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Fable III Review

A royal disappointment.

2011-05-17

There's something about a virtual fantasy world populated by autonomous computer-controlled people that sparks the imagination like little else can. I get a tidy, miniature world to aid, patrol and destroy as I see fit. I feel a rush of dizzying power because the outcome is solely decided by me. If I don't want to watch a town get torn to shreds by balverines, I can conjure fireballs and slash my sword to save it. Or I can strip the town of its protective lanterns and watch as the monsters rip up screaming, innocent residents. Fable III is at its best at times like these, but they're far too infrequent. There are bursts of creativity and moments when you're sandwiched in evocative moral dilemma in Lionhead Studios' most recent version of Albion, but they're buried beneath heaps of underdeveloped characters, tired stories and shallow mechanics.



If you've never played Fable and missed out on the Xbox 360-only Fable II, there's no need to worry about doing homework for Fable III. All you need to know is explained at the beginning: the king is evil and needs to be removed from power. It's not the most original story setup, but forces me, as the hero, to flee the castle and mingle with locals across the fantasy realm of Albion in an attempt to amass enough support to topple the king and assume control of the land. Fable III's hook is that it doesn't end when I put on the crown. It forces me to make promises to those I help and, once on the throne, to decide whether or not to honor my word or break it.



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It puts me in an uncomfortable spot. The characters I spent time saving don't simply fade into the background as I make progress. Instead they come back with demands, expecting me to help them out when I'm in charge. Most of the time, helping out clashes with the greater need to keep the kingdom safe, forcing me into a precarious balancing act as I juggle the worth of my word and the safety of Albion. It's a great concept, but it feels like someone yanked it out of the oven before it had much of a chance to rise.



The problems start with the characters, a majority of whom are walking clichés distinguished more by their style of clothing and accents than their actions. What should theoretically be a gut-wrenching decision as I consider whether or not to ignore their demands and promote child labor or establish a brothel falls flat. With the exception of my mentor and frequent companion Walter along with Logan, the villain king, the characters are imbued with such one-dimensional personalities that few feel like anything more than diorama props. When, as king, I break my promise, it's tough to feel anything but the key underneath my finger to input a command that tells them to get lost.







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In between Fable III's main story recruitment missions there's plenty to do, but little that's genuinely interesting. There are side quests, though most are genre-standard escort and kill tasks. I can buy and operate property, but am given only the most basic options for customization, reducing what could have been an intriguing game of empire management to a dull, tedious process punctuated by a tinny sound effect as income is regularly added to my in-game wallet. I can kill or court Albion's citizens, but the juxtaposition of goofball humor with the potential for senseless violence strips meaning from the encounters. Even as citizens are screaming 'murderer!' to my face, I can initiate a silly dance, do a fetch quest, go on a date, and moments later be married, own a house and have a child. It gives the process of forming lasting, fulfilling relationships all the emotional heft of tying up shoelaces.




Take my hand and we'll run away.



Even in spots where Fable III introduces elements of intrigue and mystery, like when I'm tossed into a murky desert cavern and forced to fight off horrors as an ominous voice hisses threats, it stops short of exploring the angle to the fullest. The horrors are supposed to be the greatest evil in the land, yet show up seemingly randomly two-thirds of the way through the game and are only encountered a handful of times. It lends an unfinished quality to the experience, where it seems as though Fable III spends so much time on the chase for the crown that many other elements that should be important feel rushed and sloppily mashed together.



It's hard to care, then, about finding all the collectibles hidden throughout the world, participating in chicken racing mini-games, sniping malcontent gnomes, and running around hand-in-hand with citizens when the components of the larger-scale conflict are so crudely stitched up. Then when I'm finally on the throne, Fable III offers a dismally limited number of choices to make. It's like an action movie that focuses so much on the load-up sequence it forgets about delivering a proper payoff.



At least there's style and humor in Fable III. Some of the writing is genuinely funny in a crass kind of way. It doesn't build any significant foundation of character, but will make you laugh from time to time. Albion is still a pretty place, and the character models, animations and environments adhere to a cohesive and colorful fantasy motif. From the mist that gathers in graveyards to the afternoon sun streaking over the sparkling sands of a desert wasteland, it's easy to appreciate the care that went into delivering a vibrant fantasy setting. Lines of voice acting are professionally delivered by the likes of John Cleese, Simon Pegg and more. A handful of quests, such as a clever take on Dungeons & Dragons, tell great stories and provide plenty of entertainment, but these are disappointingly isolated, making Fable III doubly frustrating because these moments tease the potential for a better game.




Fable III has a great art style.



The combat doesn't help distract from the issues with story and shallow characterization because it's so stubbornly inflexible. Melee weapons, guns and magic are used in essentially the same way the entire game through. Mechanically it requires a wearingly repetitive cycle of rolling and firing, which proves to be an effective method of dispatching nearly everything encountered, even with the difficulty cranked. For a game that so frequently reminds me of the significance of choice and commitment, it's especially disappointing to be given a combat system that incorporates none of it. The gradual evolution of the weapons' appearance and power as I purchase upgrades and meet goals is a nice touch and conveys a solid sense of progress, but it fails to add any lasting excitement to a combat system that is, quite simply, boring.



To mix things up it's possible to bring another player into the game. You can take on quests together, open Demon Doors to secure hidden loot and even get married. It's certainly a welcome option, though is more of an added frill than a core part of the experience. The interface managing all this, while fancy, isn't particularly well suited for the PC. Though you can play with a mouse and keyboard if you want, having to click and hold buttons to input decisions doesn't really make sense, and the method of selling items at shops and browsing custom closing options could have been made less cumbersome. That being said, the game plays just fine with an Xbox 360 controller.



©2011-05-17, IGN Entertainment, Inc. All Rights Reserved

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