Fable Hands-On Impressions

We take an updated look at Lionhead's open-ended role-playing game for the Xbox at GDC 2004.

Lionhead Studios' ambitious Xbox role-playing game Fable was on hand at this year's Game Developers Conference. The game's development has progressed considerably since we saw it last, and we were able to see the game's combat, its social elements, and even its opening levels.

In Fable, you'll play as a single character with the intention of becoming the greatest hero in the land, and as you perform quests and solve adventures, your character's appearance will gradually change over time as a result of your actions and also as a result of how you choose to specialize your character. One of the game's most prominent methods of helping you develop your character is working with or against the established factions of traders and bandits. Traders are peaceful merchants you can barter with to get rid of your excess loot and purchase better items as well. However, traders are constantly beset by bandits who kill off merchants and attack honest folk. By default, when starting a new game of Fable, traders will be "friendly" to you, as indicated by a glowing green light that surrounds them when you target them ("neutral" characters will be marked in yellow, while hostile characters, like bandits at the beginning of the game, will be marked in red). If you choose to fight the bandits and defend the traders, you'll increase your character's "good" points, and you'll also indirectly cause the game's trader population to increase. Since Fable's trade routes will become safer, you'll see more traders with far better equipment to sell. On the other hand, you can decide to side with the bandits by attacking traders. This adds "evil" points to your character, and it will also drive down the trader population, while driving up the bandit population. You won't have as many options as to where to shop, but you may make a few new bandit friends--but only a precious few.

As mentioned in our previous coverage, one of the primary features of Fable's gameplay will be the way your character changes over time. Since Fable is an action role-playing game, your character will gain experience levels by accruing experience points, though the game will have four main kinds of experience: general, strength, skill, and will. Performing specific tasks will earn you varying amounts of general experience, as well as a certain amount of specific experience in either strength, skill, or will. Strength refers to physical prowess; focusing on melee combat will eventually cause your character to become bigger, bulkier, and slower. Skill refers to physical agility; focusing on ranged combat with bows and arrows will cause your character to become leaner and faster. Will specifically applies to the use of magic; developing your character's skill with sorcery will make him a powerful wizard--though the study of the arcane arts will take its toll on your character and cause him to age more rapidly, turning his hair white. You'll develop your character's power and skills further by purchasing advanced abilities with more experience points, though interestingly, you can also apply strength, skill, or will experience toward the cost to offset the general experience cost. These skills can include anything from increased strength to spectacular magic spells that let you hurl fireballs or lightning bolts at your enemies.

Interestingly, Fable will have three different combat systems to correspond with these three different areas of specialization. Combat is based on shortcuts that can be mapped to the four face buttons of the Xbox controller, including fancy flourish attacks with your sword or shortcuts to your favorite magical spells. For instance, focusing your character's development on strength means focusing on melee combat, which will be accomplished with a third-person view that lets you lock onto various targets and attack with combination slashes. If you're skilled enough, you'll also receive an experience multiplier (indicated in the upper-left corner of the screen by a numerical display). Dispatching a series of enemies quickly increases the experience multiplier--so the more skilled you are, the more bonus experience points you'll earn from successful melee combat. As a result, your actual hand-eye coordination skills will benefit your character's advancement directly (rather than grinding through the turn-based battles of typical console RPGs to eventually gain a level)--rewarding skillful play. Fable's magic system will be based on your character's will score and will let you lock onto and strafe around targets as you unleash whichever offensive spells you've mapped to your buttons. The game's ranged battles will play out much differently; though you can also lock onto and strafe around your enemies with a bow, it's more preferable to sneak around an enemy encampment at a distance and fire arrows from the shadows, since enemies alerted to your presence will often come charging right at you. Fable's ranged combat system will come with two levels of first-person view--a highly zoomed-in view of your character (and any nearby enemies that may be attacking you) and a true first-person view to perfect your aim. When you first start your career as an archer, your aim will be unsteady, and your targeting reticle will wobble as you try to focus on your target, though with more practice and skill (which you can learn from an archery academy), your aim will become steadier and more true.

Control in the game is laid out simply. The D pad will let you perform one of four "social" actions that you can assign to the up, down, left, or right directions. You'll learn these behaviors, which range from classy to crude, as you go through the game. You can assign them to the D pad on the fly whenever you like, allowing you access to a wide range of behaviors for your virtual avatar. Combat actually follows the same aesthetics and makes use of both traditional assigned buttons and assigned actions. For example, you'll be able to assign different spells to three main Xbox buttons. You'll access them by holding down the right trigger, which calls them up over those buttons' default actions. When you're not holding the trigger, the buttons are used for melee attacks, flourishes, or context-sensitive actions that appear. The only slight hitches we've noticed so far, and blame Ninja Gaiden for it, are that the solid control requires you to push the Y button to block and that the camera is problematic in places. Unfortunately, our time with Gaiden has trained us to use the right trigger for our blocking needs, which can be problematic. As with most 3D games, you'll use the right analog stick to move the game's camera (which is still a work in progress) to take in your surroundings.

Of course, your character will also change over time by becoming more "good" or more "evil" and also by gaining a reputation at local towns. Part of being a "good" hero is lending a hand at nearby towns by solving local problems, like dealing with monster or bandit attacks. If you decide to help out, you'll be given a hero's welcome by admiring townspeople, though if you're rude to them and give them impolite gestures, they'll grow to dislike you. Fable will have a full set of social gestures that you can use to interact with various characters in the game--anything from waving a friendly hello, to sneering derisively, to flirting, to giving the aforementioned impolite gestures. When you enter town, you'll actually be able to boast to your neighbors that you'll accomplish your next quest under extremely challenging conditions. For instance, you may tell the townspeople that you'll defeat a horde of monsters with no weapon and no armor--in your underwear, even. If you make good on your boast, you'll earn an experience bonus, and your standing with the locals will increase considerably. As a result of your various quests (either for towns or for yourself), you may gain enough "good" points to eventually become a saintly hero who wears a glowing halo above his head, surrounded by butterflies. By gaining enough "evil" points, your character will instead take on a sinister, demonic appearance with paler skin and a bald pate--your character's forehead will even sprout a pair of horns. To get to this state, you'll need to commit many evil and treacherous acts, like attacking traders and choosing the "evil" solution to quests.

We were also able to see these quests in action in the opening levels of Fable--basically, how the game begins. Since the game is intended to let you fully live out the life of a hero, you'll actually start out as a small child. Your character's father gives you the simple task of purchasing a birthday present for your younger sister. You can acquire these funds by running through your village and performing errands for your neighbors, and completing them the "good" way will often earn you a shiny gold piece from your approving father. However, you'll also have the option to complete your quests in an "evil" fashion, and in these cases, you may end up getting the money through more-dubious means. For instance, one quest is given to you by an angry farmer's wife who suspects her husband of being untrue. Your job is to find her husband and tell him to return to his wife. You'll find out that the farmer is indeed two-timing his wife with another woman from the village, though the farmer will offer you a bribe of one gold piece to keep your mouth shut about it. Accepting the bribe nets you a gold piece, and an evil point, though you can then double-cross the farmer by reporting his infidelity to his wife, which nets you a good point. If you hurry, you'll also be able to catch up with the wife, who makes a mad dash after her husband and berates him angrily.

Fable is still a ways off from shipping, and the developers admit that the current version's frame rate issues could use a bit of polish, but the game already contains most of its features, such as a soundtrack that includes the work of Hollywood composer Danny Elfman. Fable is scheduled for release later this year.

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