FABLE III (XBOX 360)
Fable III. The end (we think) of a trilogy. The end (we hope) of Peter Molyneux overselling his games (and inevitably disappointing audiences).
When I fired up Fable III, the first thing that hit me was the quality of the graphics. For an Xbox 360 exclusive, it certainly doesn't push the console to its limits, and it certainly doesn't show off the quality of graphics that are possible on consoles. This probably wasn't helped by the fact that I'd started the game after playing Black Ops (with its semi-realistic graphics) and Red Dead Redemption (with its uniquely awesome graphics).
Yet, despite the graphics engine not exactly pushing the 360's hardware, the frame rate still manages to take massive dives: for me, at least, these did not even occur when the screen was particularly cluttered. Ultimately, the frame rate probably could have been polished up if the game had been in development for another month or two.
And yet for some reason I'm drawn to Fable III's graphics. They're cartoonish and almost childish. Which is odd, because the Fable games usually play out pretty darkly.
This game is no different. After an amazing intro cinematic (in which there is a near-philosophical insight into freedom, captivity, opportunity, and determination), you're almost immediately forced into a difficult decision when your malevolent older brother, King Logan, forces you to choose whether you save the life of a character who seems to like you or save several captured protesters of a demonstration that is currently taking place outside of Bowerstone Castle.
It's a pretty powerful way to start off a game -- your finger neglects to hit one of the two choice buttons ("A" or "X," which is how the game handles most decisions: one button for each option). You know you should save the villagers, but you also don't want to kill the first character you really meet. Making the decision harder is the fact that, the longer you wait, some of the protesters start crying: you can't possibly let them die now. And to make matters even worse, you have this girl telling you that she should die, because the villagers have done nothing wrong. The whole time, you also have your older brother pressuring you into making a decision: "It's your choice, brother, choose now."
Let's just say that this is not the only difficult choice you will be forced to make during the course of Fable III.
I feel pretty confident that I can say the following without too much backlash: you will become King (or Queen) of Albion. What, no spoiler tags!? Uh, yeah, it tells you right on the back of the game box.
The story is a pretty good length -- overall, you can get about 12-16 hours out of it, depending on how many side quests you complete and how much time you spend doing out-of-quest stuff (like getting married, having kids, customizing clothing, et cetera). At times it feels a little protracted: basically, you go into a town or village, help some people, and then promise you'll do something to benefit them. In return, they'll support your coup d'etat and they'll fight alongside you when you eventually get around to seizing the throne. There is very little in the way of plot twists. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but it makes for a pretty simplistic and linear game.
Choices you make during the course of the game seem to have little impact on the actual story or the game world. Most of the time, it's just a matter of whether the villagers will like you or fear you. It's a shame, because the mechanic could have been implemented in such a way that it really made you feel like your decisions were shaping the world.
So we have a fairly well paced, revenge-based story. You're gathering support to overthrow your evil brother: a feat that the citizens of Albion are desperate to see through. Okay, that's great. So what happens when you actually become King of Albion? At the coronation, I was literally trembling -- partly due to the fact that this was my character's crowning achievement, my goal was complete, King Logan and his army had been defeated. Oh, it may also have had something to do with the fact that I'd been playing the game for about eight hours straight and I'd been drinking a lot of iced tea and coffee.
The bit where you are the King of Albion felt rather rushed. It was anti-climatic at best -- short and uneventful at worst. It's over quickly, which is a shame because you spend a good 12 hours getting to this climax in the story... and then you find that your reign as king only lasts for a few hours. And then you find out it's not even the climax. You find that the main protagonist (King Logan), isn't even the main protagonist at all. You are forced, whatever outcome you choose, to become a protagonist yourself: because you learn what your brother had known all along. I won't spoil it, but it's a very powerful message on politics, revenge, freedom, determination, and knowledge. And it's all over too quickly.
In the game, combat is pretty easy. Did I say 'pretty easy?' That was an understatement. What I meant was, it's almost a joke. Unless you really care about the achievement "You Can't Bring Me Down" (which requires you to complete Fable III without being knocked out), you won't mind dying. Because it's nearly impossible to die. Actually, it is impossible to die -- you are merely 'knocked out.' And, being knocked out doesn't even hinder your progress. You respawn right where you were almost instantly; your enemies are still standing, with the same amount of health as they had, and they're ready to beat you down again and again and again. It brings literal new meaning to the lyrics, "I get knocked down / But I get up again / You're never gonna keep me down."
Rifles and pistols make a return in this game. They're okay, but they're not overly effective. Still, it's always awesome to slash someone (or something) and then immediately pull out your pistol in order to pop a cap into their cranium.
Other than that, there's not really much to say about combat. Magic is pretty cool, but never as useful as just taking a well-crafted piece of metal to somebody's face. When you buy the "Spellweaving" upgrade on the Road to Rule (a pretty cool in-game 'map' that mimics your progress on the 'road' to Bowerstone Castle), you get a second gauntlet that allows you to combine spells -- this is really cool. You can combine fireballs with lightning-ice-storm-things, or with the "Summon Blades Spell" that summons mystic swords that circle around and stab any nearby enemies.
The sound effects are okay: lots of tsings and clashes that you'd expect from a pseudo-medieval game featuring swords and big hammer-axe-things. The pistols and rifles sound rather weak and washed out compared to other sound effects. Additionally, voices are very loud compared to all other sounds, including the music. (I have the music and sound effects at maximum volume, and dialogue set to about 85%.)
[As for the music? I won't review that too in-depth here, because it's actually what I have planned for next week's review.]
Story: 7/10 (Well written, some parts feel protracted whilst post-coronation, the story feels short and rushed.)
Voice Acting: 7/10 (The English accents of Bowerstone [South London], the Dweller Camp [Northern England], and, er, the Royalty [of no specific region] are exaggerated, but they can be funny.)
Sound Design: 7/10 (Sound effects are unbalanced in volume and firearms sound drastically underpowered.)
Soundtrack: 8.5/10 (Russell Shaw's great soundtrack captures a mix of baroque and Hollywood sound with a few subtle hints to old Fable themes.)
Replay Value: 5/10 (Unless you really care about getting every achievement, you probably won't want to play it again after you've beaten it the first time.)
FINAL VERDICT: 76/100 - DECENT
(NOTE: final score is not an average)
CLOSING COMMENTS: Even though Fable III is marred with outdated graphics, all-too-frequent frame rate problems, and insultingly easy combat, it never feels like a chore to play. Indeed, when you get to the end of the game, you'll wish that it went on a lot longer. Actually, if the story had been longer, the replay value would have been higher: ultimately, the most interesting part of the game (in which you reign as Albion's king), is also the shortest. If this intriguing segment of large-scale decision making and political discourse had been a lot longer, there would be more of a reason to replay the rest of the game.
(This review is being released so close to my Zombies review because I need to make up for the missed week.)