While we just saw Fable III a few weeks ago, logging in a chunk of time from the start of the game, Microsoft offered us another opportunity to spend more time with the game at its Washington offices. As we've noted previously, the latest entry in the role-playing series leans into the theme of choices--great and small--and how they affect the world. Our time with the game let us cover some of the territory we just saw, albeit tightened up some, and also take a more exploratory route through the game.
The early stretch of our time with Fable III played out as before with players being given the choice to pick their gender and familiarize themselves with the current state of Albion, where things start to go poorly pretty quickly. Once the setup is complete, the game still keeps its training wheels on for a bit as you're guided to some set locations and directed through the start of some of the main story quests. However, once you've cleared those required to set up the story and introduce you to the concept of followers and the Road to Rule leveling system, you're free to move along at your own pace.
Your trusty canine buddy is back and always eager to direct you to loot--both obvious and hidden--so you can go exploring for a while if you like. If you're the more devoted sort, you can invest a good amount of time mingling with the various locals you'll meet in towns and other places to build relationships with them that yield guild seals. These are Fable III's nearest equivalent to experience points. Not only does this help with moving through the various gates along the Road to Rule that require a certain number of followers and seals, but it also makes new quests available to you that are specific to building your relationship with a particular character.
If you're feeling more entrepreneurial, you can take on various jobs and make some cash you can use to get a house, set up a shop, or get yourself some nice clothes. But, if you're a no-nonsense linear-gameplay-loving type, you can choose to bypass the side stuff and work your way through the story, which appears to give you just enough followers and guild seals to keep you moving along through the Road to Rule.
However, if you opt to stick to the central story religiously and don't let yourself get sidetracked, you may regret it. Your guild seal count will force you to make some choices about how to upgrade your character, as many upgrades will require more seals than you'll have if you try to tear through the game. We learned fairly quickly that it's probably in your best interest to pick up every upgrade you can on the Road to Rule to ensure you're buffed up enough to deal with the mobs of enemies you'll encounter. Speaking of enemies, the revamped combat system works amazingly well, even in the work-in-progress version of the game we tried. Combos are key to battle and the three-button system keeps them attainable. Juggling straight melee combat with magic and firearms is a very satisfying experience, thanks to the charge moves you can work into the mix. As before, the tactics you favor will help your character evolve in a specific direction, which lets you buff up in the areas that are central to how you play.
The visuals in the work-in-progress version of the game we played were coming together well. Albion is a picturesque place teeming with variety. The different environments we've seen strike a nice balance between new and familiar. The world has a more “lived in” look to it this time out, which we expect is due to all the oppression going on, though we did come across some places that still had some natural beauty to them. The residents and your chosen character are an expressive bunch that come alive as you try out whatever interaction options you have on them. Animation on your character and the various non-player characters you'll come across tend to be where you'll find the game's broadest stabs at humor so far.
In terms of effects, there's quite a bit going on during combat, thanks to the different options open to you. Magic is obviously where you'll find the flashiest effects; the fire and shock spells we saw were impressive and tossed around a good amount of particles and lighting. Melee and gunplay, while not quite as showy as magic, featured more cinematic flourishes tied to camera angles and more subtle lighting to reflect your charged attacks. The unfinished version of the game ran fairly smoothly, although there were the occasional hitches that are to be expected when dealing with an unfinished game.
Based on these recent sessions with the game, we're anxious to spend more time with Fable III. The various refinements and overhauls Lionhead's done give the game a decidedly different feel from its predecessors. While this has changed the game's pacing and balance to a more action-oriented direction, it doesn't appear to have diminished the fun to be had in single-player. We're also very anxious to see how the experience we had is affected by the multiplayer elements. We'll be curious to see how the whole promising package fares when the game ships next month for the Xbox 360.