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Fable the Third

Fable 3 (Amazon, Mighty Ape, Steam) was released a month or so ago (for PC, anyway), and I finished my first playthrough not that long ago.

I’d seen fairly mixed reviews of the Xbox version beforehand, but I was going in with fairly light expectations — I’d played Fable: TLC (on PC too, of course) previously and found it to be a fairly light-hearted and silly RPG, but still pretty fun. I haven’t played Fable 2 (since it never made it to PC), but I was expecting something similar from Fable 3.

And I think it met those expectations. It’s still quite light-hearted and silly (what other series would have a chicken as the main character of the introductory cinematic, and featured on all the loading screens?), not taking itself particularly seriously and aiming for fun rather than realism or number-crunching. And it delivers on these quite nicely.

In terms of performance, I never really had any serious issues with the game, although I did encounter a few minor bugs. Specifically:

  • Sometimes the voice-over announcements in the chicken race failed to play, which sometimes made it quite hard to work out who had won.
  • One of my in-game children became merely “Fine” (instead of Happy or better) and demanded a toy to return to Happy status — but on being given a toy, their status reset to the centre of the “Fine” bar, rather than going up a grade.
  • The pathfinding of the dog wasn’t particularly good — on rare occasions he’d get stuck behind something and I’d have to go back and find him, but a more common problem would be when he’d bark to alert me to the presence of a dig spot right next to where I was standing but then spending ages walking in circles behind some obstacle before finding his way past it and over to me so that I could dig there.
  • Another mysterious problem with the dog is that he lacked a sense of height — on a few occasions he’d bark and lead me to a location directly above or below where the treasure actually was (usually when the way to get there was a long way away).

Character interaction is still basically the same as in earlier games — while you have a voice in cutscenes, when interacting with the villagers during normal gameplay you’re restricted to a fairly limited palette of gestures/emotes (or “expressions”); they’re kinda fun to play with at first, but they can get a bit old if you spend much time trying to impress (or terrify) the villagers — and there’s something a bit surreal about your hero walking up to random strangers and dancing or playing pat-a-cake with them (or ruder things), especially later in the game when your character is fairly well known. Although again, that’s part of the game not really taking itself seriously. Something else that might bother the role-players a bit is that some of the expressions (particularly the more evil ones) are locked until later in the game.

The plot itself seems reasonably decent; you’re starting out fairly small and working your way up to the big things, and there’s a bit of an upset towards the end when you learn about the Big Bad and some of the reasons behind the situation earlier on in the game. And you’re afforded a reasonable amount of opportunities to be good or evil, although as with most games “evil” is more “Chaotic Stupid” than anything else. One thing that’s nice about the endgame is that it tries to make you agonise about the decisions by offering you “good but expensive” vs. “evil but profitable”, and since you have to get a certain amount of gold or face destruction, sometimes that really does make the evil option tempting.

But in order to do that, it seems to make certain assumptions about your situation which don’t always really apply. For example, in my playthrough I already had about 10 million whenI assumed the throne, and since I was playing a nominally good character that meant that I immediately transferred all of it to the treasury, which is more than is required to achieve the best ending. Despite this,the book-keeper and Reaver still frequently whined about how it would be a good idea to do the evil things to build up the gold and frequently suggested that I would fail if I didn’t top it up some more from personal funds, despite that being obviously not true. (It was particularly silly when I ended the game with 2 million spare in the treasury and a further 8 million in personal funds.) Still, I can see what they were trying to do, and how it definitely could have caught some people out if they weren’t sufficiently prepared beforehand, so I applaud them for that.

Combat was decent; the auto-targeting was occasionally quite annoying when you’d be preparing some high-strength flourish or spell attack, only to have the stronger enemy you were trying to hit summon some weaker additional enemies in front and your attack would hit them instead. Still, it was fast and furious (and fun), although threat tended to be based on facing hordes of weaker monsters much more often than encounters with stronger monsters. It played well with mouse & keyboard, but I can’t help but suspect that multi-weapon combos might have been easier with a controller — having different buttons for “sword attack” vs. “magic attack” vs. “gun attack” (as on controller) would let you switch between them much faster than (as on keyboard/mouse) having a single “attack” button with “select sword/magic/gun” keys (and mousewheel).

The side-quests were fun, for the most part; there are a few particular favourites (“The Game” and “The Final Insult” spring to mind, as does the final book from “The Pen is Mightier…”), and like I said before, the game doesn’t really take itself too seriously, which I quite like. The villager socialisation quests get old fairly quickly, though; invariably you do one or two expressions, at which point they ask you to take something to one of the neighbouring areas and return, then you can do some more expressions (if you want). This can mean quite a lot of travel back and forth between regions if you’re trying to befriend many villagers, although you can queue up several at once and do them all together to save some time. Fortunately, though, you don’t really need to befriend all that many villagers anyway, unless you’re trying to upgrade one of the weapons that has that as one of its conditions.

