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).
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, and 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.
Looking at all this, then, it's easy to see why Fable is fantastic fun. But now, let us remember that this is, in fact, that great Molyneux masterpiece that we've all been waiting for since the Xbox's launch date. You'll remember all the promises of choice, of freedom, of an epic landscape that changes and evolves with your hero. You'll embark upon this game and have in your mind a picture of an epic quest of the kind we've perhaps never seen before. A few hours in, you'll realise that, despite its qualities and charm, Fable is neither a game of freedom, nor a game of choice - nor, indeed, is it by any stretch of the imagination an 'epic'. And it is at this point, sadly, that Fable begins to fall down around itself.
Take, for instance, the concept of alignment that is one of this and most other Molyneux games' main concepts. Though the villager AI is sufficiently sophisticated to make this possible, the problem is that it simply isn't effective. It is, in fact, a supreme challenge to end up anywhere other than comfortably in the middle or slightly to the side of right. In many cases it is expressly necessary to vanquish bandits in order to complete quests and progress the story, and so the very act of progressing through the game forces the player to the side of right without their having the least say in the matter. Killing villagers, possibly the most evil act that can be committed within the game, gives only paltry retribution and only a few more 'evil' alignment points than nicking someone's Will Potion from a shelf. You'd have to massacre an entire village for it to have any bearing whatsoever on your alignment. 'For every choice, a consequence', according to the game's box; in fact almost every act one commits within the game is entirely inconsequential.
Fable is full of things like this. You're supposed to be able to choose what clothes your character runs around in, but choose anything other than good, thick chainmail and you're likely to be slaughtered on the spot during any quest. You're supposed to be able to choose your hero's hairstyle, but you only ever end up choosing the ones that add to your Attractiveness and so don't provoke annoying comments from the villagers. You're supposed to be able to choose what tattoos he wears, but doing anything remotely out of the ordinary adds to your Scariness and causes villagers to run away in an extremely irritating fashion when you're trying to talk to them. You're supposed to be able to choose whether to fight for good or for evil, but you have to take up all the quests offered you in order to earn experience from them, and they tend to cancel each other out quite nicely in terms of alignment scores. What's more, just as you've learned to accept all of this and play Fable for what it is, it ends, abruptly and without much warning before we feel we've adequately appreciated it. Fable really needs to be played through at least twice to get the most out of it, and that's something I'm sure many gamers will simply be unwilling to do.
Odd thing is, none of this ever makes you angry. It makes you sad, because you can see what Fable was meant to be. It's perfectly possible to see the majestic outline of this game's great vision within the shadow that is its actuality. Fable, in the end, feels like an empty dream, full of concepts that could not be quite realised and ideas that have not been quite implemented, finally petering out prematurely without half as much aplomb as it would have hoped. Playing through Fable is a deeply sad experience; it is a revolutionary notion trapped within the constraints of a fairly run-of-the-mill action game.
And to be honest, it's worth buying Fable on the strength of that alone. This game's noble aim far surpasses that of its heroic protagonist. Had we not expected more from such an ambitious developer and such a protracted development period, Fable would have gone down extremely well as a very good little adventure. As it is, the designer's inability to realise his dream has turned it into one of the saddest game development stories of this generation.
Thankfully, I think we're all capable of forgetting all of that. It's very easy, while playing Fable, to forget about what it was supposed to be and sink with delight into the charming and absorbing adventure game that it is. Fable is ingenious in many ways, and though its ideas are perhaps not fully fledged - hey, at least they're there. You still enjoy yourself, you still feel close to your-hand-crafted character, and you still get a lot of satisfaction out of guiding him through his life. Fable is, in the end, the Xbox's best adventure game - and that is the thing that we should not forget.