We were privileged to get our hands on a copy of Fable more than two weeks prior to the game's release date, and we quickly sat down to put this highly anticipated action RPG through the paces so that we could tell you about it. GameSpot has covered the game extensively since it was first announced years ago, and as those who've been following the game's progress know, it has changed around quite a bit since creative director Peter Molyneux unveiled the first details about the game. However, we'll be ignoring all the hype and history from here on out, and we will instead be focused on providing you with the clearest possible sense of how Fable actually looks and plays--whether it's actually any good, and, if it is, then how good.
Let's get one of your most important questions out of the way right now: Based on the limited time we've spent playing the game (several hours at the time of this writing), and having come at the experience without any sort of preestablished expectations--just the same sort of cautious optimism with which we tend to approach any new game--we're quite impressed. For the most part. But let's get down to the real details, shall we?
To put it plainly, Fable is an action adventure game with role-playing elements. We found that the game is pleasantly responsive to control, and that the main character can run around at a satisfyingly brisk pace. The right analog stick can be used to set the camera closer to or farther away from your character and to rotate the perspective about; after some practice, we found that it worked well. Meanwhile, the Xbox's face buttons and direction pad may be mapped to different functions, such as attacking, initiating dialogue, or social interactions ranging from burping to giggling. These latter social interactions may be used to get a rise out of certain non-player characters, but as you might expect, they don't seem to have a huge impact on the game.
There's a lock-on targeting system for when you're engaged in combat against a foe, and you can use melee weapons, a bow and arrow (unlimited arrows, actually), and magic to do damage. It's easy to switch between these different styles even in the midst of combat. While we had a bit of trouble getting used to the lock-on system, we generally found the game's combat to be quite entertaining from what we've played of it thus far; it's relatively simple, but it seems to work well. Our favorite touch from the combat is when you're holding a bow and arrow and the controller starts rumbling gently as you pull the string as taut as it will go, and the longer you hold down the attack button, the harder you'll pull back the bowstring and the more damage you'll inflict. You'll learn about combat early on in the game during the young main character's training at the guild of heroes. This main character, who has no name and apparently never speaks, is brought to the guild of heroes under mysterious circumstances. As you may have heard, in Fable you start out playing as a child, and then continue on into your teenage years, and then into adulthood.
We reached the main character's adulthood (that is, past the teenage years) within the very first hour of play, which came as a surprise. Granted, we were given the option to not advance so quickly, which was kind of strange. Fable's visuals, which are filled with colorful lighting effects and plenty of detail, help to portray a rich and detailed world deserving of the game's title. On the other hand, we found ourselves slightly put off by the game's fairly frequent and noticeably long loading times and other such prompts or interruptions, which dispelled some of our suspension of disbelief. To continue the previous example, when you first reach the guild of heroes and complete your basic training, you're prompted either to continue to your teenage years, or to remain as a child and explore the guild. So, it's not like your character gradually, subtly ages as the game proceeds. There comes a specific point when you must choose to advance the plot, though when that time comes is up to you.
The game's alignment system is certainly one of its most intriguing features. Basically, you can commit good deeds or bad deeds, depending on the circumstances and your whim. When first starting out as a child, you're challenged to perform some good deeds around town; whether you choose to do so or not, though, is up to you. Some of the situations are interestingly complex, and highly reminiscent of situations from last year's superb Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. For example, you happen upon a young boy being bullied by a bigger boy. You may choose to fight off the bully (good deed), or join in his nastiness (bad deed), or whack the pip-squeak and then thrash the bully for good measure. The bullied kid will then thank you, but plead that you don't do him any more harm. So there's more to the game's alignment system than just a purely binary "be good or be evil" type of thing.
We'll be curious to see just to what lengths we'll be able to take the alignment system. Our first inclination was to act as evil as possible by running around and punching everyone in sight, kicking chickens, breaking glass and other things, and so on. This was actually quite satisfying. However, townspeople just kept repeating the same dialogue as we beat them up--something that's annoying enough that it'll make you stop picking on them after a while. (Note to self: maybe try this in real life...?)
On the other hand, characters definitely respond differently depending on your decisions, and another nice touch is that, depending on the reputation you've garnered, you'll see and hear them react to you differently as you approach. Early on, if you act like a brat, then you'll overhear villagers making comments to that effect while you're in their vicinity (a perfectly good reason to punch them, we might add). Also, after completing an early quest to slay a particularly nasty giant wasp, we returned to be greeted by villagers hailing us as "the wasp slayer." The fact that the world of the game does indeed seem to react to your actions and decisions is one of the ways in which Fable distinguishes itself from other action adventure games.
Despite Fable's sort of standard fantasy look, it's a mature-themed game. We were very interested to glance at the "statistics" page nestled in the game's various options screens, which makes transparent a lot of the possibilities and features of the game. Things like longest distance you've managed to kick a chicken, the main character's sexual orientation and the number of times he has had sex, and the number of times he has been married and divorced are all recorded here. As well, the game's role-playing-style leveling-up system seems pretty involved and interesting. You can boost a variety of different statistics as you gain experience points, making yourself stronger, faster, tougher, and more proficient with melee weapons, ranged weapons, and magic--so whether you want to specialize or become a jack-of-all-trades will be yours to decide. We haven't gone far enough into the game to have a good impression of whether one type of character is "better" than other types, which is nice, because it gives us the impression that all of the available options and opportunities are viable.
All the dialogue in Fable is recorded in full speech, and the quality of the voice acting that we've heard so far has been quite good--all the characters speak various forms of the Queen's English, and even the subtitles use the British spellings of certain words (such as "realise" in favor of "realize"), which makes the origins of the game quite apparent. Meanwhile, the symphonic soundtrack in Fable certainly adds to the game's epic feel; in fact, the soundtrack is the element that most significantly contributes to that feel.
We haven't yet gotten a chance to fully explore all the ins and outs of the character-building system, and we haven't yet seen whether the effects of our decisions have an obvious or dramatic impact on the game. We also aren't especially captivated by what seems to be a fairly straightforward storyline, though we're eager to keep questing away, gaining experience and skills. We like what we've seen of the game's visuals, despite some strange issues with the self-shadowing on the character models and some strange-looking character designs. The world of the game itself certainly looks good, and the frame rate, while not perfectly smooth, mostly stays consistent.
From what we've seen so far, it appears as though Fable has shaped up to be a rather impressive game that's more ambitious than the average third-person-perspective action adventure. It's certainly reminiscent of any number of other games of this ilk, but the alignment system and character-building system, the open-ended nature of some of the quests in the game, and the unflinching inclusion of some decidedly mature themes makes Fable quite unlike anything else we've played so far this year. However, we've also just begun scratching the surface of the game, and we will be interested to see how much content there is to explore, how long the game is, what the replay value is like, and how, if at all, our positive first impression changes as we continue playing.
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