By Alec Meer on May 17th, 2011 at 6:37 pm.
After having been out on Xbox 360 for approximately 48 years, the PC version of Fable III arrived today. A roleplaying game designed primarily for people who don’t live and breathe roleplaying games, Lionhead’s game has charm in its blood and a tale of revolutionary heroism to shout about. Reception on console was mixed, but improvements and upgrades are promised for the PC version. Did they work? Here we go…
I’ve found myself thinking a lot about how fantastic a name for a roleplaying game the word ‘Fable’ is, but also how much implies. A grand, fantastical tale of great deeds – yet Fable III is built so much upon self-indulgent needs. It is, in theory and in marketing, a tale of overthrowing (or assuming the mantle of) apparent tyranny, of making the world a better (or worse) place through heroic (or horrific) actions and amazing adventures, and strives harder to be so than the previous two Fables.
Yet, despite a raft of Brit-celeb voices and any amount of destiny-chasing, somehow the fable runs only skin deep. Beneath is a game obsessed with money and collection – but one that doesn’t entirely seem to realise it. To define Fable III is a tricky thing indeed, surprisingly so, given how resolutely it attempts to be an accessible, universally appealing game. It’s a pairing of an get-right-in-there action RPG with a resource management title, but the latter’s really just a matter of investing money to make money. Buying houses and shops is the key form of this, but these purchases are rarely an end in and of themselves. Instead, they’re just a route to buying more houses and shops. Renting out a bunch of houses eventually earns you enough to buy a bunch more houses. So you do. And on and on.
Perhaps it’s an appropriate distillation of the real-life property ladder, but in Fable III you probably won’t even bother entering the vast majority of your property. You’ll click the sign to buy it, you’ll just mass-repair everything you own whenever you need to, and the rent money will trickle automatically into your account every five minutes. I was compelled, constantly compelled, to buy every building I could find, but I don’t know if there’s any pleasure in this – it’s purchasing for purchasing’s sake. Nothing is meaningful, nothing is itself satisfying; it’s just there to make you want more.
And yet it’s that I was forever drawn to, despite repeatedly swearing that I was going to try and nail all the main storyline stuff as quickly as possible first in the name of this write-up. Fable III is as compulsive as chilli rice crackers, and that’s probably because it’s no more hunger-satiating either. Right now, tick-tick-tick, the game running in the background is dropping gold into my coffers every few minutes. Maybe I can afford to buy that Blacksmith’s shop now. Maybe a new set of furniture, or a slightly better sword. I want to check. I yearn to check. Saving Albion (or, if I so choose, wreaking selfish havoc upon Albion)? I really don’t care. Yet I feel as though I should, because Lionhead have put clearly passionate effort into making their most fleshed-out and nuanced Fable-world yet, much as the emphasis on comedy Brit-voices means there’s a general air of cheery farce lying over the grim’n’grit.
Albion is not the generally optimistic place tinged with mystical skullduggery that is largely has been before, but instead a Victorian-esque land on its knees thanks to extreme poverty and a cruel King. That King is your brother, and you – for the first time in Fable with a choice of a male or female character – are heavily involved in the resistance against him. Of course, major plot twists and theoretically painful moral decisions abound. Given the game’s been out on Xbox for months, you’re probably well aware of the major change in your character’s circumstances later in the game, but I’ll spare going into it here just in case. The point is that there’s an awful lot of world-building here, the game going out of its way to be so much more than the hub towns strung together by constrained roads which comprise its backbone.
So much world, and yet your interactions with it end up being so much about money-harvesting and NPC-charming minigames. There are deep waters here, but so often you’re stuck on a bridge several feet above them able to admire only the surface. I want to get deeper, not to play with simple systems aimed clearly at casual players in search of quick rewards.
The rough structure of the game is extremely similar to that of the earlier Fable games, but despite intended refinements and expansions to the game’s systems, it’s by far the least ambitious of the series. Fable II never appeared on PC so apologies if you’re unfamiliar with it, but in a lot of ways Fable III plays out like a remix of it. The combat is simplified even further, but then dressed in genuinely meaty-feeling aesthetic pomp which makes it seem a whole lot more in-depth than it actually is. Spells, especially, are huge and explosive to behold, even if the damage they dole out might not entirely match the spectacle. Fighting will make you feel good, split as it is between melee, guns and magic, all of which are broadly on a par in terms of efficacy – so simply do whatever you most enjoy, and you will be rewarded for it.
That is fine and proper, and I enjoy it plenty. I feel like the Hero I’m so often told I am, rather than a wretch slowly building towards being somebody. What rings rather hollow is the upgrade system, which is intended to distance itself from the statistics and gauges of so many other RPGs in the name of keeping everything conceivably within the game world, but actually ends up more abstracted. The Road To Rule is a sub-screen from which you spend experience points (‘Guild Seals’) on all manner of upgrades – weapon power and new spells, but also key non-combative features such as the option to purchase shops or woo NPCs into marriage. I admire the intent, but can’t help but feel as though it goes to far – everything compartmentalised, turned so rigidly into something you must unlock rather than something you organically play toward. A game of needs, not of deeds – forever trying to accumulate the right amounts of something in order to acquire the next tier of something else.
