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Fable

Developer: Big Blue Box
Publisher: Microsoft
Genre: Role-Playing Game
Players: 1
Similar To: Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic
Rating: Mature
Published: 11 :01 : 04
Reviewed By: Matt Warner

Overall: 7.5 = Good

 

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When you watch your family get butchered and your village burned to the ground as a child, surely it'll come back to haunt you, but as common a plot device as that is in most RPGs it's rare that you actually see the hero make that big of a deal about it. They'll usually have some kind of sad lamentation halfway through the game on a moonlit bridge somewhere, but that serves more to try to get them in the pants of the main heroine than anything else. This has always bugged me. For every game where the protagonists' beloved peasant village is torched in the first ten minutes, I'd always wanted to see the hero spend most of the next twenty hours of gameplay championing the cause of good, only to completely loose it at one point and methodically go door-to-door with a large axe reenacting the horrors of his childhood.

Of course, this never happens -- the protagonist, regardless of childhood trauma or any other factor, always manages to keep it together mentally. If they do become evil during the game, it's just for a certain evil for a stretch of time, and it's always because they were forced, or brainwashed, or had their minds switched with that of the main villain. You never see the hero just snap one day and start killing everything that moves, and I've always found that to be a shame.

Thus, when the opportunity presented itself in Fable, I decided (largely on the spot) that my goody-two-shoes character was, in fact, harboring a deep emotional scar from those horrible events of his childhood. I imagined a severe psychopathic streak boiling just beneath the surface of his kindly Paladin demeanor, and it was only a matter of time before he acted on it. That time was now.

So, I had my hero saunter down to the local bar. I was greeted with cheers from the locals, since I had quite a high reputation at that point. I bought everyone a round of beer, chatted with the girls a bit, and proceeded to get

 

nailed off my trolley on overpriced beer. Stumbling home a few hours later, I stopped to vomit in the neighbor's garden before coming through the front door of my house and punching my wife square in the face.

Bizarre as this is going to sound, it's only when I had my character brutally abuse his wife for no reason that the game really started to get interesting.

From there, things began to degenerate rapidly. The neighbors heard the commotion and ran off to go get the guards as the beating continued. After kicking my soon-to-be-ex wife down the of stairs of our porch, one of the town guards came running up the hill and tried to arrest me for assault and battery. I reached for my trusty battle axe with a sneer while the guard drew back in alarm, and while the specifics are a bit hazy after that (my hero still had plenty of beer in him) I wound up slaughtering the entire town in the course of a single evening. I remember at one point running out of alcohol, and then chasing that cheapskate bartender down to the beach, lopping his head off and kicking it into the ocean when he wouldn't serve me more. True, I'd just hacked apart half the village so it was a little strange for me to drop everything and try to re-intoxicate myself mid psychotic rampage, but if he'd just kept his wits about him and served me like I asked, his head would probably still be on his shoulders right now so it's his own fault. So there.

By the end of the whole ordeal most of my hair had fallen out, and I'd grown some uncomfortable-looking horns from my forehead along with an annoying tendency to attract biting insects wherever I go. To make matters worse, the local guards would attack me on sight before I could even get anywhere near what was left of the town, so I couldn't go back and admire my own handiwork, something every real psychopath looks forward to greatly. So, rather than go gloat over all the corpses, I went out and got a tattoo to commemorate my descent into madness. Nothing says "I went batshit crazy" like a big spiral tattoo on your face.

Now, as the game wore on, my natural tendency to not be a complete jerk got the better of me and my Paladin eventually redeemed himself, but his story was made much more compelling because of it. Not only had my character suffered a massive fall from grace, but there was no laid-out path for redemption: it would have been just as easy (if not easier) to finish the game in full-on evil mode. I use this example because that's Fable in a nutshell: Your character is only as colorful as you make him, and the empty shell of a plot is only compelling if you fill it in yourself. The game simply provides a lush backdrop for you to do your thing, whatever that may be, and that's going to determine how much you get out of it. If you're a die-hard Japanese RPG fan or are more inclined towards the heavily character-scripted BioWare games, then Fable is going to take some adjustment to be fully appreciated.

Peter Molyneux (creator of the game and a surprisingly normal man if you ever talk to him) is well known for creating games where you can do whatever you like. His games have always had a bit of a dark streak to them, but up until now the player has always been removed from the consequences -- Molyneux pioneered the "God Game" genre, spawning several games that essentially gave the player a large sandbox full of morally ambiguous tasks to accomplish that they were free to do in any way they saw fit. Since the player was also given near-omnipotence, there was really no particular reason to go one way or the other. You could be a tyrannical god one second and a benevolent one the next. While such dramatic mood swings might inspire schizophrenia among your followers, they basically just had to deal with it; you were God, after all. What were they going to do to you?

