Peter Molyneux, you cruel bastard. I've scarcely been back in Albion two minutes, and already you're forcing me into making a decision that is turning me inside out with guilt. The tyrannous King Logan, my brother, has put me in an excruciating situation. With my head and heart squabbling like an old married couple, I eventually surrender my decision to logic, my emotions taking a back seat. I justify my reasoning as noble and righteous; the actions of a truly selfless hero. This is the right choice, I keep telling myself.
I immediately regret it.
How could I have been so heartless? The previously distinct line between good and evil has been intentionally blurred in Fable III. Things aren't as black or white as they used to be; the moral canvas underpinning the game painted from a palette of greys. I contemplate turning off the console and starting again, but eventually admit that feeling this bad about a single decision can only be considered a good thing. Few games can invoke genuine guilt in a player, and these situations should be embraced.
After being emotionally tormented by my brother - forced into a decision where each option is just as painful as the other - the wheels are set in motion for an uprising that will change Albion forever. By leaving the castle, the young prince brands himself a traitor - vowing to come back one day to take revenge on his brother. It's the beginnings of a rebellion; a quest to oust the King from his throne. In the midst of an industrial revolution, Albion has been stricken by poverty and famine, the result of the greedy and cold hearted rulings of its king. As the son of the hero from Fable II, it's up to you to step into the shoes of your father and become the man (or indeed, woman) that leads the people out of the darkness.
While Fable II had you gallivanting about Albion uniting a band of heroes, the third iteration of the series has you recruiting the army required to start a revolution. Your generals will take the form of village elders, war heroes and leaders of underground resistance movements, all united by a shared hatred of their king. By completing quests and proving your worth as a hero, you'll gradually earn their trust. Before they lend you their strength, however, they'll ask that you promise to return the favour when you take the throne. How true you are to your word will determine what kind of king you'll be. It's Fable; the choice is yours whether to be good, evil or anything in between.
Unfortunately, the quests that form the bulk of the experience lack the originality of those in Fable II. A sizeable portion of the game simply involves dragging an NPC from one environment to another. While this might demonstrate the game's new 'touch' mechanics nicely, it isn't actually all that entertaining. It's the age old escort mission in disguise, and plays out a little too often for my liking. It's the very same mechanic used to take girlfriends on dates, too, and quickly becomes laborious. This and 'clear the area of enemies' quests are the bread and butter of Fable III; don't expect anything as memorable as the Spire this time around. Perhaps Fable II set the standards too high, but the lack of diversity in III is mildly disappointing.
Combat, while similar to that of its predecessor, has been streamlined somewhat. Tedious orb collecting is no longer a concern, and stylish slow-mo execution moves execute themselves at certain points in battle. It requires little more thought than which button to feverishly tap away at. With a decent pistol in your hand, you can roll and shoot your way through the game with little difficulty. I don't want to sound like I'm blowing my own trumpet here, but I didn't die once over the entire course of the game. This accessibility isn't necessarily a bad thing - it keeps players immersed, refusing to remind them that this is, in fact, a game. But like many facets of Fable III's design, this too has a downside. The game is almost pointlessly easy. Even pivotal moments in the story that should prove difficult - like storming Bowerstone Castle to take the throne, for example - fail to provide much of a challenge.
At the point at which you'd expect many games to end, Fable III introduces a bevy of new features. As king, the whole experience changes quite dramatically. Although you are free to saunter about Albion to your heart's content, completing any quests you might have missed along the way, each day you'll be presented with a list of royal duties to complete. Hearings held in the throne room will give you the opportunity to break or honour the promises you made during the revolution, which will define how you are perceived as king. Perhaps the most important task as ruler is nursing the castle's treasury. This is where all the money you require to keep promises and develop Albion will come from, and you're going to need a lot of it to keep everybody happy.
Most moral dilemmas play wealth against morality, a mechanic that Lionhead has relied on heavily over the course of the series. The game will throw huge great wads of cash at you in exchange for succumbing to the 'evil' option. That said, even those dedicated to a path of righteousness won't struggle to build up a decent amount of gold, making it easy to ignore acts of bribery. Playing the property market correctly can turn you into a millionaire in a matter of hours - all you need is a little capital.
As with Fable II, there are several jobs masquerading as mini-games. The professions of blacksmith, pie maker and lute player can all earn you enough money to buy and rent out a few buildings. Every five minutes you'll be awarded the profits of your combined rent and business sales, and it doesn't take long to build up a property empire worth millions. A new map system allows you to adjust rent and alter the prices of the goods on sale at your shops without having to get up off your throne. Playing the property market is perhaps the most addictive part of Fable III, and as long as you keep on top of your purchases and renovations, you'll have few worries in the financial department.
