Absolutely Not Fabulous

Well that was a let down.

I’ve wanted to play a Fable game ever since I heard about the series, but not being an XBox owner I’ve been denied that opportunity because the game has always been exclusive to that platform. Always until last Friday, because Fable III has finally been released for the PC – months after the XBox version. From a few reviews I’ve seen it appears that Lionhead Studios have used the time to fix a number of bugs and irritations from the XBox version, so even though we PC users will have to put up with being called out-of-date by XBoxers, at least we got an error-free game, and frankly that suits me fine.

Part of my desire to play Fable came from the subtle dig that Bethesda had M’aiq the Liar make in Oblivion, where he was heard to say “People always enjoy a good fable. M’aiq has yet to find one, though. Perhaps one day.” Lionhead return the favour at least once in Fable III: there’s an odd quest where you end up as a character in a roleplaying game, and pull a lever only for a swarm of butterflies to appear. “Butterflies?” remarks one character. “Worst. Game. Ever”, says another; a not-so-subtle reference to the start of the Shivering Isles expansion for Oblivion.

One of the first things a Brit will notice when playing the game is that it’s a who’s who of British stars in the voice acting department. John Cleese, Stephen Fry, Jonathan Ross, Ben Kingsley, Simon Pegg, Sean Pertwee and Zoë Wanamaker all appear – and that’s just the biggest names; there are loads more. All this talent isn’t necessarily a good thing though. It means there’s a pressure to overuse them, leading to another thing, and one that emphatically does not change as the game progresses: you spend an awful lot of time in cutscenes. These come in two types: obvious cutscenes where you can’t really do anything except watch the cinematics, and ones where you can move around as normal, but can’t do anything except go where you’re supposed to go and listen to whoever you’re supposed to listen to. There’s far too much of this. Very often your only feeling of interactivity comes from a small amount of running down a corridor to another cutscene, which can get incredibly boring.

The next things anyone will notice is that the graphics aren’t that great and that the controls are awful. Okay, I got the hang of the controls a bit more as I got used to things, but at first it was like trying to steer a shopping trolly with several wonky wheels. The graphics… well okay the backgrounds are nice, but the NPCs walk an odd line between reality and cartoon, and it doesn’t work for me. They all end up looking… odd. And almost identical.

After a while, you get given the tools you need to fight. As in most games, combat comes down to melee, ranged and magic, but the twist is that magic comes from the gloves you wear rather than spells, and that the ranged combat is done using guns rather than bows. It’s still either a sword or a hammer for melee though. At first I tried my hand with a sword: during the tutorial section you have to practice combat against your mentor for a little while and it seemed pretty simple. Unfortunately, one-on-one combat in Fable III is as rare as a sequence of ten minutes without a cutscene, and you can’t use all your fancy moves because someone will stick a sword in your back while you’re trying to deal with the thing in front of you. After a while, therefore, I switched to magic, because as well as a one-on-one spell, you get an area-of-effect spell that helpfully hits any enemies in a certain radius around you but not allies. The problem is that this quickly becomes unbalanced: when you find yourself charging into the middle of a crowd of enemies just so you can kill more of them with your ultra-powerful AOE spell, something has clearly gone wrong. The gun can be useful in some places because you can use it to aim from a distance, but generally charging in worked just fine for me.

You don’t level up as such. Rather, you acquire points called Guild Seals that can be spent on upgrades to your weapons or spells, or on perks that let you buy shops, chat people up, have kids and so on. In a few places you also need to acquire enough of these seals to convince a faction to join up with you. I’m not going to go into why because I don’t want to start spoiling things if you’re going to play the game.

But this raises the question: why would anyone want to play this? You can talk to the various NPCs who fill up the towns and villages, but they’re all totally without personality so after a few times I stopped bothering. You can get married to these NPCs and have kids, but again I didn’t bother. All the quests boil down to “Go here, kill this thing, collect this other thing, come back again”. Some people may claim that because I didn’t bother much with the NPCs I missed out on the role-playing aspects of the game. I disagree. Since the only point of getting married is to have kids, there’s nothing to role-play. It’s just another game mechanic. The only places where any kind of roleplaying occur are in one or two laughably black-and-white choices where you have to either a) murder a sackful of puppies, or b) pet them and make sure they all go to good homes. Anybody calling Fable III a roleplaying game needs to be made to play Oblivion or Morrowind for a few hours until they learn the difference.

I finished the first part of the main quest in less than 8 hours only to be presented with the prospect of tedious grind spending the next in-game year raising money to avert an apocalypse, at which point I stopped and went to bed because I really couldn’t be bothered. It’s not even like you can really go off and explore the world: the game is similar to Dragon Age in this respect in that it looks like a sandbox but isn’t really. Compared to TES games where there was always something new and interesting just over the next ridge, it’s a really small world. This means that if I decide to go back and bother with the grind-fest, I’ll have completed the whole thing in around 15 hours. That’s not very long.

The good news for me is that I’ve finally played a Fable game so at least I’ve got that off my chest. I can’t see myself bothering with Fable IV though. If Bethesda return Lionhead’s compliment and insert another reference in Skyrim, I hope it’s a suitably insulting one.

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