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Fable III
Platform: Xbox 360
Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
Developer: Lionhead Studios
Genre: Action RPG
Format: DVD-ROM
Released: US 10/26/10



Scorecard
Graphics: 80%
Sound: 90%
Gameplay: 70%
Control: 70%
Story: 70%
Overall: 75%
Reviews Grading Scale
 
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You'll be shooting (or smashing, or burning) plenty of hollow men.
 
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The game really does this focusing, and it generally does it well.
 
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The new land of Aurora gives a chance for greater variety in the environments.
 
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Multiplayer finally lets you play with a friend as yourself, online or locally.
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John Tucker
Fable III
11/28/10
John Tucker

Why? Why do I do these things to myself? I knew this game would be a pain to review, and I volunteered anyway! But I did it for the right reason: I love this series despite its flaws, and in both respects, Fable III lived up to my expectations. It has plenty of flaws, but I still had tons of fun playing it.

Fable III continues the story of the land of Albion, one generation later than Fable II, and you star as the second child of that game's main character, who went on to become the ruler of Albion after Fable II's conclusion. By necessity, the game appears to ignore any children your character had during the course of your Fable II gameplay. Not having played previous Fables is no barrier to entry in this game, though. A few references to previous characters and events are made, but they serve merely as touch points, not as major plot elements.

As the second, you have been raised as a child of privilege, but not as the heir to the throne. That honor went to your older brother, who was crowned King of Albion when your parent passed away. As the game begins, the people of your kingdom have grown increasingly angry about your brother's brutal policies such as high taxation, child labor, and school closures. Within minutes, it becomes clear that you're going to lead the revolution. Of course, this is a Fable game, so there's no guarantee that you'll be a better ruler than your brother, but the poor saps putting their faith in you don't know that.

As the game progresses, your main quest path leads you to do things for a number of groups within your kingdom, each of whom then ask you to make them a promise to improve their situation once you reach the throne. You have no choice but to make the promise, but the game doesn't end at your coronation, and as King or Queen, you have the choice to keep or break the promises you made. Again, though, this is a Fable game – the decisions you make are entirely monochrome. Do you renovate the orphanage/homeless shelter or turn it into a brothel? Do you build a sewage treatment plant or route the sewer to dump into the hippie town in the forest? (I played the "good" path, and it was still tempting to turn Hippieville into Craptown, just because it'd be funny, but I stayed the course!) The only difficult part of your decisions results from the fact that good decisions always cost you money and bad ones always earn you money. At the game's official end (you can keep playing afterwards), you must have a certain amount of gold in the royal treasury in order to finance a war effort, so making the good decisions means that you have to make up for any shortfall (and there'll be a lot of it) out of your own pocket. It's doable, but it was disappointing that the game seemed to incent you so strongly to play as an evil character. After all, if you make the same cruel decisions your brother made, it doesn't seem that there's any reason for you to have played the game in the first place!

Well, I suppose that none of the side quests you perform would have gotten done if your brother was King. And at times, there seems to be no end to the side quests. Finding things for people, delivering things for people, escorting people, and a slew of collectibles. There are silver and gold keys to be found, library books, lawn gnomes to shoot (they replace Fable II's gargoyles), Auroran flowers to pick, and Demon Doors that will only open if you show them something they want to see. The only classic RPG side quest you don't see is "kill 15 rats," although there are a few cases where you need to slaughter all the hobbes in an area, and that's similar enough. The good news is that even when things get repetitive, there is a lot of humor to be found in the side quests, from the snippets of the library books that are read to you as you find them to the return of the Normanomicon (a book that raises the dead), and even in the random talk of the NPCs.

The essentially endless quests arise from the way that Fable III handles your interactions with NPCs. Under the new system, you can interact with any adult you meet, choosing to do a nice thing or a scary thing, randomly selected by the game from the interactions you know. That's right, you don't get to pick whether you shake hands or do a sexy dance – the game picks for you, and it doesn't take gender into consideration, which can result in some fairly creepy interactions. As your relationships with NPCs improve, they ask you to complete quests for them, and if you want them to move from "neutral" to "friends" to "best friends"/"in love," you have to follow through.

