Xbox-owning RPG fans have been quietly biding their time as Fable, the ambitious and long-awaited role-playing game from UK-based developer Big Blue Box, readies for its release next month. You can count us among the masses trying to keep busy while we anxiously wait for the game to ship. Although we've checked in on the game more than a few times, we still jumped at the chance to get a look at a near-final version. No short demos, no playing with a preloaded save, just us beginning our virtual life as a hero.
The first thing to stand out as our life in Albion began was the very polished look of everything. The cinematic that plays before the start screen is a slickly edited piece that feels like introductory movie credits. The stylish clip features a dynamically moving camera that zips in and out of many of the locales you'll travel through in the world, one of the centerpieces being the Hero's Guild that will serve as your base of operations in the game. You'll also see frescoes of some of the action in the game as well as a small sampling of the possible incarnations of your character. The introduction also offers a tease of Danny Elfman's impressive score.
Before we embarked on our new life, we thought we'd be nitpicky and kick the tires some by checking out the options in the game. While the start screen features three basic options that let you start a new game, continue an existing one, or go into the game's options, there's more to be done if you start poking around. The game options will let you create a profile where you can store tweaks to the visuals, control, audio, and Live Aware status of the game. You'll also be able to try out demos of Xbox games.
When you do get around to playing Fable, you'll be asked to enter your name and then you'll be treated to one of the unique bits of presentation in the game: a massive fresco that the camera will pan over as a narrator fills you in on the story. The introduction talks about a young boy from the village of Albion who dreamed of being a hero. The segment is interrupted as your father snaps you out of your daydream and urges you to go find a birthday present for your sister. To help you get something nice for your sis, your father offers to give you a gold piece for every good deed you do. This level is a tutorial that introduces you to the basics of gameplay and the game's good and evil mechanics. You're sent around the town while performing various tasks. How you go about completing them begins to affect your ranking of good or evil, which will then influence the way the locals will react to you. The one interesting thing to note about your ranking is that an eye icon above your onscreen map will alert you to how many people can see what it is you're doing. This will play a much larger role as you get older, as your character's reputation, or renown, as it's called in the game, will influence locals' reactions to you.
As you complete your tasks, you can earn some bling from your dad. While your father will cough up gold for your good deeds, you can also find alternate means to earn some cash by not being so good. For example, when you catch a man cheating on his wife, you can score some hush money by promising not to narc on him to the missus. Of course, that's not to say you can't take his money and then go narc on him anyway for some extra cash. (What? If you're being bad you may as well go whole hog, especially if there's money involved.)
The Hero's Guild
You'll eventually earn enough gold to buy a gift for your sister. Unfortunately, after you buy your sister the gift and take it to her, your idyllic life comes to an end. Bandits raid the town and do their thing, resulting in a whole lot of death and a pretty good hacking off of the branches on your family tree. Thankfully, you're saved by Maze, a magic-wielding guild hero with less than perfect timing. It's hard to gripe too hard, though, since the white-haired mage with the funky aboriginal tattoos keeps you from becoming bandit fodder.
One dramatic teleportation later, you find yourself at the Hero's Guild, which is the crib for all up- and-coming heroes. You meet the guild master, who opts to put you up and to train you. Following a good night's sleep, you're then introduced to your roommate, Whisper, who is a barrel of laughs in that, "I am superior to you" kind of way. The rest of the level plays out by filling you in on the ins and outs of being a hero (and the necessary control scheme to act the part). Your training consists of focusing on the three main abilities you'll rely on in the game: skill, will, and strength. Besides teaching you the mechanics of archery, melee, and defense, training will also give you your first taste of some of the skill-based minigames you'll find in Fable. You'll receive a score every time you finish a training session, and then you're given the option to keep your original score or try again to improve your performance. When you finally complete all of your lessons you'll be able to leave the guild and start your adventure.
While you may want to just take off and get your adventuring on, going around and exploring the guild is probably not a bad idea. The Hogwarts-ish building will serve as a home base for you, and it's where you'll be able to enhance your character's stats by using the experiences you earned to beef up your abilities. To do so, you'll merely go to a platform and call up a menu that lets you level up your three main stats and their corresponding abilities. Doing so will not only increase their effect, but also open up more options for you to unlock with your earned experience. For example, focusing on your will attacks, such as lightning spells, will unlock even more powerful attacks that target more than a single enemy and do more damage. You'll also be able to unlock completely new spells, such as fire.
