Peter Molyneux is an ambitious and highly respected games designer, so when he announced that he was working on an RPG, it was hardly surprising to hear him say that it “will be the best role playing game ever created”. The team at Lionhead strived to include absolutely everything that they’d ever dreamt of in the game and fuelled by this enthusiasm, Molyneux talked about it to anyone who’d listen, mainly in press interviews. Features like two player co-operative play and the real time growth of trees were mentioned all that time ago, but as the development went on, it was clear that some of these features were simply not practical or couldn’t be handled by the Xbox’s hardware. The foliage growth would have taken up 15% of the processor time alone, causing a big reduction in other parts of the game, so like other concepts, it was dropped. This process of natural selection is common in all forms of industry; the weakest and often the most elaborate ideas are always the most likely to be cut from projects. Just look at the car industry; few concept cars ever make it into production because of the economics and practicality of it. Should we have expected all of Fable’s features to make it into the retail version? Of course not.
It’s a sad state of affairs when a developer has to publicly apologise for these concepts not appearing in the final copy of a game, simply because a small section of the public does not understand why they are not there. When Fable was in development, people naturally got excited because of who was behind it and what it could turn out to be like. Everyone had their own idea of what this ultimate RPG should be like, but in reality where deadlines, budgets and technical limits exist, you cannot include everything. Some people are angry and disappointed that it didn’t live up to their seemingly endless expectations, but they have to realise that Fable is a finished game and not some personal wish-list of what should be in an RPG. No games are perfect and all possess less than they ideally should; that’s the way games development works. Peter Molyneux doesn’t need to apologise for conceptual features missing from Fable because the end product is in fact very good. After all, did we ever get an apology for the utter mess that is Driv3r?
Fable is a role playing game in its truest form. Playing the life of a boy who grows up in the fantasy world of Albion, you strive to become the greatest hero in the land. As you progress through the story, your nameless, blank canvas of a character will develop based on your actions and how people perceive you. The world around you doesn’t change, nor does the overarching nature of the game. It’s you that changes.
Split up into several distinct chapters, Fable’s story is portrayed through both pre-rendered cut-scenes and those using the in-game engine. The few major stepping stones are covered by animated, slightly cartoon-styled movies, which set the fairytale atmosphere and convey the plot so well that they could of be taken straight out of a movie. Minor game events and cut scenes related to missions are created in real time by Fable’s graphics engine because of the way your character changes throughout the course of the game. This does lead to a lack of polish in some, but there’s no other way of getting around the issue of an ever-altering individual. The story itself, which I won’t spoil for you, is by no means original, but it’s carried it off with such confidence and style that you’ll find yourself easily taken in by it all.
However much you might like it to be, Fable isn’t as open ended as you’d think. Albion is split up numerous smaller sections, which when pieced together form the game world. Unlike Morrowind where you can go anywhere, you are confined to these set areas where everything takes place. Although the world is geographically grounded and laid out logically, you can’t just wander off and follow the landscape to wherever it leads. Fable is linear in this respect, but it cuts down on loading times, keeps the action focused and makes sure that you’re never wandering aimlessly around empty fields all day. The beginning of the game is particularly restrictive and acts as a tutorial, but once this stage is passed, you’re free to explore the various locales in Albion whenever you wish. The story is propelled through main quests which are unavoidable if you want to access some areas of the map though. Of course, you could just spend all your time chasing chickens in the very first portion of the game, but who wants to do that when there are monsters to slay and fair maidens to be won?
Aside from these main missions, there are plenty of side quests and other opportunities for entertainment. Each of Albion’s towns has a host of shops to spend your gold at, real estate to invest in, various minigames to play and people to interact with. Between quests, you’re free to fill your time by doing whatever you please, with no pressure put on you to continue with the next mission. The primary quests can’t be avoided, so if you can’t complete one, then you’re effectively stuck. However, there are plenty of ways to increase your chances of succeeding in subsequent attempts by buying new armour, improving your character and so on. In fact, you can become so distracted by everything else on offer that you might forget all about what you’re supposed to be doing.