Sadly, these quests only follow one of a few formulas: deliver a letter, go find an item, and in the case of someone falling in love with you, take them by the hand and lead them to a specific location on a date. Taking people by the hand isn't always a thing they'll want, though – you can also track down criminals and lead them by the hand into custody, and you can take random people by the hand and lead them to forced labor in a mine or a factory. This can be fun and it can be tedious, but I ran into a few situations where I was supposed to take someone's hand, and the game simply wouldn't let me do so, and that was just plain frustrating.

When you're not getting to know the citizens of Albion, you'll be out killing things by swinging a sword or hammer, firing a pistol or rifle, and blasting magic spells. As in previous games, the combat is very action-oriented, and you can switch between styles nearly instantaneously. You definitely need to use your melee skills, but you can really choose between guns and magic for ranged attacks. In fact, guns could be done away with completely and there'd be no difference in the gameplay. There aren't any enemies who are noticeably more vulnerable to guns than magic, and all enemies are vulnerable to magic. In addition, all magic spells can either cause area of effect damage right around you or target one specific enemy for greater damage. I've heard magic in Fable III described as the "win game" button, and there's really only one enemy type for which that isn't true (the Sand Furies – use magic on them, and you're probably going to die).

I don't want that to sound overly negative; I still had lots of fun with the combat. One thing that I really enjoyed was the new ability to merge magic spells. As you level up (more on that later), you can unlock the ability to use two spells at once, merging them together. For example, you can use the Vortex spell alone to make a tornado that knocks your enemies down, or you can use it in conjunction with the Fireball spell to knock them around and set them on fire. You just tap the B button to cast the weakest version of a spell, or hold it down to charge up a stronger version. Your magical skill level determines how quickly the spells charge, so you can cast the highest level of Fireball from the moment you unlock it, but it will take an awfully long time.

No matter which way you go, combat is never really difficult, and even if you get taken out, there's no real penalty. You just get "knocked out" and lose a small amount of experience. You get back up after a few seconds, and your enemies get knocked back. Getting knocked out isn't hard to avoid, but the lack of challenge may annoy some players and lull others into a feeling of complacency. That's what happened to me – I finally got knocked out because I got lazy. Nothing really bad happened, so I got lazy five or six more times before the end of the game. In post-endgame play, it feels like the combat difficulty steps up a notch, which I appreciate, but it should have happened a lot earlier in the game.

Fable III's weapons also bear mentioning. With the exception of the weapons you're given at the game's start, all weapons have three "side quests" of their own, and completing them boosts the weapon's stats in some way. The quests vary quite a bit, although they aren't unique to each weapon. Several weapons, for example, have a quest of "Raise/Lower your moral standing" or "Kill 300 human enemies." The quests reward you with increased damage, shotgun spray, faster XP gain, and even things like money earned with each hit. The weapons change their look as you complete their quests, and I was very happy with the way my hammer looked at the end of the game, with a gigantic glowing head and flames constantly streaming from a hole in the center. Sadly, the quests can take long enough to complete that you'll probably pick one weapon early on and simply stick with it.

Of course, your weapons aren't the only thing that level up, and being a Fable game, your character's leveling isn't handled in the usual manner. As you defeat enemies and complete quests, you earn "Guild Seals," which are used to purchase skill upgrades and unlock new gameplay elements. As the game begins, upgrades are limited, but as time goes on, more and more options become available. This is how you improve your melee, ranged, and magic damage, and how you unlock new spells, all of which makes sense. This is also how you improve your skill levels in the lute playing, blacksmithing, and pie-making minigames, which makes a little less sense. And it's how you unlock new expressions, dye colors, and the abilities to purchase properties (homes and businesses are unlocked separately) and improve your relationships with others... which makes no sense at all to me. I didn't unlock marriage, which meant that I didn't have every woman in town asking me for a ring, and I liked that, but appreciating it doesn't mean it made sense.

