I don’t think I’m too far off if I say that most game designers believe, or hope that their jewel will be the game to end all games. Peter Molyneux is perhaps a perfect example. At his presentations we’ve heard the plans and watched them unfold, from Project Ego to Fable. After quite a few years in the making it’s here, and fortunately it’s a pretty solid game, even though it feels like the designers had to choose the easy way out in some ways.
You start the game like any other boy, living happily in his sunny village. Apparently it’s your sister’s birthday, and your father reminds you that you haven’t bought a present for her yet. For every good deed you do your father will give you a coin, and after a time this should be enough to buy something great. Even at this early age you start stumbling upon serious things, such as a man cheating on his wife. Should you be good and report him, or be bad and take a bribe? During the game you’ll be given lots of chances to alter your alignment, but unlike most role-playing games this actually makes a noticeable difference on your character, and how people in the village treat you.
Soon after you’ve handed your sister her present some rather unexpected things happen. You see a man running towards you, who ends up having an arrow shot into his back. Bandits are coming for the village, with you and your family as the targets. Your village is burned down, your father killed, and your mother and sister taken away – certainly not an ideal way to end ones childhood. When things seem absolutely dismal a mysterious man named Maze rescues you and brings you to the guild of heroes, here you spend many years training in melee-, ranged combat, and magic. After graduating as a certified hero you begin taking quests and helping people, but always remembering the day when your life was turned upside down.
Quests are found primarily in the guild of heroes. Here you get a list of things to do, how much it’ll pay, and how much renown you’ll receive by doing it. You can choose to accept a quest, or accept it and boast. By choosing to boast you’re teleported to an area outside of the guild where you can choose from a certain number of boasts, which the people nearby will respond to in one-way or another. A boast may be that you’ll finish the quest unharmed, without using any weapons, or maybe without any clothes. Also, before you head out you might also want to purchase a title, something people will start calling you the second you’ve handed over your money. Maybe Avatar or Sabre sounds nice; if not then you can always buy the title Chicken Chase, or even Arseface!
The quests you take on mainly involve killing vicious things, protecting people, or finding special objects. They can seem a little repetitive, but not overly so. Let’s say your quest is to find a hidden bandit squad and take out its leader. A boast may be that you’ll kill all the bandits. When done you’ll not only get the agreed sum of money, renown and experience, but also a nice bonus due to the boast, and in some cases also a special item that you can show off in town. You see renown can be earned in many ways. If you’re in an area with a decent amount of civilians you may pull out the shield of the bandit leader and run around town making sure everyone’s seen it, all within perhaps a minute or less.
The story in Fable takes place over many years, so obviously your character evolves greatly in that time. There are three main disciplines of combat, melee-, ranged combat, and magic. You may choose to specialize in either of these, but in my experience it’s very useful to put experience points in all three. To make a very good melee fighter you’ll want to spend many points in the sub categories of strength, which improve melee damage, health points and natural armor. It’d also be smart to put points in the sub categories of skill, because even though its focus is on ranged combat it also improves your attack speed and affects your luck with merchants. Finally you have magic, where you primarily buy spells such as Fireball and Lightning, but by choosing Berserk (think The Hulk) and Multi-strike (up to five fast consecutive strikes) you’ll deal damage like no other. There are tons of spells, and to see them all it would take several time of playing through the game to accomplish this, which I think many people will do.
Good combat in any third person action game is heavily reliant on the controls. In Fable you move much like you would in any similar game, but you use L1 to lock onto targets and use two buttons to launch melee attacks. By holding R1 you bring up magic, where you can have numerous presets depending on what weapon you’re using. For instance, if you’re using a melee weapon you may want shortcuts for multi-strike, berserk and heal, while you might want multi-arrow, heal and something else when using a ranged weapon. Cycling through the presets is done by holding R1 and pressing Y, so it works well even during the most hectic fights. My biggest gripe is that cycling through enemies can be annoying at times, because sometimes it just doesn’t want to move to the enemy you’re interested in attacking. Also, by using L1 you can lock onto friendly people, something that can happen relatively easily when your mission is to protect someone and you’re ambushed by bandits. This is hardly a big deal, but it felt as though there is room for improvement with this control scheme.
Playing through the game as a good hero can be fun in many ways, but you should get many laughs from being naughty and manipulating the villagers. You can for instance run around punching random people, breaking into houses and stealing their food, or maybe have an army of wives. Peter Molyneux likes to mention one example where a young player had married the female mayor of one of the game’s major towns. After a while he killed her. Why? Because by killing her he’d hopefully inherit her wealth and status... Far too few games of this kind focus on this kind of human interaction, so it’s great to see one that does it so well.
In terms of graphics and presentation Fable does very well. The game takes place in medieval-looking scenery, with castles, villages, and thick forests, but it’s all rendered convincingly. There’s this very nice organic look to the outdoor scenery, and you also have lots of dynamic shadows and a cool glow effect on characters and more. Performance-wise it’s fluid almost throughout the entire game, but when you start using the bigger spell effects in areas with a lot of enemies the framerate does go slow down slightly. If I were to nitpick on one thing specifically it’d probably be that some of the textures used in the cutscenes look awfully low-res. They don’t really affect anything, but they’re easy to notice and should’ve been replaced.
The audio is perhaps even better than the visuals. British voice talents are used with all the in-game characters and they do an awesome job overall. With over 10000 lines of speech in the game it’s easy to tell that a lot of work has gone into it, but I wish the henchmen you can hire wouldn’t repeat the same lines again and again, and again. The sound effects sound rich and are appropriate, from the sounds of intimacy to the sound of wasps being smashed by a warhammer. Also, the musical score, composed by Russel Shaw and performed by the London Philharmonia Orchestra, does an excellent job of adding emotion and mood to the game. The background music just “fits” the area you’re in and it changes according to what’s happening. The Oscar winning Danny Elfman, of Hollywood fame, did the main theme, which in my opinion fits very well with the whole light / dark, good / evil concept.
It’s been a long time coming and now that it’s here I must say I’m impressed in many ways. Fable is a funny and exciting game, with pretty graphics and extremely well done audio. The only downside is that it only takes between 7 and 10 hours to finish, depending on how many sub quests you do. You can add a couple of hours if you plan on marrying, messing around with villagers, and so on. Playing through the game a second time as the polar opposite of your first character can be fun, just to see how the in-game people react, but personally I didn’t feel too motivated to do it, considering how the story had already unfolded in its entirety. Star Wars: Knights of The Old Republic was better in this way, but I’m sure many will want to give both 'good guy’ and 'bad guy’ a shot.
Due to its short length and somewhat limited replay value it’d be easy to recommend this as a rental, but in all honesty it’s a game you’ll want in your collection just for the sake of owning it.
Fable was once said to be something along the lines of the best RPG ever, but because of the overly simplified console mechanics it’s “merely” a very good one.