In addition, exploring the grounds will let you find mystic doors that, a la Mario 64, feature requirements to be opened. In Fable's case, you won't need to collect a set number of stars to get in; you just need your good or evil stat to be at the right level. The quests beyond the doors are challenging mysteries that yield some interesting experiences and items that will surely come in handy. You'll want to be on your best behavior when chilling at the guild, as you'll be warned, attacked, and even kicked out if you're acting like a fool. At the center of the grounds is the main hall that contains a large map of Albion. You'll be able to take on any outstanding missions you find on the large topographical map. Quests will be accessible to you based on your level and renown, ensuring you don't bite off more than you can chew.
Before you head out for good, you'll be given the guild seal which, while jaunty and quite fashionable, lets you teleport yourself to places you've been--which is handy for visiting the guild as well as getting out of trouble. On your way out of town you'll find a title vendor that will let you take your hard-earned cash and blow it on an honorary title. His selection includes such memorable labels as "arseface," which you can own for a price. The title vendor is but one of the merchants you'll encounter in the game. You'll find traditional merchants that will sell various supplies. One of the nice touches to the vendor system is that you'll see if the price of an item you're buying is the cheapest. You'll see a price in parentheses, which is the lowest price available, next to your purchase. If you're lucky, it will match what you're about to spend. If you're not, it will be a tip that somewhere in the world you'll find a vendor with a killer bargain who's waiting for you. You'll also find unorthodox vendors in the game that will let you cut your hair, apply tattoos, or get some distinct new threads, which will play into the perception people have of you. Finally, you can visit the blacksmith to augment your weapon, which will make you a force to be reckoned with.
Be Good, or Be Bad?
Once you're out in the world you'll need to take a look around and decide if you will help or terrorize people. If it helps, we humbly suggest not helping too many people too soon. Helping others may help mold your reputation, but helping people can be a drag. Once you set a precedent in the game as being helpful, plan on being harassed a lot. For example, not long after your first foray into the real world, you'll rescue a group of picnic refugees who are being terrorized by a giant bee. If you manage to kill it and its spawn, the grateful townies will sing you praises and lead others to contact you for such help. The nice bit to all this is that once the bee is dead, you can equip the head as a trophy to raise basic appeal (by running around and showing people the severed head). An onscreen meter will clue you in on how many available eyes you've found to show it to. When triggering the meter, you'll start a timed minigame that will challenge you to show everyone in the town before times runs out. You'll restore time on the clock by showing the bee's head to people, which gives you an extra chance to get a perfect score.
Combat in the game is accessible and fun thanks to the control scheme. The D pad will let you perform one of four 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 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 attacks to three main Xbox buttons. You'll access the attacks by holding down the right trigger, which calls them up over the buttons' default actions. When you're not holding the trigger, the buttons are used for melee attacks, flourishes, or context-sensitive actions that appear. While the game's auto-target system locks on to foes you can attack, you can choose to attack anyone by holding down the right trigger. This is, of course, most handy when you're feeling evil.
The graphics haven't changed too dramatically since we last saw the game. Overall, Fable is a solid-looking game with some expressive effects that focus more on the subtle weather and lighting effects as opposed to the flashier photo-realistic slant often seen in Xbox games. The game has a distinct sense of style that's richly detailed and draws on a wide variety of elements, such as Native American and European influences. Animation is pretty solid; although it does hiccup occasionally, it's hardly a cause for concern. The frame rate was much more stable in the version we played and it only bogged down noticeably when the screen was full of foes and spell effects. We're pretty sure the frame rate won't quite make a consistently solid 30 throughout your adventure, but the times when it drops haven't adversely affected the gameplay so far.
The audio in the game is a stellar component, thanks to an excellent soundtrack, dynamic voice, and meaty sound effects. The game's soundtrack is a great confection of sweeping tracks and more modest pieces that all fit the adventure very well. The voice in the game is an impressive assortment of dynamic audio clips that reflect your goodness or evilness. You get a hint of the feature in the beginning of the game as the townsfolk offer disapproving sounds bytes while you are walking around town acting like a little terror. The audio becomes much richer and varied as you progress. The clips will become much more specific than the vague comments you encounter as a child, which is both cool and a little frightening, based on your appearance and actions in the game. The townsfolk's reaction will reflect the outcome of conversations that you have with them, or their feelings toward your expressions and your behavior (this also includes gift giving, which is key to getting married). The effects used for the various spells are well done and look more impressive as you level up.
While it seems like we've lived nearly three lifetimes anticipating Fable's release, the waiting will soon be over, as all signs point to the game's release being a sure thing. Based on what we played, the RPG looks to be shaping up well. Though the original ambitious concept of the game has been refined as it has found its way to release, it appears to have wound up, coming surprisingly close to its target gameplay. If the game can maintain the fresh feel of its early levels, it may well end up being a satisfying and replayable treat for RPG players. Fable is currently slated to ship this fall for the Xbox.