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Preview: Fable 3

One of the most impressive things about Fable 3 isn't the redesigned menu system (it's a room!), the path from revolutionary to royalty (it's like two games in one!), or even the "touch" mechanic (drag a hobo to his death!); instead, it's the release window: this year. For those of you keeping track, that's just two years and five days after the release of Joystiq's 2008 game of the year, which Peter Molyneux told us is a new experience for him.

"A very unique thing about Fable 3," Molyneux said, "is it's been developed in two years. At both Lionhead and Bullfrog, I've never done a game in two years before." And what that means is that Fable 3 looks a lot like Fable 2. But before you run off, screaming something about "sequelitis" and the "creative bankruptcy of the video game industry" we want to be clear: While I, and most of the Joystiq staff, loved Fable 2, we can all agree it would have benefitted from some refinement.

Gallery: Fable 3 (E3) | 9 Photos

"It was very funny to fart in people's faces," Molyneux declared, in his dignified British accent. "But it didn't actually do anything. Now in Fable 3, because we have this strong followers mechanic, what we're doing is gaining one follower or losing one follower." Though it may seem counterintuitive that I've chosen to highlight farting in people's faces (there is a new farting expression, in case you were curious) as an example of refinement, it's a simple example of something from Fable 2 given new purpose in Fable 3. What was once a frivolous act, divorced from any kind of gameplay outside of "role-playing," is now tied into the game's core "followers" system. Refinement.

Molyneux told us that "in design terms" Lionhead has "replaced the word 'experience' with the word 'followers.'" On your revolutionary road to royalty, you'll have to amass followers to overthrow your brother, the evil king. So the normally obtuse "experience" system favored by most RPGs has been replaced with the more narratively appropriate "followers" system – as a result, actions (like farting in someone's face) not only have narrative components (people don't like being farted on) but also gameplay enhancements (you lost a follower ... and you're disgusting).

Another component of Fable 2 much in need of an overhaul in Fable 3 is the co-op system. While Fable 2 contributed the wonderful "ambient orb" system – players on your friends list appear as floating orbs in your game world; walking up to them allows you to pull them into your game world – it failed miserably on the execution. If you were the one being pulled in, the co-op experience substituted your character with a generic one and then, to add insult to injury, forced you to share the same camera as the main player. This, in effect, made the co-op experience worse for both parties by crippling the camera system, turning it into a single-screen experience that makes sense for couch co-op but was entirely inscrutable for online co-op.

Luckily, this has been refined in Fable 3. Co-op is back, but this time, Molyneux noted, "we now detach the cameras." That means both players can explore the world on their own: one player can do a quest while another works at a job. Your characters can also get married and have children; your dogs will meet each other. If Fable 2's co-op system seemed like a great idea marked by a flawed execution, Fable 3 promises to address those concerns.

While Molyneux's demo covered the entire philosophy behind Fable 3, the hands-on demo levels that we played mostly reinforced what we already knew: it's a lot like Fable 2. In one scene, your hero is exploring a village; here, you're able to go into the redesigned menu system (remember, it's a room with a butler!) and explore your belongings. Having been given the Zelda-esque task of rounding up some chickens, you're presented with a rather Fable-esque way of doing it. Instead of grabbing each chicken and tossing it into a pen, you enter your menu, put on your chicken suit, and convince the chickens to follow you, of their own accord, into a pen. Why? Because you're in a chicken suit and that's what chickens do.

In another section, your hero (in this case, a rather sinister-looking woman) is joined by her Uncle Walter in an underground cave, battling some evil shadow creatures. Reaching the end of the stage, Walter is captured by the creatures, covered in a black ooze – once you defeat them, Walter is free but blind. Using the touch mechanic, you can hold his hand and lead him out of the cavern and into the light. He'll talk to you while you're leading him, asking you to keep holding his hand. Once you reach the surface, you're presented with a massive desert with giant rock formations, and the demo ends. "Walter is about to die. The desert stretches endlessly before you. The kingdom needs you to lead a rebellion. What will you do?"

And with that, we're reminded of what makes the Fable series so great: the quests! Fable 2's DLC and, later, its episodic experiment worked because of the modular nature of the game. With significant gameplay refinements applied to the already solid base of Fable 2, Fable 3 is more than just fan service, but rather an evolution – one constrained by a not unreasonable two-year development cycle – of the action RPG series.

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