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Technology Editor of Times of London until July 2010. Now swimming in the freelance shark pool, with abiding interest in games, gadgets and what it all means. If you're looking for product reviews, head elsewhere. Unless it's a really nice product. This is more of an attempt to sift out what matters from what doesn't. With a bit of gossip thrown in for good measure. I'm also learning to use Blogger as I go along, so please bear with me.

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Fable III review: a gaming gamble that deserves to pay off

The review below also appears on the fabulous Beehive City.

When Peter Molyneux, the head of Lionhead Studios and the father of the Fable franchise, took the stage at  the annual Games Developers' Conference in San Francisco this year, he asked two simple questions of his audience.

"How many of you played Fable II?"

Nearly all 2,000 hands in the auditorium shot up.

"And how many of you finished it?"

Three-quarters of the hands disappeared.

"You bastards!" said Molyneux, in mock exasperation.

It was a small moment, but an acknowledgement of a big problem facing game designers: the more complex you make a title, the less likely people are to finish it.

The tradition of "ramping" - making each stage of a game more difficult than the last - dates from the time of Space Invaders, but at a time when technology permits truly interactive story-telling, should games makers really still be making titles that its audience can rarely finish?

Fable III is a brave attempt to resolve this dilemma.

The plot itself is of fairy-tale simplicity, and painted in appropriately broad strokes. Your evil brother has taken control of the kingdom of Albion. Child labour is prevalent in its factories, and dissidence is punished by execution. With the help of some key advisers and collaborators, you must take the throne, then attempt to rebuild your country without falling into debt or alienating your subjects.

At every turn, you must make difficult choices, and the choices you make will change you and your kingdom forever.

So far, so familiar to anyone who's ever played a role-playing game.

What sets Fable III apart is how Molyneux and his team have crafted a user interface that keep you involved at all times. Gone are the complex systems of weapons and clothing management that often encumber the RPG. Here, one button does nearly everything. Combat, often bloody and violent, is a brilliantly animated one-button affair, while improving your weaponry and battle capabilities is a simple matter of unlocking the correct items using rewards gained by forging relationships with potential allies or disillusioned citizens.

Another hindrance that Fable III removes is death. When your hero is overcome in combat (s)he faints, gains a permanent scar, but is then free to resume.

For the casual game player, their cupboards stocked with controller-bashing frustrating titles, such refinements are manna from heaven. The strong storyline pulls you in, and once in, you are unlikely to leave until your quest is finished.

On a straight play-through, however, this can take as little as ten hours before the credits roll. If you were to pack the game away after such a short time, though, you would be missing out on many of its hidden pleasures and treasures.

The free-roaming universe offers almost innumerable side-missions and tasks of exploration, some of which only become clear once you have completed the main body of the story. There are noisy northern gnomes to repatriate, books to find and whole new sections of this massive world to explore. It is a testament to the game makers' ability that just wandering around performing tasks can retain player interest. There's at least another 30 hours of "stuff" on top of the basic plot here.

So in a way it's a shame that the plot motors drive you to finish the main story so quickly. Taking time out en route would certainly help you finish stronger, but since it's not compulsory, the natural instinct is to dash for the finishing line.

This is a relatively minor quibble, though I'm sure that serious RPG fans will turn up their noses at the "dumbing down" that Fable III represents. Tellingly, one of the side-tasks involves plunging your hero into a role-playing game controlled by three nerdy magicians. Their game is rubbish, and this game within a game serves as a reminder from the makers of just how far the genre has come.

On a practical level, the game feels thoroughly British, from its impish sense of humour, to its all-star voice cast, which includes John Cleese, Zoe Wanamaker, Stephen Fry, Bernard Hill, Simon Pegg, Sir Ben Kingsley and even a cameo from Jonathan Ross.

It's not always as funny as it thinks it is, but humour is a difficult thing to attempt in a story with scores of possible outcomes.

I suspect that many people, having followed their first instincts to be nice, will go back and restart the game as a different character, playing through as evil, oversexed and murderous. I know I will.

As if all of this isn't enough, the game will also feature online co-op and even at-home co-op modes, allowing two heroes to play together whether in the same room or via the internet. The world of Fable III will also grow via optional download packs. The online elements of the game were not live at the time of playing.

Fable III, then, is an ambitious experiment in story-telling, a gamble from Molyneux, that by opening up the RPG to a mass market, he can afford to alienate the hardcore players who will simply deem it too easy. I think it works, and though the bulletin boards may disagree, this is a game that has the power to make the long, cold winter nights something to look forward to.

Fable III is released on the Xbox 360 on Friday October 29.

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