How to begin. Oh, how on earth to begin.
Let's pretend that this game is not, in fact, called Fable, and that it's not been in development for God knows how long under Peter Molyneux at Lionhead Studios. Let's say it's called Hero, that we've known about it for roughly a year and a half, and that it has just been published by Ubi Soft. Let us banish all expectations from our minds and regard this game with fresh eyes.
With all that in mind, one can look upon this game and say with confidence that it's a hugely enjoyable, solid action-adventure game with many inspired touches. It follows the life of a young hero in the realm of Albion, a place populated mostly by people with rural English accents. Led through his days by the eager and explorative player, this hero's destiny is entirely in their hands; well, almost entirely anyway, as the game structure reveals itself to be quite linear fairly early on in the game. Progression is driven chiefly by a run-of-the-mill storyline involving burning villages, power-mad tyrants and eventual triumph. All aspects of the hero's appearance are delightfully customisable, and one even has the eventual opportunity to own property or marry. Completing quests and vanquishing foes earns experience that can be used to improve the hero's skills in combat, archery and magic, and with each improvement comes a subtle change in the young hero's appearance, leading him to eventually become a hulking powerhouse of a 50-year-old later in the game (though not that much later, as the game can easily be played through at a leisurely pace in just fifteen hours).
'our heroic young man will have all the women of Albion (and indeed most of the men, if you're that way inclined) swooning at his feet'
As to actually progressing through the game, it's a fairly simple affair. The hero returns to the Guild of Heroes near the centre of Albion to choose from and take up successive quests, which quide the player through the game's various locations and the storyline. The battle system is very straightforward; press X to thwack your various opponents with a big stick (or axe, or broadsword, or legendary blade) and improve your character's brute strength, or choose ranged weapons for the more tactical approach. You can chat to the villagers at will, play drinking games in the pubs as you pass by, and stock up on different armours and weapons from travelling traders throughout the game. Unlike in most other RPG-type games, the changes one makes to the hero's equipment and skills are satisfyingly visible - you really feel like you're taking part in the shaping of your protagonist.
Your hero ages and progresses as the game goes on, defined to a certain extent by the player's decisions. Fight for the side of evil, and you may begin to notice horns on his worn, pale forehead, and insects will be drawn to the stench of death he carries with him. Fight for the side of good and butterflies will circle our long-suffering hero's silvery old head and his eyes will shine with the light of purity.
His peers' reactions to him will change as he does; they will scamper from your presence or bathe you in adoration depending upon your reputation as slaughterer or saviour. Your hero's fame grows with each successfully completed quest; at the beginning people will ignore or even jeer at our promising young warrior, but by a few hours in he will hear whispers of his name on street corners as he passes or even encounter an occasional applauding fan. Later still, our heroic young man will have all the women of Albion (and indeed most of the men, if you're that way inclined) swooning at his feet as he swaggers majestically into the local inn to drown a day's adventuring in hearty amounts of beer. This dynamic makes the game spectacularly absorbing and, indeed, extremely rewarding. The player becomes so absorbed in their hero's growing renown that they come to be completely unaware of the passage of time, until an unsettling flash of silver in their hero's hair reveals that forty-odd game-years have passed.
This is a game full of lovely little touches, too. Drink too much beer and your hero will find himself emptying his stomach in the vicinity of a few hundred villagers; drink just enough an the screen remains pleasantly fuzzy. Fish in rivers as you pass and eat your catches to increase your brainpower; feast on the meat of your vanquished enemies and increase your strength. Eat all the pies and your hero will end up fat and unattractive, but let him do the game's default thing and eat apples, carrots and fish and he shall remain slim and healthy. The player is constantly discovering new little features and abilities within the game; sadly the whole thing ends abruptly before we feel we've had a chance to exploit them.