One of the key features in the game is character development and the way in which your actions effect the way that you are perceived by others. If you treat people badly, they’ll run away from you and get nervous around you, but be generous and polite and they’ll love you. Every single non-playable character has their own memory of your actions, so each regards you slightly differently and will remember how you’ve acted towards them before. An example of this simple yet highly effective system is at the very start of the game, where you have a clean slate onto which you can build your character’s personality. If you keep a secret for a man who’s cheating on his wife, then people will start to say things like, “Ooh, you can’t trust him, nasty piece of work”. If you then go and tell his wife about him and his mistress, then the townsfolk will change their opinion again, stating, “You never know with him, do you?” It’s this sort of reaction to your behaviour which makes Fable’s population feel more in touch with how you’re playing. It gives the illusion that they’re not just there to walk around aimlessly, that you can interact with them in more ways than you really can.
Everywhere you go you’re given the chance to either help or hinder and to exercise your right to choose between good and evil. Give your sister a birthday present or ‘forget’ to? Help the wounded trader or tell him to get lost? Attack a farm or defend it? It’s really up to you. As significant as this sounds, Fable remains thoroughly grounded in the grand scheme of things, never allowing your actions to lead to you becoming stuck in the game. What does continue throughout Fable is your appearance. Through your childhood, your look isn’t really influenced by your actions, but as you progress through the main course of the game, your allegiance to either good or evil will begin to shape your exterior. If you’re hell bent on doing bad deeds, then horns will begin to grow on your head, but help and obey and you’ll keep your good looks for longer.
Although you can’t stop the signs of aging affecting your appearance, you can change your physique. Every slain enemy leaves behind green beads of general experience, which when collected can be spent on leveling-up your character. This, along with specific experience gained from performing certain tasks repeatedly, makes up your pool of expendable points. Through a menu system, you simply choose what to spend your budget on, be it magical, bodily or mental potency. Your abilities often affect your appearance, so for instance, increasing your physical strength results in your character developing muscles and appearing bulkier. It’s less subtle than the gradual changes in your reputation, but keeps this sort of thing as unambiguous as it should be.
A ‘living, breathing world’ is something many games try to create and although it may be impossible to actually generate in a game, Fable has a real go at trying to construct a place that you can feel at home in. Albion may be comparatively small to other game worlds, but in attention of detail it is almost unrivalled. Each inhabitant seems to have a purpose; shopkeepers follow their daily pattern, going to work, hanging out at the pub and then returning home to the family and kids, while dock workers bring in new goods from ships to the towns’ traders. It’s not always superficial either; when shops are restocked, the economy kicks into play and lowers the prices. It’s little systems like these that make Fable more than just your main story. There’s money to be made from running between shops and profiting from the price differences or start a business in the property market. You can even play around with these systems; killing everyone in a town and buying their homes up, only to rent them out to them when they respawn, for example. There’s a whole list of things you can do outside the main quests, with marriage, alcoholism and fight clubs only the tip of the iceberg.
Where Fable both shines and lets the player down is in its core gameplay mechanic - real time armed combat. This is effectively split down into swordplay, ranged weaponry and magic. The former type applies to close combat with blades, axes and so on, with one button used for most attacks and a ‘flourish’ button used to unleash a more vigorous blow once several consecutive hits have been scored. Bows and crossbows work in a similar way, but with the option to aim in a first person perspective, while magic attacks are selected by simply pulling the right trigger and pressing a face button. All three link together using the left trigger to lock-on to a target, allowing you to strike your enemies with different types of attacks while maintaining your focus on them. The lock-on and the simple controls make Fable’s combat fast-paced and ferocious, but every now and then the lock-on fails to pick up the correct target and can result in you losing a fight. Like in GTA, you can sometimes find yourself aiming at an innocent bystander instead of the most relevant threat. Although it’s the game’s only major fault and it’s not too common, it’s one that’s fairly central to the gameplay and it can cost you dearly.
