fable III encourages property ownership the way Fannie Mae used to. You can own virtually everything, renting out residences and getting a cut of store sales. Start buying property at the beginning of the game, and a colossal amount of cash will collect in your coffers every five minutes or so. By the time the revolution was a success, I had more cash than would fit in a dragon's horde. Do a few side quests or search around for the game's collectibles, and that rent money will make you fabulously wealthy.

So what's the problem? Fable III recasts moral choice as an economic decision. No matter your preference, for much of the game, you'll follow the same path (good or evil) to bring about revolution in Albion. The choices come when, as Albion's ruler, you need to honor difficult promises. In general, being a bastard fills Albion's coffers with the cash it needs to meet a terrifying threat that will kill the populace. Being kind (building a school rather than mandating child labor) costs Albion money. Morality in Fable III is postponed until late, when it turns morality into: you can be awful, or you can be nice (but it's more expensive).

That would be a problem if, by the time those choices occurred, I hadn't had enough cash to build Albion the grandest standing army it had ever seen, and with more coming in every few minutes. When the state (with me as monarch) owns every parcel of property in Albion, who needs taxes? I could do everything the populace wanted and provide the treasury with money to spare. Why not? I'd already bought everything there was to buy, from furniture to weaponry to every parcel of land in my kingdom. Apparently, raising taxes is evil, but being a monopolistic landlord with the exclusive right to own and rent all property is noble.

There Are Some (Not-So-Hard) Decisions to Make

Perhaps the one area where Fable III presents meaningful choice is in combat style. Experience (in the form of "Guild Seals") can be redeemed for more powerful melee, ranged and magical attacks. You'll be hard-pressed to bring all up to their maximum levels before finishing the plot without adventuring in another hero's world (Fable III's version of multiplayer, a typically laggy and haphazard experience for me) or doing a zillion relationship quests (which is interminably irritating). That means making meaningful decisions, and that, I appreciate.

I nearly didn't finish Fable III. Right after choosing the décor for my castle, the game crashed. Repeatedly. Given the auto-save function, there was no way for me to go back to a previous save and replay the game. It took more than two hours of tinkering with various things, hoping to make headway before I discovered the problem. Finally, I realized that the queen had mysteriously vanished, and the game kept crashing when it tried to cope with what should happen to the royal heir. As soon as I evicted some renters and left myself another empty house for the child, things moved forward.

Have I beaten the horse that is Fable III enough? I suppose so. It's only infuriating because there is such a good game underlying Fable III's problems, and I want to play it. I just don't want to have to whistle for every peasant in Albion and have John Cleese constantly selling me an old Halloween costume only to discover that I can buy my way out of difficult moral decisions by becoming a slum lord. Fable III has a lot of good points. A great role-playing game lets me play the way I want to play – not the way Lionhead wants me to play.

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This page contains a single entry by Editor published on November 11, 2010 10:52 PM.

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