In this latest game (fittingly known initially known as Project Ego) this concept was to be taken to the next level: The original idea was to create the ultimate fantasy sandbox where the player could create a genuine character that would truly live in this world. They had to eat and sleep, would get stronger if they exercised and smarter if they studied, could marry and have children, and would eventually grow old and die. More importantly, they could live their lives however they liked. They could become a brutal, mass-murdering psychopath or a divine savior of the people. Or, as in my case, both! The trick here was that there would be very real consequences to each choice as the player was no longer some invulnerable deity. Play the part of a villain and the world would react accordingly, and vice-versa. It might be fun to walk into a town with a big axe and just start swinging, but be prepared to live with the fact that people were going to remember it down the road.

For the most part, the game manages to deliver on this premise, though things have been rather dramatically toned down from the grandiose claims that were made earlier in development. In a way, Fable is probably the most compelling failure of a game ever made, because even though it's so obviously (and at times depressingly) incomplete, it's still a lot of fun to play.

Right from the get-go, it's clear that Molyneux and company bit off more than they could chew initially with this project. For a game that claims to be all about freedom, you're still limited to playing a white male, you'll always have the same childhood, and the plot never changes from game to game -- that idyllic childhood village is getting burned down no matter what you do. More critically, you're also limited in what you can choose not to do: trying to specialize in bow use only, for example, makes the game completely impossible. You can specialize mostly in bow use, but in order to keep the game from climbing into ridiculous levels of difficulty you'll still have to throw a good-sized chunk of experience into the other disciplines. Same rule applies regardless of the area you want to specialize in: You can't just do one thing and ignore the rest of the options or you'll run into a wall eventually and in most cases be stuck there. This is all due to technical limitations and/or time constraints in development, of course, and had nothing to do with the intent or drive of the developers who quite obviously wanted to cram in more than they were able to. Because of this, the end result is quite a bit more restrictive than it leads you to believe at first.

What we're left with in Fable as it is now is a brief, slightly imbalanced, aesthetically pleasing action adventure-RPG that comes standard with impressive coping mechanism to deal with player actions -- and that's all. If you're fine with that, chances are you'll enjoy this game much more than those who were expecting the second coming of Morrowind. Let's be clear: Fable isn't even remotely as large or complicated as Morrowind, and while the two games were often compared to each other before Fable was actually released, in reality they're completely different experiences. Fable has much more in common with the original Legend of Zelda than it does with Morrowind; it's more action than RPG, and the emphasis is on the combat rather than the intricate plot and expansive game world.

In fact, the world in which Fable takes place isn't even particularly large, and outside of the game's five towns, there's relatively little wandering to be done. Again, much like Zelda, the wilderness areas are there for the player to fight through, with the occasional secret tucked away waiting to be discovered. There's none of the expansive, go-anywhere feel of the Elder Scrolls games, and you're generally just going from point A to point B to advance the plot. Raw physical exploration is not the game's strong point.

The primary emphasis is, surprisingly, on the combat. This is a significant deviation from what a lot of people were expecting, and I expect it has a lot to do with the fact that there were several elements of the game left incomplete. Originally, the idea was that the hero would evolve dependent on how the player used him. Spend most of your time running around outside swinging a gigantic sword all over the place, and your character would develop huge muscles and a nice tan. Become a sneaky, nocturnal thief and he'd start to look like a pale, wiry Euro-ninja. Use lots of magic and you'd start to sport glowing tattoos and hair loss.

Technically, this did make it into the game, but in an oddly cobbled-together fashion. Your hero doesn't grow organically, but instead spends experience orbs dropped by enemies on new abilities (think Onimusha or Ninja Gaiden) in order to "age" and thereby gain advanced stats in whichever category the points were applied to. Experience is divided up into four types: Ranged, melee, magic, and general. Using a particular type of attack yields more of its relevant experience type, but the effect is fairly minor and in order to make it through the game you'll need to spend experience in all three fields. While the game technically lets you fight however you like, there are very obviously certain situations where you're "supposed" to use your bow, or "supposed" to use magic, meaning that anyone who didn't put at least a few token points into those fields winds up getting trapped later in the game.