That there’s an extra layer of that, wherein Games For Windows Live offers further, real-money purchase options, only hammers home the shallow hunger on which the game seems so built. It’s disappointing and it’s thin, but it isn’t horrible. I do want it; I want to own all the houses in Bowerstone, I want to add damage to my pistol by killing 150 Hollow Men, I want to have the hot pink dye for my clothes. It’d be easy to call Fable III cynical, but I don’t think it would correct. It really, truly feels well-intentioned, born of a desire to interact with its player’s constant desire for more and better and bigger. I could lose myself to indulging that desire for days, and I’d absolutely enjoy myself even if the lack of actual consequence might nag at me afterwards. But the real concern is that all this busywork stuff interferes with and distracts from the game itself. Even Fable staples, like marriage and sex and the pride of decorating a house or cladding your character in the kind of garb that even folk in Camden Town at 3am would frown at, seems so marginalised by the ambient pressure to get, get, get, buy, buy, buy. There is pleasure to this, to being such a magnate and to owning so much, in stark contrast to the lone, cash-strapped adventurer so common to RPGs. You’re a big deal for sure and that’s a precious thing, but how it plays out can feel hollow.
You’re not at all required to do any of micromanagement, it must be observed. The stepping back from statistics into Just Have Fun combat means you can easily carve through the core game without buying anything, although there are effects on the narrative consequences. But once you pop… well, you know how that goes. The key missions, well-written and visually varied as they were, just felt in the way of my endless tycoon hunger.
If you followed any of the reviews of Fable III on Xbox, suffice to say it remains Fable III on PC and perhaps I’m simply repeating ancient concerns. But let’s talk about it as a PC. As promised, Lionhead have done the work – I never felt like as though this was an Xbox game with the menu text changed. It looks lovely, if undermined slightly by a tendency to pursue washed-out pseudo-grit rather than the dayglo vibrancy that would surely suit it better. The combat controls are fully keyboard and mouse affairs, with basic attack on LMB and defend, aim or area spell on RMB. There really isn’t much to it – no combos as such, but instead hammering for quick attacks or holding down for a longer one – but it feels natural and tactile and as mentioned earlier the visual pay-off is splendid. The additional difficulty setting makes a world of difference from the tediously risk-free fighting of standard mode too – health must managed, death is not that infrequent, even if the consequences of death (instant respawn at the cost of progress towards the next Guild Seal, which you’ll earn back in minutes) remain tiny and pointless. As a fighting game, it’s thrilling if pretty button-mashy, and the net result is good times.
It’s out of combat that things go wrong, and that’s because of the nature of Fable III rather than because Lionhead haven’t done the PC translation properly. It seems so needy, so worried that players might do something wrong or without fully understanding it. Opening a door requires oh-god-so-irritatingly holding down E for a few seconds while a little spinner spins, accepting a quest-completion trophy involves pressing E to say you want it then LMB to say you absolutely, definitely want it. Even finding gold or a health potion requires active acceptance – as though somewhere there’s a player who’s thinking “no! Keep your gold! Keep your health! I need not such fundamental RPG trinkets. How dare you, sir.” Then there’s the Sanctuary, which is essentially your inventory reimagined as a headquarters – and while again it’s making the systems part of the game world, its implementation means equipping or even browsing the stats and abilities of your slim selection weapons is phenomenally time-consuming. You’re not even offered the option to immediately equip a new item as soon as you pick it up, but instead must dive back to the Sanctuary, go the right room, then wander up to the specific item you’re after, sometimes have to then manually selection which category of item beyond that you’re after, and only then can you eqiup it by pressing E and then 1 (or a mouse-click) to confirm it. It’s so phenomenally long-winded, and while it may simply be a matter of messy design there’s also that sense that the game doesn’t want to let go of your hand even in the menus. All the mannequins and weapon racks and what not are very thought-out in terms of how they relate to the Fable world, but once the initial ‘coo, look at all this stuff!’ has worn off it just gets in my way.
Then there’s the long animations for stuff like digging up treasure or trying to charm/terrify a civilian NPC, and the largely unskippable dialogue that’s rich in writing and performance but always seems to go on just that bit too long. Fable 3 for some reason needs you to see everything at length, and often repeatedly. Once more, it’s that disconnect between the world it wants to build and show off, and the undying hunger for moremoremore as quickly as possible. I don’t want to watch the 10 second sexy dance animation for the 315th time. I just want the Guild Seal that I’ll get as a result from doing it. In this, Fable III doesn’t seem to understand just what it’s done to itself; it’s like it believes it’s the still the cheerfully slow-paced meandering and exploring Fable used to be.
What a torrent of complaint, and yet I’ve had broadly a happy time in Fable III. It needs more (or at least different) meat on its bones, but they are strong bones, being as they are Fable bones. It teems with locations and vignettes overflowing with cheer and cleverness, always seeking a way to make you smile even if your interaction with them is limited. I’ve always enjoyed this series, while being wholly aware that they’re some of the most lightweight entires in the RPG pantheon. Like Fable 1 and 2, this game is so dead set on entertaining you, on charming you. I am charmed, but I’m also worried by the game’s clear identity crisis.
Its PC version launching on the same day as the Witcher 2 (a game which my experiences so far suggest it firmly understands what it is and what it wants to achieve) does Fable III no favours and quite possibly even dooms it commercially – at least if comparative social network chatter is anything to go on. That is a genuine shame, because I’m extremely glad to have the series back on PC, while the new difficulty setting suggests Lionhead have a firmer grasp on what Fable needs to be even if it’s too late to entirely get this one back on track. The weakest of the series this might be, but certainly not to the extent that I’ve lost my strong affection for that series. Welcome back, old chap – but perhaps don’t take so much on and focus on making the basics better next time, please.
Fable III is available from Steam, Games For Windows Live and at retail in the US today, and in Europe on May 20.