The coop multiplayer aspect is emphasised fairly strongly in this game; you can turn on floating orbs which appear (and speak) wherever other players are in the game, and you can invite other players into your world or trade items with them. This last one I actually find fairly annoying — I’m generally a bit of a completionist, I like to experience as much of a game as possible; as such I usually try to complete all side quests and collect all item types, although I do make some exceptions (eg. if I’m trying to play a good character then I won’t do the obviously-evil-goal quests). But because of the trading mechanic, the game was designed such that of the 50 unique weapons and 7 unique gem types possible, only about 25 and 4 of these (respectively) can be found in any individual game. For the rest, you have to trade with other players, which irritates my completionist side no end, especially since I don’t really like online play. (There’s also a Demon Door in the game which can only be opened with the help of a co-op partner. These doors are optional, of course, but they do each hide some kind of treasure.)

One of the other things that I found annoying was the 5-star dog potion DLC. Presumably this was introduced somewhat late in the life of the Xbox version, intended for those players on their second or subsequent playthroughs who didn’t want to worry about levelling up their dog’s skills in each game. I was planning to avoid it for my first playthough, since it felt like cheating. Unfortunately, one of the “helpful” features of the game is to remind you about the free DLC which is available, which resulted in it frequently reminding me that it was sitting there waiting for me to download it. Eventually I caved, thinking it’d be like the dog breed potions, which require you to visit your dog’s basket and manually apply them — that way I could have the DLC installed but not use it during my first playthrough. But sadly that’s not the case — that potion seems to automatically apply itself to your dog as soon as you open the unmarked “gift” package it appears in after the DLC is installed. So my dog received a “cheat” upgrade about half-way through the game, which made me sad.

But overall I think the biggest problem in the game was the lack of a clear inventory system. The Sanctuary was introduced at least in part because “players didn’t like scrolling through menus”, and it was kind of an interesting idea and a fun place to visit, and for the most part it worked well (especially since it had hotkeys to quickly jump between “rooms”) — and because John Cleese was there. It does stretch credulity a bit though that even in the middle of a heated battle the Hero can instantly freeze time and teleport to the Sanctuary to switch weapons or clothes, but can’t heal or anything during that time. (Makes sense from a gameplay perspective, quite strange from an in-world perspective.) But there was one key thing missing from the Sanctuary: some way to browse through the actual items (potions, food, trade items, gifts) you already possessed. What made this even worse is that when you were at a shop there’d be no corresponding indicator for how many of the items you already had either — for example, you might have found yourself a potion shop just prior to a big fight, but there’s absolutely no way to tell how many potions you already had, whether you were running low or had far more than you needed.

You weren’t left completely in the dark — for potions and food you could see how many were available during combat, but (in the case of healing potions and food) only if you’d been injured. And in the big towns there were pawn shops that would let you view your whole inventory (for the purposes of selling some of it). But neither of these are particularly convenient, especially if you’re in the middle of a quest or if you’re trying for a “realism” run and avoiding fast-travel. Another problem with this is that due to the lack of selectable inventory items they decided to make it so that you could only have one type of food on you at any given moment — which means that if you’ve already built up a stack of 10 apples, for example, buying one bit of pie or tofu will make you throw away all your apples and leave you with just that one food item. The game does give you a warning when it’ll happen, and it’s not a big loss, since food you find in chests or other loot containers around the world are always of whatever type you have on you, and they’re cheap enough for you to build up a stockpile again if you want to, but it is a bit weird.

So, overall, I did enjoy the game, which is the main thing, I guess. But it’s not without its flaws, and you shouldn’t go in expecting something deep, meaningful, or serious. That’s just not what the Fable series is about.

(One final thought concerning the DRM on this game; they did go a bit overboard, loading it down with GFWL and SecuROM as well as (if purchased on Steam) Steam itself. GFWL makes a certain amount of sense; it is a Microsoft game after all, and since the co-op component is woven so tightly into the game it would be difficult to replace GFWL’s networking and achievement system with eg. Steam’s, especially since that would probably result in segregating the players between bought-on-Steam vs. not-bought-on-Steam bases. The inclusion of SecuROM seemed bizarre and unnecessary, though, since both GFWL and Steam include activation components. But in the end, the combination kept itself reasonably in the background, and didn’t really interfere with gameplay at all, except in one way. Normally, I log into my PC with one user account but use “runas” to execute games under a different user profile (but still on the same desktop), in order to segregate the settings and avoid polluting my Documents folder with all the crazy folders various games seem to like creating there. Unfortunately, doing this seems to really annoy GFWL — for whatever reason the system it uses to download content completely fails under this scenario. So for this game I was forced to use “Switch User” to log in separately for gameplay. Which is survivable, it’s only a minor annoyance, but I do regard it as a bug.)

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