This is first be brought to bear during the escort missions early on, where it's made brutally clear that you're going to need at least some basic magic skills, or you're screwed. The default Heal spell cures both the hero and anyone nearby. With this spell, the escort missions are actually pretty easy and manage to be fun since you can clear up minor bruises on your companions with the press of a button before they start to accumulate and become more serious. Without this spell, these missions become incredibly tedious (and in some cases near-impossible) as you have to be super careful about having your charges follow you into danger. If one of them gets seriously hurt, you wind up having to redouble your efforts since a single hit or two could force you to have to do the thing all over again, usually right before you reach the end of the mission. "Frustrating" doesn't even begin to describe it.

The unfortunate thing is that all this could have been fixed quite easily by simply advising the player about it. Just a little text box or quick message from the guild master saying "you may want to bring healing magic with you -- those traders can be quite fragile" would have saved countless headaches for anyone who didn't want to go the magic user route initially. Once you figure out that it's best to throw a good chunk of points into everything to hedge your bets, these snafus clear themselves up, but it's intensely frustrating at first. This is far more critical earlier in the game when your character is comparatively weak, and in the four times I've gone through Fable I've had by far the most fun when I knocked a good chunk of the main plot out of the way before bothering to tackle any of the side quests -- that way my hero was much more versatile and less likely to get stuck trying to do something I hadn't properly prepared him for.

The game itself unfolds in two separate ways. Primarily, there are plot-specific missions that can be accepted at the Hero's Guild (a Home Base of sorts) that advance the story and will occasionally open up new areas, along with other optional quests that are done to earn experience, renown, and gold. These are all generally pretty straightforward, though nicely varied. You've got the prerequisite fetch-quests that everyone seems to hate, but they're mercifully brief here. There are also a few short, misguided attempts at stealth missions, but these are always smaller parts of other, lager missions, so it's not nearly as much of a problem as it could have been. A majority of the time the Hero's Guild quests are of the "go there, kill that" variety, and that suits the game (and, I'd imagine, most gamers) just fine.

You're free to advance the plot more or less at will, and speed-minded players can easily blaze through the entire main quest in a single marathon session. Played like this, Fable is quite brief for an RPG at around eight hours. The main story quests are also the game's best moments, particularly the breathtaking finale, so it may not be a bad idea to have your first playthrough be a straightforward run of the story without any of the trimmings on the side. This is a game you're definitely going to want to play twice at least, and it's beneficial to get the plot under your belt first before you tackle some of the game's grayer areas.

The second way the game presents itself is in all the things that can be done in the interim between the main plot events, and though it seems contrary to what you might think, this is where the game will loose a lot of people.

Fable offers a wide array of stuff to do between main plot missions, from trading to fishing to owning/renting out property to getting married. While there's a ton of stuff to do, it's also very, very easy to get completely sidetracked trying to work out how to do something only to realize that a) the thing you've been trying to do was never actually finished by the game developers in the first place, so you can't ever complete it, and b) you've just wasted five hours of your life trying. Needless to say, this can be a momentum-killer.

This stems from an interesting (and in retrospect wise) decision on the part of Big Blue Box to simply leave in the half-finished optional quests in the final game and tie off the loose ends as much as possible. So, while the main plot is at least coherent (however brief), the side quests are loaded with unfinished stories and potential pitfalls that can seriously bog the game down until you learn how to navigate them properly. It's important to note that, after a while, these side missions become some of the most intriguing parts of the game (things like literally owning an entire town), but anyone who tries to immediately wander off the beaten path to pull some of this stuff off will probably find themselves hopelessly lost, and that can be really frustrating.

Here's an example: Early on, the player is introduced to the ridiculously large-breasted mayor, known as Lady Grey, who runs the largest town in the game. Later, an optional quest opens up to court her for marriage, during which it's made clear that she's quite evil at heart. There's an extended sequence where you visit her old, now-haunted childhood home far off in the countryside and learn about her dark past regarding her murdered sister, a story many of the townspeople will corroborate in hushed tones. Eventually, the game offers you a choice: You can marry the mayor despite your knowledge of her dark history in order to gain the wealth and fame that comes with the title of First Husband, or you can marry the poor servant girl who works for the mayor and forgo the material reward for the knowledge that you're marrying someone who isn't a cold-hearted murderer. Seems pretty cut and dry, right?

