We want to be king, do we not? We want, at least, to try it, to reign wise and strong, loved, perhaps, or feared. Fable III is the video game that could let you learn which kind of ruler you might be. At least, that was the plan.
Fable III is the third game in Lionhead Studio's unusual and highly-regarded series about the daring deeds of a malleable hero. In this series you may be good or evil, gay or straight, married with children or married with side-marriages, a landowner, a serial farter, a swordsman, magician, or gunman. In Fable III, that range returns in the service of a plot that charges you with fomenting a revolution against your brother, the demented inheritor of the kingdom earned by the hero of Fable II. The twist is that late in the game you will be king and then play through the consequences of the promises you made during your rise to power.
Gamers who want an adventure in a world they can manipulate, where choice and opportunity feels abundant. Also, players who want to see one of 2010's most unusual game design experiments and won't mind its hobbled execution.
Fable III is from the stable led by Peter Molyneux, a veteran designer whose ambitions for each of his games make them un-missable experiments , important chemistry sets that test possible game design futures.
We're talking about a role-playing game, right? How much of an RPG is this game? Fable III is thick with linear story. The main tale is simple yet surprisingly compelling. The hero, the exiled prince or princess (depending on the player's choice) of Albion must travel through forests, villages and snowy peaks to meet colorful characters who require the completion of a simple quests to win their membership in the swelling rebellion. The quests often bottleneck just when you want to explore. Clearly, the game's creators were determined to get you on the throne as king so you could see the back part of the game.
Don't worry about dying in this game. The worst wound is a knockdown that costs some experience points. Combat is all fast flourishes with little threat.
You can still shape the world, though? Isn't that the point? Definitely. I once asked Molyneux what the most impressive thing in Fable II was, and he offered an uncharacteristically un-enchanting reply: The number of simulations running simultaneously in the game. Fable III keeps that going. Walk up to a townsperson and start dancing with them or farting in their face and relationships will change; the way you execute your quests affects your moral bearing, the way you manage property, set prices, and decorate homes influences the game's economy and your reputation. In Fable III, weapons will morph based on your actions and gain new abilities as you complete kill-quota quests. Those are simple additions. More provocative is some of the design backpedaling here.
Retreat? Did Lionhead backpedal from some of their more ambitious accomplishments? It appears they have. Fable had been touted as a role-playing game series that hid its statistics, veiling the dice roles dictating its laws and physics. My hero became slender in a Fable because he used a gun and not a mace, for example. In Fable III your fighting style still determines your physique, but you improve your proficiency with guns by actively opening the treasure chest marked with the next gun skill level. You actively unlock the option to marry, the option to steal from people's homes, the option to buy houses and, later, the option to buy shops. This system may better explain this kind of game to newcomers, but for a return player it makes what had felt like a magical array of opportunity a less clever mechanism of levers.
The game is built to get you to the king part? That's what it feels like. You amass your army and unlock all those core Fable systems briskly. Soon you have explored many beautifully-drawn lands, possibly tarried to start a family or hunt ghosts, and along the way made several key promises. Then you are king and in a 15th hour that sadly turns out to be the game's 11th hour. You sit upon the throne ready to make a year's worth of decrees. At last, a thrilling new system! You will face the moral dilemmas that come with wearing the crown.
But what really happens once you're king (or queen)? Well, one choice you must make as king requires you to choose between opening a homeless shelter and opening a brothel. Another involves whether to allow child labor. Arguing for the dark side is a man who once tried to murder you. While it is certain that the people at Lionhead Studios are quite bright, the version of kingly rule they let us play posits a world in which rulers have the choice to do obvious good or to cackle while committing evil. Absent from Fable III's worldview is the idea that a ruler, be they George W. Bush or Barack Obama, does what they do out of the assumption their decisions are made for good. Evil is obvious. Its advocates are snakes. Fable III's simplistic morality in this king phase is a crushing disappointment. How frustrating given that the game's first moral choice, made in its first quarter-hour is a stomach-knotter.
Write off the king stuff as an interesting failed experiment, and what do you have? All of the game prior to the king-phase — and all that can follow, since the vast lands of Albion remain open for questing after the main storyline ends — is a solid remix of the gameplay experiences seen in Fable II. That's a strong formula of action-packed adventure and it's still good. I could enjoy a good Fable III quest, running around with my evolving pistol and my two-handed magic, chasing bad guys while my dog gets distracted by treasure.
And with other people is the core Fable stuff better? The active and passive online and/or single-system offline multiplayer in this game is a franchise improvement. As you play, you'll be flagged with statistical comparisons, showing that you've just opened more chests or killed more Balverines than your friend. Visiting each other's worlds — as your own character and not some minion, this time — is easy, as is marrying them and having kids. It's a fun lark, not a main attraction.
Isn't there something with a butler in this game? Yes, the best addition to Fable III is one so daring I'm shocked it works. In most video games, you can press pause and access maps and text menus of items and attributes. In Fable III, you press pause and zap eye-blink fast into a sanctuary staffed by John Cleese. How walking into a map room to spot your quests or into a weapon room to change your load-out is an improvement is mind-boggling, but it is. Access to the sanctuary is lightning fast, visually charming, orderly, and technologically stunning. They got this very right.
Shave off Fable III's disappointing end and you'd have a better game, albeit one quite similar to the laudatory Fable II. But the world is boring without experimentation. Fable III is better off with its shaky, risky king phase. The fifth act of this play is still a rough draft. It's nevertheless been built on an impressive set that we can play in for a long time. Those interested in ambitious stumbles should commit to Fable III. Those wanting something more polished can settle for the previous model.
Fable III was developed by Lionhead Studios and published by Microsoft Game Studios for the Xbox 360, released on October 26. Retails for $59.99. A copy of the game was given to us by the publisher for reviewing purposes. Played through the singleplayer campaign, became king, dragged a guy to the mines, did some two-player co-op in which an attempt to have a threesome resulted in a divorce and the loss of my house. But at least I got the other player (virtually) pregnant over Xbox Live
[Note: The review's section on co-op had been accidentally cut when this review was originally edited and published. It's been properly restored.]