Fable’s visuals are one thing that really mark it out from the competition; it simply looks stunning. Albion is alive and full of energy, with much of it teeming with lush vegetation and wildlife. Plants sway in the wind, the water shimmers in the sunlight and the detail in everything is astounding. While other RPGs sacrifice graphical finesse for huge game worlds, Fable does almost the opposite with a slighter, but far more distinctive environment. The frame rate does noticeably dip at times, but never goes so low that it impedes the game and with such quality in every other aspect of the graphics, is easily forgiven. The characters, especially your own, are extremely well detailed and animated with even the chickens looking particularly well done. Albion is strikingly coherent and has been injected with so much artwork and imagination that it pushes it beyond the league of many of its rivals. Like the gameplay, it has a its flaws, but the sheer quality and quality of its other elements make these just fade into the background.
Like its graphics, Fable’s audio never ceases to impress. All of the dialogue is voice acted and extremely well done, with all of the characters having distinctive British accents. I’m not sure how it comes across outside the UK, but I think it adds to the fairytale atmosphere that the game is centred around; American accents just wouldn’t seem right in a largely medieval world. Having to read through a script would be harder work for the player than listening to audio, so the game’s singular use of speech instead of text to communicate between characters makes for a much more relaxed and cinematic atmosphere. Aside from conversation, Fable’s audio contributes to the overall ambience of the game, with an excellent orchestral score combining with the game’s sound effects to compliment the visuals perfectly. It’s all done so well that you just can’t help but be taken aback by the sheer quality and elegance of the game’s presentation.
When it comes to lifespan, I’ve heard many people complain about Fable being too short. I’d disagree though, because it you look at actual value for money compared to a DVD, it’s far greater. You’ll pay £15 for 2 hours of non-interactive entertainment with a film, but with a game like Fable, you’ll pay £40 for 20 hours of interactive entertainment. For those of you who aren’t so mathematically minded, that’s nearly 4 times as much as a movie. Some who have played the game may doubt that you can spend 20 hours playing it, but I think that’s easily attainable if you play Fable how it’s really meant to be played. If you just went through the main quests you’d probably complete it in 5 to 10 hours, but if you actually make use of everything else the game has to offer then that figure just rises and rises. All story based games suffer this problem; when you’ve finished them, what do you do? Fable at least offers a different experience by playing as good or evil, but ultimately there’s a limit to how much you play it.
So, what score to give Fable? For me, it sits directly between eight and nine. I love everything about it, but the temperamental lock-on system and erratic framerate prove to be consistent annoyances throughout the game. That said, the huge remainder of Fable is fantastic and these flaws don’t exactly ruin the it, so remain simply as its Achilles heel. Apart from these nuisances, Fable excels in so many areas that it’s hard not to appreciate the thought and effort put into it. Albion is a coherent and thriving game world, packed with detail, charm and plenty to do in every area you visit. The character development system is nicely executed and entertaining to experience, while the overarching story is told with confidence and flair. The combat system is well thought out and though it falters occasionally, it’s so intuitive and easy to pick up that its weaknesses are easily forgotten. All the minor systems that enhance and support the main gameplay mechanics, like the leveling-up and the controls, combine and make Fable feel complete and comprehensive. The audio and visuals come together to create such an enchanting and captivating atmosphere. Fable entertains and amuses on so many levels with so much elegance and style that there’s little evidence on which to fault it, and for that reason it gets a thoroughly deserved eight out of ten.
Yet I can’t help but add in a few more points to this already super-sized review. Fable has so much to offer and does almost everything right, but there still seems to be people who cannot accept or appreciate the game for what it is. It’s not Morrowind and it’s not Knights of the Old Republic, but it’s not trying to be. You can’t really compare them like for like because they all offer distinctively different takes on what is a hugely broad genre. Fable doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but it does offer an enjoyable and focused modern gaming experience which is both streamlined and accessible to all. It may not be the best RPG ever, but it’s certainly one of the best.
Eight out of ten