Problem is, there is no benefit whatsoever to marrying the poor girl. In fact, it's very detrimental to do so, even for a "good" character! You get no positive karma bonus for your selfless act, no money, no reputation increase, and even get permanently locked out of obtaining two of the game's secret weapons. Meanwhile, nobody around town seems to give a damn about your altruistic choice of a spouse and the game simply proceeds like nothing ever happened. Marry the mayor, on the other hand, and you get a massive sum of gold as a dowry, a new palace to run around it, absolutely no karma penalty, a chance to earn those secret weapons, and the adoration of everyone in the countryside to boot. Furthermore, once you marry her, the plot involving the mayor simply ends -- no consequences of your choice will ever come back to bite you in the ass later on in the game. The poor servant girl isn't even bitter about it and simply acts like nothing ever happened.

It's obvious that more was intended to be done with this quest. In fact, it was most likely supposed to be a part of the main plot at one point, but the rest of it never made it into the game, and as a result any lasting effects that were supposed to be brought to bear at the end of the quest never happen. Imagine the poor first-time player trying to rack up all the good point he can by marrying the servant girl, only to realize he just completely got the shaft for trying to stay in character.

This is why it's so critical to have some kind of foreknowledge in regards to what you can actually get away with in Fable, and in reality you can get away with quite a lot. The game really reaches its peak when you stop fighting with it and just make the decision to play it normally while occasionally flexing your freedom to add some color to your character.

Fable's biggest success is that, for all the holes you can find if you want to, the actual game itself does a phenomenal job of responding to how the player is playing the game. It won't stand up to someone intentionally trying to break it, but if you relax a bit and let things happen "naturally" (i.e. don't try to "play for score"), the whole game suddenly becomes a lot more enjoyable. It's almost as if the developers should have included a little note with the game that said "Look, we weren't quite done with this when we shipped it, but we did our best so if you cut us some slack here, we promise the game will be a lot of fun."

It is, once you've gotten over the fact that you're simply not going to have Morrowind-style freedom to do absolutely anything you want. Some people will no doubt scoff at this, but it is what it is, and I can tell you from experience that Fable is a hell of a lot of fun -- addicting, even -- once you agree to approach it on its own terms.

Besides Deus Ex and maybe the Fallout series, I've never seen a game that can cope with the player's choices as well as Fable can. It's rare that you actually can get drunk and clobber your wife and the game won't even skip a beat -- you're simply labeled as a wife-beating bastard and you go from there. While a fair number of the actual sub-quests weren't quite finished when the game shipped, the in-game programming to support them is, and it's a lot of fun to see how the game will cope with whatever you can think to do. To save some space, let's just take in-game romance: We know you can take a wife, but what if you want to take two wives? Check, just don't forget to spend time with both of them or one will want a divorce -- polygamy is a-ok, but you have to provide for however many spouses you have. Want your character to be gay? Check. The game even checks your character's sexuality as "homosexual" in your stats screen should you decide to shack up with a guy, just be prepared for some slightly unnerving-sounding sex scenes if you're a hetero in real life. Now, what if you decide to switch teams (again) and take a wife? Again, no problem. You're now bisexual until you loose your spouse(s) of one gender or the other. The game tracks all of this and lots more, everything from number of times vomited due to drinking to rent collected on property leased to other villagers to the furthest distance you've punted a live chicken (I'm not kidding).

The same level of detail extends well beyond your hero. My super-evil character was nonetheless a loving husband, a small, seemingly insignificant detail that the game caught. While I was looked down on or feared in most towns, in the town my wife lived in, my reputation was notably better. Guards on the street would remark, "Ah, he's not so bad. Look how well he takes care of her" as I walked my spouse to the tavern. If (well, when) we got a divorce, it changed to "I hear the breakup's not going so well...Shhh! Shh! He'll hear us!" whispered between two chattering housewives. I even ran into my ex-wife drinking away her sorrows in the bar a few nights later, and sure enough, she remembered me all too well when I tried to give her a present: "Get t'hell away from me ya bastard!! I want nothin' to do with ye!"

And bear in mind that while all this is completely peripheral to the main plot, it not only unobtrusively co-exists with it, but actually complements it quite well with tons of little details. It's one thing to go off on a huge quest and come back laden with riches, it's very much another thing to go off on the same quest, come back with the same amount of riches, and then kick back in the tavern, buy everyone a drink and listen to a minstrel sing songs of your bravery while all the locals pat you on the back and the women try to flirt with your famous hero self. None of this is scripted, either; it's simply how the game reacts to what the player does. The whole tavern thing plays out completely differently if you just got back from shooting random traders in the face with your crossbow and stealing their money -- less pats on the back, more cowering in fear the moment you walk in the door, particularly if you're a Really Famous Bad Guy. Start passing out drinks with that kind of reputation and people just act confused, much like you probably do if Darth Vader walked into a bar and bought you a beer like you guys went to high school together. Given the insane amount of detail that went into something that could have been extremely basic, it becomes clear why this game didn't have a prayer of being completed as intended.

