It’s ok: there is a cursor on the menu screen. The PC isn’t being treated like the ugly stepson who’s only allowed a bowl of water and a rotten banana for dinner this time. Fable III’s conversion to personal computer may be a few months late, but that’s not because someone fell asleep and forgot to press the ‘Insta-Port!’ button. Lionhead have done this properly.
Last week, I ventured to the British developer’s headquarters in leafy, mobile phone reception-free outer Guildford and sat down with the impending PC build of their action-RPG for around three hours. I enjoyed them, and more than I’d expected to. While I am nominally a fan of the Fable games, I hadn’t yet got around to more than a fraction of III: largely due to word of mouth claiming it had strayed too far into the ‘anyone can play’ casualness the series has long-chased. Fortunately for the discerning PC gamer, Lionhead have taken some of that criticism on the chin and made some pretty significant revamps to make it a more meaty, challenging and tactical experience.
First up is the controls, which as well as imbuing menus with full keyboard'n'mouse control boost the one-button combat system seen in last year’s Xbox 360 version into something a whole lot more varied. While your basic stabbing, shooting and magic-splatting all happens with the left mouse button, the game merrily extrapolating your frenzied (or more ideally measured and rhythmic) clicking into an array of escalating animations that suggest you’re up to far more complex kill-fu.
However, bunging in number keys and mouse-wheel to switch between shoot, stab and magic (as opposed to choosing which of three separate buttons to mash, as on 360) makes it an immediately more tactical affair, with that one-hand management of how to best take down and contain what wastes no time in becoming a sizeable number of on-screen baddies. It becomes a matter of dexterity and quick thinking, as opposed to pressing whatever’s nearest.
I tend to favour the magic, purely because it gets across the fantasy superhero thing, but the pistol/rifle shooting really sings when a mouse is applied to it. Antique guns suit the world well, despite it being a fantasy one – these are slow-firing, noisy things rather than the well-oiled death machines of more conventional manshoots. When wielded against a fantasy foe, the accuracy of a mouse also allows for shooting blades out of hands and headshotting shambling skeletons.
Of course, all of this wouldn’t matter a jot if Fable III had remained a game in which you almost had to force yourself to get killed. Infamously easy, its original version alone would not have sat well with us quick-reflexed punishment-gluttons. The game’s PC producer nods silently and solemnly when I ask if he would recommend I dive straight into the new ‘hardcore’ mode rather than the standard one. I’m glad I did. Mention of ‘hardcore’ oversells the challenge, but it transforms the game from family-friendly ambience into combat you have to think about, combat you have to not rush blindly into.
I am not ashamed to admit to a few deaths; something I understand happened very rarely in the 360/normal version. Primarily changed is enemy AI, so they’re quicker and more reactive, and the health system – no more of that namby-pamby auto-recharge here. Instead, you’re reliant on potions and food, so tried and tested RPG inventory management and shopping sneaks back into the game. You’re a dungeon adventurer now, not a dungeon tourist.
Unchanged and likely to remain as divisive on PC as it was on 360 is a strong emphasis on collection and achievements. Well, capital A Achievements – being a Microsoft title, this is unavoidably a Games For Windows Live game. Without playing it in the wild, I can’t attest to whether its implementation is any better than the traditional horrors of that bloated choke-hold system, although I did notice that it insisted in dropping down one its of disruptive, Xbox-esque screens even for stuff like changing the names of your pet dog and customised weapons. So yeah, our ancient enemy is there, but at least it’s tied into an Achievement system that actually unlocks stuff in-game, rather than acts only as willy-waving.
Fable III is all about the unlocks. Persistent throughout it, both in its monster-splatting dungeon crawls and in its more free-form exploration of Albion’s towns and villages, is the collection of Guild Seals. This meta-currency is spent on upgrades – for weapons, for powers, even for the expansion of features such as building-purchasing and charming/outraging civilians. It is possible to unlock the lot, but much of the time you’ll be picking and choosing what you can afford and what you most desire. A bigger axe, or the option to flirt someone into bed? I’m going to have to see how this plays out across the game as the whole; I appreciate the idea of essentially building the game you want to play, emphasising only the features you’re most interested in, but I’m worried about the ghettoising of key features behind a fence of grinding pseudo-progression. We’ll see; I can’t judge that now.
Certainly, though, I can get behind the idea of changing weapon upgrades from the traditional Buy A Bigger One system to hanging onto a favoured blade/firearm that instead becomes amped-up (visually and statistically – my hammer became a mega-hammer) as and when you buy the relevant skill upgrades. It’s more about getting better with your weapons, rather than the always faintly ludicrous concept of the guy who’s meant to save the world counting his pennies until he can afford a slightly sharper sword from the junk shop round the corner.
Oh, I should also mention that the game’s extremely good-looking. Having experienced a short time with the fuzzy-lookin’ console version, it’s one of those titles where you just can’t doubt the PC’s technical superiority. Obviously a reasonable 3D card helps, but even on lower settings it’s a lavish-looking, sharply-detailed place of colour and semi-cartoonish pastoral prettiness.
So: controls, challenge, graphics. All of these have been significantly overhauled for ‘our’ version of Fable III. We’ll find out whether the game as a whole holds together and rises above some of the criticism its console version suffered next month, but for now I’m totally content that we’re getting a proper PC edition of Fable III, rather than a token cast-off. Microsoft have made a lot of empty noise about coming back to the platform that made them over the last few years, and this is the first sure sign I’ve seen in a while that they might actually mean it.
The game's due out Mid-May. Oh, and in a little while I’ll be posting an interview with Fable III’s PC lead Josh Atkins about Lionhead’s current take on PC and explaining the thinking behind the changes to this new, improved version of the game.