Nothing like a bit of Whitesnake to start the day. So, here we are with the third game in Lionhead Studios’ Fable series, released for Xbox in 2010.
This time we’re launched into a world of industry and invention, of guns, steam engines, and child labour. This time, rather than kicking chickens around the streets of Bowerstone, you’re the charming prince or princess depending upon your predilection, and you are the offspring of your character from the second Fable game.
John Cleese is on hand as your butler to give you directions as you learn your first moves, and start off on a story of rebellion and tyranny. Your elder brother, Logan, rules the kingdom, but he’s clearly not doing much of a job of it because you take on the lead in a revolution, leave the castle, and begin your quest to wrest power back for the people.
The game really is very similar to the previous titles in that you carry an axe or sword and a gun, you can do magic, and you make your way around Albion’s settlements, fight things and then bring down the baddie. There are a range of side quests you can do, you can chat up the villagers and have offspring with them, and spend your time getting tattoos and dressing up in different costumes if you wish. However, this game has something a bit different up its sleeve, which I’ll tell you about later.
The kingdom of Albion
Albion, especially Bowerstone, has apparently entered the Industrial Revolution. Bowerstone Market still makes up the main town here, with the castle built beside it, but Bowerstone Industrial shows the filth and squalor that has comes with it.
Once more you can buy and rent out houses, but this time their condition declines throughout the game, and you stop receiving rent, so you have to go back now and again and patch everything up. You can choose one for your marital home, have a big shindig down in Bowerstone and start popping out the kids, who then run around after you demanding a doll. The various towns and areas are smaller and most of time easier to work your way round than in Fable II, and thankfully you now have a map with the location of all of the areas, and you can fast travel between then, as well as zoom in to view all available houses, and buy, sell and repair them. People with quests also appear so you can see who wants what.
Most of your time you’ll spend in Bowerstone, because that is where all of the shops are. Once you’ve been through random little places at the start of the game, such as the miner’s camp, there’s no need to go back, which makes it look like you’ve got a large world to explore, but in reality once you’ve been through once a lot of it becomes redundant. There should be specialisms in the different areas, like the cities in Oblivion, such as the miners camp making a particular kind of armour for example. However, this also crosses over into my problems with the weapons and armour side of the game.
This is the age of industry, so there’s a steampunk element to the design of the game, which includes the weapons you can use. There are limited spells that are cast through wearing gauntlets, and it has the same effect as in Fable II. However, you don’t get style points this time on how well you dispatched an enemy, but there are some awesome moves that your character does when fighting which makes up for this, and which get more elaborate as the game progresses.
Again, you can boast, tickle or play pat a cake with villagers, as well as give and take gifts. By becoming friends or lovers with NPCs, you can earn points or ‘guild seals’ to spend on your ‘Road to Rule’, which marks particular points of achievement in the game and lets you unlock new expressions or stronger spells etc. You can also earn these through fighting.
Unfortunately, I don’t think the interaction element is as good as Fable III, basically because it’s a lot less entertaining. In Fable II you can stand in the town square and flex your muscles or flirt with people and get a large cheering crowd forming. That isn’t possible in Fable III, instead you have to shake hands, dance or chat with people one on one, and then when you’ve done this three times, undertake a friendship quest which every single time means you have to go and find something buried in the next town or take a package to somebody else again in another town, then go back to become friends. To get further you then go on dates and have to take them somewhere that they like. It’s just a bit tedious, and one date vanished when we were attacked by wolves and then bandits whilst I was leading her down to some lake she wanted to go to. No idea where she went, so I had to go and tickle somebody else instead. The process is too protracted and needs developing a bit more. Maybe once you get to become friends with somebody, you then open up new quests, or go into business together or something.
The character of Reaver, supposedly a ‘Hero’ in the last game, is still around being his usual obnoxious self and is voiced one again in an unctuous smug drawl by Steven Fry. He has taken full advantage of the revolution and has made himself a captain of industry. I can’t remember how he manages to remain unchanged in the 50 years that have passed, something to do with sacrificing somebody else’s life force so he can stay eternally youthful, but this, along with the fact that he knew my mother or father depending upon how you played in the previous game, isn’t acknowledged at all. Which begs the question – what is the point in having him back? The story does involve him at one point, but not enough to justify his particular character being there.
The main quest is pretty straight forward to a certain point, which is gathering various peoples to your cause by promising them that you’ll do this, that and the other once you’re king, and then battling through Bowerstone to face your tyrant brother. I did a lot of messing about buying houses, doing jobs and undertaking side quests so was expecting this to be the end, so when you march into the audience chamber and he goes without a fight, I can safely say that I was definitely not impressed.
However, hold your horses because in fact this is where the game kicks up a gear and moves away from Fable II to something a bit different. You are now king, but there is a bigger and far more deadly force on the horizon than your brother. Pure evil is sweeping the land, and you have one year to make important decisions and raise the capital to fight and defeat it. The treasury is empty, so you can rule as your brother did and explore every opportunity to make money in order to save more lives in the long run, or create an Albion to be proud of and keep all of your promises, despite the lives that will be sacrificed.
