The Good: Peter Molyneux blends unique mix of elements into action RPG gameplay The Bad: Some of which works, but much of which does not The Ugly: Games for Windows Live
I should probably say right up front that, not only did I never play Fable the first, but I never even knew that there was a Fable 2 (maybe it didn’t come out for the PC?), so I come to Fable III with a completely blank slate so to speak (beyond hundreds of hours of playing other RPGs and action-RPG hybrids).
That said, I’ve also been having a lot of problems with Games for Windows Live, which isn’t necessarily a component of Fable III but is how the game was delivered to me for review as a digital download. Put succinctly, that sucks. As a basic marketplace interface it’s alright, but demands that I install some messaging client to “enhance my experience in the online community” or some such nonsense. Hey, Microsoft, how about letting me decide just how much enhancing I want my online experience to contain instead of demanding that I install multiple layers of your bloatware while I’m just trying to download a game, huh? Then the messenger itself wouldn’t install correctly until I first installed some other obscure client-side program from some backwater Microsoft ftp site, then the game download, all 7+ GB of it was corrupted somehow and I had to download it again. Then GFLW lost the save games from my first two hours or so of playing, so I had to go through it all twice. Finally, you’ve got to be logged in to GFWL to play it at all, so when I had a few days of quirky internet service last week I couldn’t even play it. All of that definitely served to sour my gameplay experience, and is really not the fault of Fable III, so I’m going to try and ignore all of that and move on.
Going into Fable III, the whole blank slate thing, I had no idea what to expect (beyond that I knew it was an RPG). It was, I swear, no more than an hour into the game when I said to myself, “This feels like a Peter Molyneux game.” Checked it on Wikipedia, and sure enough, it is. If his name doesn’t ring a bell, Peter Molyneux is, IMO, one of the most creative and risk-taking minds in game design today. Early in his career he made a number of games that defied pigeonholing into any particular genres. Memorable titles like Populous (I’m still playing Populous 3 to this day) and Powermonger, early titles that put Bullfrog on the map. Dungeon Keeper was his as well, a game that I place in the top 20 games of all time. Great games that definitely broke a few molds along the way. More recently, and I think the shift came somewhere around the time that Lionhead Studios started up (2001), Molyneux seems to have fixated on an element of gameplay that I’m going to call “societal interaction,” in which every NPC you run across has needs and desires and a name, and a part of the game, be it large or small, is to interact with as many of them as possible (fulfill their needs or snub them, the choice is up to you). It’s still mold-breaking, but I’m not exactly a fan.
In Black and White (2005, also by Molyneux) you played a god trying to gain worshippers by performing menial tasks for them, like herding their sheep or collecting wood to help them build boats. I commented in my review that it seemed like you were a god performing very ungod-like activities. B&W also introduced the concept of an animal familiar (like a pet) which, with training and interaction, could learn to help you do your menial tasks (and also fought the pets of enemy gods for you). I found all of these activities pretty dull – I didn’t want to play fetch with my familiar; I have a real dog for that – but they were also for the most part unnecessary in that you could play the game without doing all that stuff largely without penalty. I know it seems like I’m going into B&W a lot for a review on Fable III, but trust me, the parallel is there and will become clear in a moment.
Fable III is essentially an action RPG in which you play as a prince (or princess) whose older brother, the king, is a little bit nuts. He’s abusing his power (great little in-game movie of him pacing in front of a map of the kingdom muttering that it will bend to his will or he will destroy it), and the whole place is a powder keg teetering on explosion. You flee the castle and head into the countryside with the plan of gaining support from the people and returning to claim the crown. How do you go about doing that? Some of that is standard RPG fare – you defeat a group of brigands who have been terrorizing the populous of some town or recover some long-lost artifact from some tomb, etc. But a bunch of that involves the “societal interaction” stuff as in B&W. I’m helping a farmer gather his chickens and baking pies. I’m a prince and not a god, but that doesn’t make the activities feel any less menial. Here an entire kingdom is in the balance and I’m walking the streets acting like a court jester to entertain the people and doing ghetto fist bumps to befriend them (never has handshaking featured so prominently in a videogame). All of these activities gain you experience which you use to upgrade your character, so unlike in B&W there’s really no way to avoid a lot of it.
And much like B&W was a pretty thin RTS if you chose to ignore all the social interaction, Fable III is a pretty thin action RPG in that much of the activity is not adventuring or dungeon crawling or even combat, but social interactions. It doesn’t exactly help matters that the social interactions are for the most part without ramifications. I can literally walk through a town murdering people, then do a few fist bumps, do a few side quests in the “good” way, and still be thought of as a good person. Furthermore the whole game sort of seems to be geared towards gamers who like taking the good path. The game more or less forces you to play nice guy to stay on the plot train.
The upgrade path of the character is quite narrow, narrower even than Gothic IV which didn’t exactly present players with a plethora of upgrade options. You expend experience points to open chests which contain the upgrades, and there are a pretty limited selection of chests to open. Attacks, for example, are in three groups – melee, ranged, and spell – and one such chest you can choose to open (you know what the chest contains before you open it) is “increased damage with melee weapons.” Another upgrade is “whistling” which you can use to entertain people and gain more experience. And so it goes. Combat is very similar to Gothic IV as well, giving you two different weapon actions with left and right mouse buttons, and the ability to execute a dive roll should someone take a swing at you. It doesn’t exactly come down to button mashing, but neither is it highly strategic and considered combat. If there’s a creature in the game that you can’t beat by rolling and shooting I never came across them. Oh, and hey, there’s no mana or health bar. As near as I can tell you can cast spells as often as you like, and after you’ve taken some abuse the screen gets a little red on the edges and the game warns you that you’re taking damage, but after combat it just sort of fades away (kind of like Call of Duty in that regard).
Graphically Fable III is nice. There were few if any wow moments (some of the monsters look quite good, and occasionally you come across a vista that’s nice, but stops short of ooooh), but that’s really a fault of artwork and geography, not the engine. People’s hair tries to sort of bounce realistically, but it does so as one big mass, reminding more than anything of breasts. Voicework, and there is a freaking ton of it (I’m not sure I’ve ever seen any game with more) is very well done. John Cleese does the voice of Jasper, the prince’s faithful butler, and he is, as always, magnificent.
Look, in a sense I understand what Molyneux was trying to do here – create a more immersive action RPG environment in that many action-RPGs are really little more than clickfests. In Fable III you can purchase houses, buy businesses, get married, and have kids. Like B&W you have a pet, a dog in this case, but he’s more useful and less idiosyncratic, and you can train him to help you in combat and he sniffs out treasure for you. By and large good stuff. Those things work. And in general dealing with the leaders of the various towns to get them to ally with you is good RPG fodder (and deciding later whether or not to keep the promises you make is an interesting wrinkle). But the dreary nature of performing menial tasks repeatedly with individual people to scrape experience? Not so much. In fact as an activity it likely ranks down there with gold farming. And while it was ludicrous as a god to be expected to find every lost child, as a prince trying to stabilize an entire kingdom it’s only slightly less asinine. And in Fable III it’s all been linked together, inextricably.