Review: Fable III
As Fable 2 skipped an appearance on PC, the last time I was thrust into the world of Albion was many years ago. I remember it as quant little "My first RPG", a sort of primer for kids that introduced them to basic concepts of leveling up, action-RPG combat, and the hero archetype including quests and a morality scale. It was shallow as all hell, but so unassuming that you had to appreciate the cuteness of it, even as you looked forward to much better RPGs on the horizon. Had the franchise matured and deepened into an adult experience, or perhaps refined the cuteness factor while strengthening the core gameplay? Actually, none of the above. In my time away from Albion, it had apparently lost its goddamn mind and turned into a schizophrenic mental patient.
There is one question, call it a theme of mindset, I had while playing: Just who is this game aimed at? It's an extremely important question, maybe the most important, when judging any game because it informs what the expectations should be. You don't expect deep, immersive gameplay from a Call of Duty game because that's not what it's going for and thus, you aren't disappointed when it doesn't give you that experience. What's baffling about Fable 3 is that even after dozens of hours playing, I still have no idea who this game was made for.
The best place to start a search for an answer to that question is the gameplay. Fable features a combat system that a child could master in about ten minutes. Simply press the attack button in quick succession for fast strikes, hold it down for hard strikes and dodge away from attacks. The game doesn't trouble with you mana for spells or bullets for guns; everything is infinite. There isn't even a health readout, you are simply given the option to drink a potion when you've been hit a few times. While we are on the subject, there is no inventory screen either. Literally every trapping of an RPG is stripped away and replaced with a cumbersome "Sanctuary" which amounts to a menu screen in which you have to walk around in order to get anything done. Have we gotten to the point where we can't even expect gamers to know how to read menu options?
Fortunately, I was able limit my time in the Sanctuary because weapon and armor choices are all but meaningless. There actually isn't any armor in the game, just "outfits". These are sets of clothes that you can find and buy and they do exactly nothing except decorate your character. Once you have your hero looking just the way you want, you can kiss that room of the Sanctuary goodbye for the rest of the game. Weapon choices are slightly more meaningful, as different swords and guns have differing stats and various spells have slightly different ways of killing enemies. But these choices don't matter either; I used an early-game gun for my entire playthrough and was never truly challenged. If one wanted a poster-child for the "dumbed-down" label, this would be a shining example. It's a sad day when the game you are playing makes the God of War series seem like a deep experience.
Everything in Fable 3 points to it being more of a child's toy than an RPG or action game. The player's narrative choices amount to little more than "will I whistle at this random townsperson or belch in his face?" Any actual dialogue is reserved for giving the player dry exposition on what to do next, devoid of any texture or character development. But that's okay because given the maturity level of what we are presented with, I wouldn't want much more dialogue. One of the first missions you undertake is to infiltrate a bandit hideout. How does one do that? You guessed it: act like an obnoxious nine year old, farting in peoples' faces so as to maintain your "cover" as a vicious murderer.
There are times, miraculous and fleeting, when the dialogue approaches something resembling Monty Python-esque British humor. And for the briefest of moments, the game made me smile. The problem is that it's such a drastic juxtaposition from the rest of the experience, that all it serves to highlight is just how bad the other 95% of the game is. It also shines a light on the fact that the developers and writers know funny and that they chose, for whatever reason, to only dole it out in tiny fragments. But that glimpse into a development process that was able but not willing doesn't just happen with the writing. It also happens here and there in the gameplay.
There is a mission whereby you are transported to a faux-D&D universe, complete with cardboard cutouts of standard RPG archetypes like the blacksmith and the quest giving barmaid. But the entire point of the mission seemed to be the mockery of everything that role playing gamers hold dear and enjoy. Concepts like immersing the player in the game world through meaningful character interaction (as opposed to playing patty-cake), incorporation of some form of crafting system, considerations such as game balance and leveling up, and on and on. They knew what gamers wanted out of Fable, what they've always wanted, and they not only choose to go in their own nonsensical direction, but they laugh at the very ideas that make those better games fun. It was at this point that I realized that Fable 3 isn't flawed through incompetence or laziness. It's flawed intentionally as a practical joke on its players. Games like Deathspank show that you can create a parody of a game genre and still provide a quality playing experience. Fable 3 has all of the snide and sardonicism with none of the fun. When you create a parody without understanding why people love the subject matter in the first place, you are no longer the witty jokester. You are just a shrill asshole.
Morality in this game is a topic of which I could write a whole separate review. Put simply, the "good" side of the scale is some of the most amazing hyper-liberal grandstanding I've ever seen. At one point I was actually called a cutthroat monster (by the game itself, not an NPC) because I didn't give civil rights to chickens. And that was just the tip of iceberg. Literally every decision was a choice between assuming the roles of a rabid Michael Moore and a cartoonishly childish Dick Cheney. It became so offensive to anything resembling reason or reality that I exited the game numerous times in disgust and it was a struggle to boot it back up again. I eventually numbed myself to the story and choices. I started choosing whatever options sounded the most insane. I gave up on immersing myself in a character with any coherence of personality because, for all intents and purposes, he resided in a Wonderland run by the Mad Hatter.
Finally, whoever was tasked with porting this game over to PC was obviously not a PC gamer and was probably surprised to hear that gaming even existed outside of consoles. It's as if this hypothetical developer had to make random guesses as to how someone would operate a game with such strange devices as a keyboard and mouse. Fable 3 is riddled with seemingly arbitrary design choices such as having to hold down interaction keys rather than just pressing them, using the bracket keys for lots of functions that would be better served with a radial menu or letter keys, a third person camera that doesn't really want to let the mouse control it, no matter how much you fight with it. And holy hell is thing coded poorly. It has the graphics of a 2005 World of Warcraft with the hardware requirements of Crysis 7. And even on monster rigs, sometimes the coding just doesn't want you to play, with random freezes and memory leaks. Every aspect of the porting process screams, "We already made our money on consoles, if the dregs of society want to buy it on PC, fine. But don't spend too much time or money on it, okay?" The irony here is that the game is published by Microsoft, the standard bearer of all things PC!
So when all is said and done, who is this game made for? The morality would indicate that the only good people in the world are Left-of-San-Francisco in temperament. The humor seems aimed at children ages four to ten, with parents that don't mind them gunning for achievements like "most people in group sex encounter". The gameplay seems to lean toward the button mashing crowd with the occasional button holding, for those gaming pros among us. And finally, the customization fits perfectly with little girls who love the Sims - choices which are entirely aesthetic with little to no stats involved. All in all, this is not an RPG, barely a feasible action game and can function in a pinch as a fantasy doll dress-up and interior design simulator. It doesn't have any clue what it wants to be and thus, I'm not even sure what standard of judgment to apply. Thus I fall back on the old tried and true, "Is it fun?"
No. Fry it.