Unfortunately, despite this far more gripping second half to the main quest, the ending still isn’t that satisfying, and this is a major problem with the Fable games. I want a series of successively more difficult battles. I want to start off with a screaming hoard of defenders and hack, slash and blast my way through demons, take down the henchmen, meet the main bad guy mano et mano and then take him down in the most epic final battle the Xbox has ever seen. I want houses exploding, blood flying, ducking, diving and a final death blow in slow motion. They do turn Bowerstone into an atmospheric hell on earth where the things you fight are winged shadows looming out of a sandstorm, and there are explosions, but where are all my people? I’m a king! I want an army to order about!
This is a strange ending really because I’ve spent the game bringing various tribes together, as well as becoming king, and yet at the end it’s just me, my mentor and a random soldier bloke who has some speaking parts earlier on. Where the hell is everybody? Why couldn’t I choose how to position people in order to defend Bowerstone? Opportunities were missed I feel.
I also think the industrial side to it could have been developed a bit further. At one point you enter an old cable car station, and this faded Victoriana was a great style, but most of Albion is very similar to the last game. Where are the first automobiles? Steam ships? Trains? Where’s the dialogue of people looking to the future, and where are all the wacky inventions and patent cures that you see on the posters on the loading page? Apart from Bowerstone Industrial there’s very little sense that anything has happened in the past 50 years at all.
Side quests occasionally throw up something interesting, but most of the time it’s go there and find this missing thing, or go there and kill this guy. You can comb Albion for rare books, escaped gnomes and rare flowers but I’m not going to bother searching every crack and cranny for these things because in the long run, it doesn’t really matter. I think that is a very important point. You can’t die. If you’re knocked out, all that happens is that you loose your progress to the next guild seal. I think that makes a lot of what’s available for you to do quite irrelevant. The jobs in particular are basically a waste of time for the pitiful amount you get. Once you have some rent coming in from houses, these make you rich enough to do or buy anything you like.
Clothing and weapons
At the beginning of the game, you’re given fantastic weapons your mother left you, which you then improve as you go through the game. This means that you don’t need to buy increasingly better weapons throughout, which also means that the awesomeness of your weapon is limited. Yes, the point is to cause more damage per blow, but having different styles of kinds of weapon would make it more interesting – something done well in Darkstone and Oblivion.
With clothing, you can run around in a woman’s nightie with a bathing cap, yellow stockings and red shoes if you so wish, but there’s no protection given to your character, so there’s no need for armour, and no need to look through shops for better outfits. Again a wasted opportunity because shops are basically irrelevant as well – you can buy potions but as you can’t die it’s not that important, your magic doesn’t run out, you don’t need to eat, and expressions, etc. you unlock on your road to rule rather than learn from books.
In Fable II, as you travelled around the towns and villages of Albion you were roundly insulted in a broad Scottish voice by gargoyles hiding in eves and under bridges and things, which you then had to find and shoot. There’s pretty much the same side quest in this game, but this time gnomes which have been brought to life have escaped and you have to go and find them in their hiding spots. However, instead of shouting things like ‘I could paint a target on me arse and you’d still be aiming at your shoe!’ or casting aspertions on your ability to shoot a crossbow, these horrible little things hunch against walls defying gravity bawling ‘What a lovely day… TO DIE!’, or ‘I’d like to get to know someone like you… And then drown them.’ I find it a bit harsh myself, and not that funny.
Fable II’s inventory was a bit of a mess, where everything you had was in categories, but it took you forever to scroll through to find what you need. In this, you are transported to a dressing room style place, with your butler going ‘Ah, hello!’ every single bleeding time you enter it. It gets very tiresome. If you want to change clothes you go into your dressing room and scroll through your outfits and so on. Mainly I used it just to look at the map and list of quests. So, thumbs up for the map, but I’d prefer an inventory I didn’t have to translocate to and then run into different rooms.
I think overall the plot works well, particularly because of how the story picks up once you’re king. The ‘evil’ that you encounter when making your way through a cave system and through the desert is an interesting addition, and I think very well done with your character’s sanity being tested as he battles to safety. The evil does have a strange resemblance to the ‘Teacher’ in Pink Floyd’s Another Brick In The Wall music video, but you never really find out what it is and where it comes from. An influence seems to be the darkness in Zelda Twilight Princess, it has the same feel to it with the oil-dripping-upwards movement to the blackness as it spreads. However, this actually only makes up a small part of the game and I think a greater use of this opponent would have made a more cohesive story, rather than using the generic werewolf-style monsters that sit around in groups of five in the woods and at the Millfields crossroads, and the groups of bandits who all look the same, and who again always appear in the same place. Like in Oblivion where cult members appear and try to kill you whilst you’re walking around town, if people start gradually succumbing to the darkness, it would break down the barriers between the towns and the wooded areas and show more clearly your progress through the game.
Also, the ending could have been developed more using the evil spreading, by allowing you to ‘free’ different towns from it, and then you work your way up to the final battle for Bowerstone. So, there was an imaginative concept, and a good evolution of the game in the second half, but the first was too similar to what has been done previously.
The next chapter
Fable IV or Fable: The Journey as it has been announced, is expected for 2013. Lionhead presented the concept of the game at this year’s E3, and apparently they want us to feel ‘100 times more involved’. It looks like nameless evil has appeared again, so the general concept is still very similar but hopefully the story will be more epic.