Hitch up your pantaloons and grab your needlessly ornate sword: we’re going back to Albion for Lionhead Studios’s “Fable III”: the game series that combines action, role playing, world renowned British actors and chicken kicking.
(The ‘Albion’ in question is a fictional land, not the Brisbane suburb of the same name. If there was a videogame set in Brisbane’s Albion, it would be very short: the main quest would simply be to get out of Albion as quickly as possible.)
Fable III starts fifty years after the end of Fable II. You are the son (or daughter) of the old king (or queen) of Albion, the hero (or heroine) of Fable 2 (or II). He (or she) has long since died, leaving the land in the hands of your tyrannical older brother (or sis—no, wait, he’s always your brother), Logan.
As the industrial age starts to boom, Logan rules Albion with an iron fist: sucking the money, joy and sometimes even life from its people. The setting for a long-overdue revolution is set: and so—as Theresa, voiced by Zoe Wanamaker, enjoys telling us—our story begins.
And here comes the first major change in Fable III. Our story begins much later than we’re used to: the traditional tragic, character building childhood featured in the first two games has been condensed into a single tragic, character building moral dilemma you must face as a young adult. This is a feature of Fable III as a whole: Condensing. Streamlining. Cramming as much of what Fable is famous for into a tighter, more easily accessible package. Playing Fable 2 was like trying to create a gourmet meal in a supermarket: sure, the ingredients we needed were there, but so was a bunch of stuff we didn’t need, and there was no way of knowing which was which.
In Fable III, the supermarket is still there, but this time you are given a recipe. You still have the freedom to do whatever (or whomever) you want, buy whatever you want, wear whatever you want dyed whatever colour you want, but it feels less overwhelming. Also, this dynamic is worked into the main quest much more significantly, so this “total control” gimmick feels like it actually has a point: the clothing choices aren’t just for giggles; sometimes you are required to change clothes to infiltrate a mercenary camp, or attend a masquerade ball, or to look more like a chicken. The ability to buy, sell, decorate, and profit from houses and shops also impacts on the main quest this time around, so everything has a purpose.
So, what about the nuts and bolts of the game? Visually, it is beautiful as always, with its distinct tone that is atmospheric despite being cartoon-like. But it is still lumpy; with kinks that should have been worked out by now, three games into the franchise. The glowing trail that indicates where you’re supposed to go still disappears, and the collision detection is hit and miss. The odd clipping flub can be forgiven, but I spent a third of the game watching the cape and sword on my hero’s back continually disappear into each other (it’s a magic sword, not an invisible one).
The voice acting is sublime: with a cast featuring John Cleese, Stephen Fry, Sir Ben Kingsley and Simon Pegg, playing a videogame has never felt so close to a night at the theatre. The entire gamut of British humour—from gauche slapstick to subtle wordplay—is injected into every available crevice, making every moment fun if not outright hilarious. (Even the terrible jokes are elevated by the delivery of some very talented actors.)
And while Fable III’s story arc is obvious (start off weak, get stronger, eventually rule the country—it’s even given away in the cover art) it’s what you need to do to accomplish this that really makes a difference. You can’t just max out your lightning spell and have at it. You have to gain friends and allies from the citizens of Albion to successfully pull off a hostile takeover. You’ll find yourself running a lot of tedious errands to accomplish this—one is inclined to wonder, exactly who was the bastard who stole everyone’s prized possessions and buried them all over the place for your dog to sniff out?—but you do get the feeling of accomplishment as you slowly win over the denizens of Albion.
Once you’re the ruler (which takes a lot less time than you might think), you have some decisions to make: Do you keep the promises you made to your allies, or go rogue and, say, turn an orphanage into a brothel?
One major change from the earlier Fable titles that I welcomed the most is the menu system, which has been completely overhauled (and about damn time—the only thing more tedious than Fable 2’s menu system is a DOS prompt). In fact, there is no menu system at all anymore. Everything is handled at ‘The Sanctuary’ – a place to which you are magically transported every time you hit the start button.
From The Sanctuary you can change clothes and weapons, admire your wealth and collected trophies, buy and sell properties, fast travel to locations, jump into a multiplayer game or simply save and continue, all with the assistance of your faithful but dry butler, voiced by John Cleese.
It is a cute, dynamic way to bundle up the menu system, even if it does take a bit of getting used to (if you pause the game—ie, press the start button—to go to the bathroom, don’t be startled when John Cleese starts nattering at you from the next room. You haven’t really paused; you’ve just retired to the Sanctuary).
Fable III is an impressive step for the Fable franchise. The story and gameplay has grown nicely from the last two games, while the extra guff that cluttered up Fable 2 has been pruned. The game continues to get prettier, but until the collision detection issues are sorted, it will never be visually spectacular. And while the streamlining of the game is welcome, it didn’t need to be shortened so much! Pruning an overgrown tree and cutting it in half are two different things. Fable III got both, and it’s a shame, because I would have happily played the story for a lot longer.
Fable III: I give it four out of five Choose Your Own Adventure Books (they were short, too).