I played through the entirety of Fable III with the memory of one initial decision lingering in my thoughts - just how differently would things have played out if I chose the other option? As king, however, and as a player who was financially secure at this point in the game, the latter decisions in Fable III failed to present a similar degree of dilemma. Perhaps without a wallet as fat as mine things would have been different, but for a game that relies so heavily on emotion, honour and sacrifice, it's a shame to see these situations squandered by the relative ease with which you can accrue wealth.
My next complaint is a little more shallow, but it needs to be said: Fable III really isn't a very good looking game. As one of Microsoft's flagship franchises, you'd expect a little more polish lavished upon the title. Character models are - if I'm being brutally honest - pretty damn ugly. The animations are crude and the game is riddled with texture pop-in, frame-rate problems and other graphical glitches. It feels rushed, like the game was forced onto the shop floor before Lionhead was given the opportunity to apply the finishing touches. Technical problems can be forgiven easily, to an extent; what's far more concerning are the problematic aspects of the overall game design.
Fable III strives to be the most accessible entry in the series yet. Lionhead has gone to great lengths to ensure that anybody can pick up, play and - crucially - understand the game. Upgrade screens, stats, attributes, item and equipment management are all gone. According to Molyneux, these staple role-playing mechanics only serve to take the player out of the experience. Fable III dispenses with menu screens and instead gives us an area known as the Sanctuary, which the player can visit at any time. It's here in this tangible environment that players can assess, tweak and change every aspect of their character. Whether you're switching weapons or changing clothes, it's all done 'in game'.
I suspect this might split fans of the series into two groups: those that find this increases immersion, and those that find, actually, it takes them out of the experience. Sorry Peter, but I find myself in the latter group. Hitting the start button will, after a short load, take you to the main room of the sanctuary. It's circular, with rooms for your weapons, wardrobe and treasure branching off from it. There are shortcuts on the D-pad for each, but once again there's a short load between this and the next room. Making any changes to your character is thus a lengthy procedure. Aside from these logistical drawbacks, I found it to disrupt continuity, too. One minute I'm fighting balverines in the misty depths of the Silverpine forest; the next I'm standing in a trans-dimensional War Room with a butler and my dog curled up peacefully in his basket. It's all a bit too jarring, for me.
Then there's the Road to Rule - Fable III's answer to an upgrade system. At certain points in the story you'll be forced into entering a portal which will take you to a long road, peppered with chests. By using guild seal coins, a form of currency that reflects how many followers you have, you can open chests of varying prices. You can buy new expressions and spells, improve your proficiencies with weapons and increase your aptitude for magic. Once again, Lionhead wants you to make use of this featurein game, even if the mechanic is unnecessarily long-winded and nonsensical. As somebody who plays a lot of RPGs, both eastern and western, The Road to Rule is perhaps my biggest issue with Fable III.
Apologies; I've been waiting to get these problems off my chest since I first played the game, and I'm all too aware that it's a long list of complaints. But here's the thing: somewhere between teaching your dog new tricks, hunting down evil gnomes, having sex with women that aren't your wife, meeting the requirements to upgrade weapons, slaughtering Hobbes, exploring the unknown continent of Aurora and farting in the faces of children whilst wearing a chicken suit, all these problems seem to fade into the background. The familiar Fable experience is as engrossing as ever, and it's incredibly hard to stay mad at a game that oozes charm from every one of its pores. Fable III is a game that is inexplicably better than the sum of its parts.
As always, it's the strength of the world, atmosphere and characters that define Fable. Take Jasper, for example, your personal butler. Voiced by the incredibly fitting John Cleese, Jasper is one of many characters in the game that will force a chuckle out of even the sternest of gamers. The script is as sharp and delightfully British as always, with hundreds of lines of dialogue woven into each quest. A personal favourite of mine involves taking part in a desktop game based on Dungeons and Dragons. The quest-givers shrink you down to an appropriate size and literally put you on the board, narrating your adventure in their game as you go. It's genuinely hilarious, with witty insights to the game development process hiding among the gags.
Fable III doesn't just excel in presenting its narrative; the game is rife with technical innovations, too. Those who take the game into the realm of Xbox LIVE can expect to not only pair up with other players for co-op questing, but marry, have kids and enter into business partnerships with them too. Don't be rash in committing to a stranger online, however. Bound by the laws of marriage, it's only natural that what's yours is theirs and what's theirs is yours. In the event of divorce, your partner will receive half of your fortune - and undoubtedly some players will enter into marriage for precisely this reason. The parallels to real life really are quite frightening.
Molyneux's fervent quest for accessibility might alienate some core gamers, but even the most cynical of critics would struggle to suppress a smile while playing Fable III. To enjoy a game to this extent despite so many flaws only serves to show how utterly compelling adventuring in Albion can be.