We've seen Fable, the unique Xbox RPG from Peter Molyneux's Lionhead Studios, on and off for quite some time now. The ambitious game, developed by Lionhead satellite studio Big Blue Box, has seen its release date shift around more than once during its development process. The last time we saw the game--earlier this year at the Game Developers Conference in San Jose--it was much more complete and even playable. At this year's E3, we had the chance to check in on the game again to see how it's shaping up in development.
While Fable's gameplay was originally slated to be a very open-ended experience that had your character aging and developing based on your progress and play style, respectively, the game has since headed in a more-structured direction. Fable uses an action-role-playing game approach in which your character will gain experience levels by accruing experience points. The game will have four main kinds of experience: general, strength, skill, and will. Performing specific tasks will earn you various amounts of general experience, as well as a certain amount of specific experience in either strength, skill, or will. Strength refers to physical prowess, and, as a result, focusing on melee combat will eventually cause your character to become a bigger, bulkier, and slower battle tank. Skill refers to physical agility, so 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. Therefore, 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 or her to age more rapidly, thus turning his or her hair white.
You'll develop your character's power and skills further by purchasing advanced abilities with more experience points. Interestingly, though, you can also apply strength, skill, or will experience toward these costs 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. While this system isn't quite as dynamic as it sounded like it was going to be--where your character just naturally morphed based on how you played--we prefer the new, more-hands-on approach.
The experience system features an arcadelike twist thanks to a multiplier that increases the amount of experience you earn. You'll increase this multiplier number by performing uninterrupted combos. However, if you're hit, this multiplier number will go down. Thankfully, it appears that once you reach a specific, set, low multiplier number, a game meter will lock this figure as your base. So, for example, if you get your multiplier up to five, that's as low as it will ever get--no matter how many times you're hit. As you increase the meter, your base will move up as well. While we're not clear on what the maximum base you can end up having will be (since the system is still being tweaked), the feature is a nice touch that keeps combat from being too frustrating.
While character development may not have wound up offering quite as many options as it set out to, the actual gameplay certainly has. One of the major components of the game that was originally announced was that you were going to be able to be as good or as evil as you wanted. Unlike most RPGs, which tend to firmly lock you in the roles of virtuous, milk-drinking heroes who save kittens and damsels in distress, Fable gives you the option to instead be a vice-laden, liquor-chugging cad who kills small animals and terrorizes the locals. This flexible system is impressive and offers a very pleasing change of pace from your typical RPG experience.
The E3 demo of the game offered five playable levels--Trader's Escort, Bandit Path, Graveyard, Knothole Glade, and Oakvale--that were all testament to the pros and cons of living the good or bad life. The most notable levels we played were the Trader's Escort (a level that charged us with protecting traveling merchants until they reached a set location) and the Knothole Glade (a level that showed off a new town) ones. What struck us the most about the escort mission was that you had to fight temptation every step of the assignment. Basically, the gentlefolk who entrusted us with their lives could have been hacked up and robbed at pretty much any point during our journey. While we figured most folks would take this responsibility seriously, we were a bit more fickle. We won't go into the gory details, but suffice it to say, if you choose to hack up the traders so that you can rob them, then, well...
Knothole Glade showcased a new town that had a Native American feel to it, which was in good contrast to the more-traditional European towns we've seen previously. Knothole's design featured almost no stone in its structures and streets. The town had a distinctive woodsy feel thanks to log huts, wood carvings, and patterned rugs thrown about various abode interiors. Additionally, the townsfolk were a friendly, reactive bunch, and apparently, their behavior will adapt to your alignment of either good or evil. (FYI for those who choose the evil alignment: If you choose to hack up some or all of the town's population, it appears that the option is there.)
The game's graphics have come a long way since we first saw them. The distinctive art style that gave the game a very European look has been polished up considerably and now showcases a varied suite of Xbox special effects. Your character will be a high-poly archetype of virtue or vice, with some nice effects used for the extremes of either one. For example, you'll sport an angelic glow and a halo if you're good, and you'll sport an ominous dark hue, complete with horns and hooves, if you're not. Not only do such touches look cool but also they do a bang-up job of getting a reaction out of the locals. The environments are large and detailed and feature unique atmospheric touches, thanks to the Xbox's graphical muscle. You'll see leaves of all hues (depending on the area), lighting based on the time of day and location, and various filters used to give everything a surreal quality. One of the most striking effects is a soft-focus filter that's used to give the whole presentation a dreamy quality that fits in nicely with the game's fantasy theme. The only hitch to the visuals appears to be inconsistencies in the frame rate when the onscreen action heats up.
The audio is shaping up to be one of the highlights of the game, thanks to Big Blue Box's quirky sense of humor. Tucked into the moody soundtrack and standard assortment of effects used for combat and magic, you'll hear a wealth of sound bites that showcase the varied personalities of the locals you'll be terrorizing or helping in your quests.
We've had the privilege to see Fable in various states of completion over the past two years and have always been struck by its potential. After having seen this latest iteration, we're pleased to say that the game is living up to most of it. While this more-complete version of Fable isn't quite the hyperambitious creation the game was initially proposed to be, what it's morphed into is still an impressive game that will definitely be one to watch when it ships this September. Look for more on Fable in the coming months.