The real saving grace of Fable, and the sugar coating that helps you swallow a lot of its inconsistencies, is the unparalleled aesthetic quality to the game. Set to a rousing score by Danny Elfman, there is absolutely nothing in the visual and audio department that isn't top-notch. The catchy, fantasy-movie tunes will stick in your head for days, so expect to be humming weird things in your sleep. The graphics are eye-popping, with some of the best looking forests in the history of videogames and water effects so pretty it hurts. Weather in the game is done particularly well with almost hypnotic rain and sunlight effects. Everything in the game sports a diffuse glow that lends it an ethereal quality not unlike Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. When all these effects come together (especially in the intense finale) it's giddily fun just look at, let alone play through. Likewise with the enemies, especially the huge, organic Earth Troll, who will probably inspire a little gasp of glee the first time you see him. He looks that cool.

Equally amazing are the towns, all of which have a set number of unique people living in them, each with their own job during the day and house to live in at night. There is no randomly generated environment whatsoever in Fable, so even something as simple as walking down a dirt path in your old hometown shows a meticulous attention to detail. Every tree, pebble, and mushroom was placed by a human hand, and it shows.

The same high attention to detail was brought to the hero character. Every last bit of clothing in the game is represented right down to the tiniest graphical flourish, from the tiny carvings on plate armor to the fabric weave on a pair of jeans. Tattoos can be inked anywhere on your hero for various effects, and taking a critical hit will leave a permanent scar where it lands, which will fade over time. Hair can be cut and beards can be grown in a dizzying number of combinations. In addition, the actual physical shape of the character is determined by how many points have been spend on the various skills, so a character with low health will look sickly and pale, one with high speed will have taunt muscles, a heavy drinker will have a beer gut, etc. Evil characters tend to loose their hair and eventually grow horns, while good characters seem to age a bit quicker, have more wrinkles as time passes, and develop large, soulful eyes and blonde hair. And all of it looks amazing. Each time I played through the game, my characters never looked even remotely alike by the end of the game. Some were skinny, some were ripped, some were older than others, some had horns, black hair, tons of tattoos, halos, facial scarring to the point of scaring small children, you name it, at least one of my guys had it.

Tying it all together is some top-notch British voice acting, the likes of which anyone who played Black & White will instantly recognize. Fable's sense of humor (while a bit darker) is essentially the same, and many of the voices have a similar candor and writing to B&W. There are loads of little snippets of in-game chatter between the villagers, bandits, guards, or whoever, and it's almost always a hoot to listen to. Your main character is generally mute except for some authoritative commands you can have him give, which is standard for this sort of game. If you're evil, you even get the option to have him swear, which is one of the funnier little moments in the game. Your hero doesn't just mutter under his breath, either; he'll actually lean forward and belt out a very purposeful, over-enunciated "SHIT". It made me drop the controller laughing the first time I heard it.

If there's one snag to the graphical presentation, it's in the dreaded menus. One of the first things Peter Molyneux owned up to in the post-release press was that he wasn't happy with the way the menus were handled in the game. He and his crew are PC developers, and it's clear once you've navigated a seven-page-deep text window that nobody on the team had the idea of just firing up Final Fantasy X to see how you're supposed to handle menus on a console game. If they had, they would have ripped off its menu system like everyone else does and that would've been that. Instead, the interface options are a truly bizarre tangle of menus, submenus, more submenus, and still more submenus, turning even something as simple as equipping a sword into an overcomplicated ordeal the first few times you try to do it. To be fair, it still works, and after a few hours you get pretty used to them and it's not as much of a problem, but it's just one final reminder that as intriguing as this game is, it really could have used another year in the oven to iron all this stuff out.

Even so, some of these snags are forgivable considering this is a first-time console effort. If Molyneux and crew learn from their experiences this time around and get everything lined up properly for the sequel, you can bet that Fable 2 is going to be truly amazing. As it is, this one is definitely worth your time, just be aware of what to expect.

Overall: 7.5/10
Fable is a notably flawed masterpiece, but it's much too compelling to ever be written off as a failure. If you're willing to work around some of the holes, this is one of the most interesting games you'll ever play, as well as one of the most addicting. Anyone looking to rip into Fable will be able to do it and there are going to be some people out there who, whether it's because of prior expectations or just limited patience, simply won't be able to get into it. My suggestion, however, is to give it a shot and give it some time to grow on you. Play it through at least once and then start a new character; chances are you'll be hopelessly hooked by that point.

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