One final gameplay point that I can't leave out: the menus. Or rather, the lack of menus. There are really no menus at all in the game. The game's main menu has been replaced by a special group of connected rooms called the Sanctuary, where you can always find your butler. Your clothes are displayed on mannequins, as are your weapons, and your trophies and current wealth are sitting in a big room that's as full as you are rich. It's not flawless; for example, there's no way to tell how attractive a piece of clothing will make you except to put it on and then check your attractiveness meter. However, the flaws are few, and the successes are many. The system really works much better than I expected. You can even purchase and repair properties from the Sanctuary map. By the way, I hated having to repair my properties, but at least I only had to do so once every ten gameplay hours or so. An optional menu or a "repair all" button would have been a great addition. If I were less methodical about my real estate purchases (I stick with one area until I've purchased everything, then move on to the next one), buying and repairing buildings one by one could have been extremely annoying.

Visually, Fable III is absolutely a Fable game. If you told me that Fable III uses the same graphics engine as Fable II, I wouldn't call you a liar, but I'm sure they're not the same engines. The game looks good, but there are some noticeable issues with popup. Certain areas also gave me consistent framerate issues, and I really don't understand why. One of the worst offenders, for example, was the Brightwall Academy: an indoor location filled with bookcases and tables. On the other hand, I don't remember any issues at all in the huge outdoor areas like Mistpeak Valley, which includes snowy mountains, a forest, and a lake. I should also mention that the glowing trail returns from the last game, and it's still got some issues. The trail is supposed to lead you to the next quest location, but it occasionally gets confused and either disappears entirely or leads you back to where the quest started. Generally speaking, if you stand in one place for several seconds, it resets itself, but it doesn't always do so. This issue is regrettable, but at least it's sometimes understandable – in a game where many paths can take you to the same destination, the engine can only do so much to figure out which path is best.

Even with those gripes, I have always enjoyed the series' art direction, and this game is certainly no exception. The cartoony portrayal of a pseudo-Industrial Revolution England works very well for me, even though it does result in an Albion where most of the citizens could only win a beauty contest against The Elephant Man. I like the spell effects, I like the animations for shooting and melee... I really like it all. If only the game didn't have those popup issues, the occasional framerate hiccup, and that weird problem with the quest trail, it'd get an even higher graphics score from me.

Musically, Fable III also matches its predecessors well. In fact, in a couple locations that pop up from previous games, I believe the background music is exactly the same in this iteration. In new locations, there's new music, and it's in the same style as those previous games. Like the art, I've always liked the music in this series (I own the soundtracks from the first two games, a rarity for me), so I view that as a good thing. If you'd like more info about the music, Pat's already written an excellent soundtrack review, and I was happy to see that he liked the music too.

There's plenty of quality voice acting as well – the most publicized, of course, are John Cleese, who plays your butler, and Stephen Fry, who reprises his Fable II role as Reaver. However, the star studded cast also includes folks like Ben Kingsley, Simon Pegg (who I can't believe I didn't recognize from the first time I heard him), and of course Zoe Wanamaker (better known in the UK than in the US), who returns as the blind seer Theresa, among others. A fine job is done by all, and I particularly liked the writing of Simon Pegg's character, Ben Finn, whose autobiography can be found in individual chapters all over Albion. I wish that John Cleese's character had been given a few more random lines to say when you pop into the Sanctuary, but only so much can be done in these matters.

As I said at the beginning of this review, I'm a fan of this series and despite Fable III's flaws, I love the series no less after playing this entry. If you've played the series before and haven't liked it, Fable III will not convince you to change your mind in any way. It improves in some ways on things that were already good without really remedying the things that weren't working, but at its heart, there's plenty of fun to be found in this game, and as long as you find the fun, Fable III's flaws aren't too big to be forgiven.



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© Lionhead Studios, Microsoft Game Studios. 2010. All rights reserved.


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