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Fable 3 review: Join the evolution

Just two years after the triumphant return of the Fable franchise in Fable 2, Lionhead's exceptional realization of the original game's promise, comes Fable 3. For Peter Molyneux and team, much of their mandate was streamlining the experience so more players would experience more of what Albion had to offer. That means bringing the comedy to the surface instead of just beneath it, clearing up the menu system, fixing co-op play, and dozens of other targets. Think evolution and not, despite its narrative predisposition, revolution. Unfortunately, Fable 2's technical shortcomings weren't targeted and reappear – with a vengeance – in Fable 3, distracting from a mostly exceptional, albeit simplified, experience.

The story itself has been streamlined. How many of you can remember what happened in Fable 2? Despite the dozens of hours I spent playing the game, I couldn't recall what the Tattered Spire was built for when I spotted it from the shores of Fable 3's Driftwood. In comparison, Fable 3's structure provides a basic narrative arc – you go from revolutionary to ruler. Simple.

You play as a male or female hero, the child of Fable 2's Hero King or Queen (yes, it checks your save file). Your brother, Logan, has taken the throne and rules as a tyrant while the world of Albion is buzzing with revolutionary fervor. But who can lead them? After one particularly nasty turn by your brother, your character sets off with his or her mentor, Sir Walter, to do just that. The game's foil – which I won't spoil here – has even been simplified. Gone is Lord Lucien and his struggle for power (yeah, I looked it up on Wikipedia) and in his place is, well ... Evil. I'm glossing over the specifics because the writing is one area where Fable 3 really excels. Its story and, more importantly, its structure will help you keep the narrative thread, and not lose it amidst the bounty of distractions that Albion offers.

Gallery: Fable 3 (TGS 2010) | 6 Photos

In Fable 3, the gags span a spectrum of crude (the grotesque "fart" expression followed by a bout of chronic vomiting) to subtle (try the clearly Dirty Dancing-inspired "dance" expression), and include a combination of both (the village of "Mourningwood" for example). It's a genuinely funny game, thanks to strong writing and an embarrassment of high-profile actors delivering the dialogue. With John Cleese, Simon Pegg, Ben Kingsley and Stephen Fry, Fable 3 packs arguably the highest-profile voice cast in gaming and it's not put to waste.

The Sanctuary works much better than I'd thought it would and I imagine it will help many players experience more of the world.

Fable 3's quests – the beating heart of any RPG, action-oriented or otherwise – share much in common with Fable 2's; instead of the rote missions presented by many RPGs, games that are as interested in scale and scope as they are with quality, the quests in a Fable game are craftsman-like. They contain a uniqueness, in terms of story, characters, even locations, that lend each quest a real sense-of-place. There may not be 75 hours of fodder on Fable 3's humble DVD, but what is there is hand-rolled.

The quest structure bridges the game's two distinct halves: revolutionary and royalty. How you initiate the main story quests, as opposed to Fable 3's myriad side quests, is different. As a revolutionary, Sir Walter helps you amass followers so you can overthrow your brother, the King. (Spoiler alert: You succeed!) As the ruler, a daily schedule is created for you by Hobson, your comically obnoxious royal butler. Your day can be spent on the throne, making stately decisions (including topical examples like bailing out the economy), keeping your promises (or breaking them!), and attending to royal business of the adventuring kind. In between your other responsibilities, you can return to those side quests, manage your properties, start a couple new families, kill some to get an Achievement, and much of the other things that make Fable games so much fun.

The entire experience has been streamlined. Much has been made of the Sanctuary, Fable 3's new room-thats-really-a-menu. Press start and you're whisked away to the Sanctuary where Fable 2's cumbersome (and mostly unused!) menu system has been translated into real-world actions: Go to the dressing room to see your clothes; save an outfit on that mannequin; and dye an item of clothing. Where? Next to the dyes. For the most part, the Sanctuary works much better than I'd thought it would and I imagine it will help many of you experience more of the world.

While co-op was much-touted in Fable 2, it was so appallingly executed that it's fair to think of this iteration as the first.

Not as effective is the "streamlined" Guild Seal system which is so one-size-fits-all it's tough to feel any ownership of your progress. While Fable 2 rewarded players based on how they played, Fable 3 rewards players with Guild Seals based on everything they do. Dance with someone, get one Guild Seal. Kill a whole bunch of enemies, get a Guild Seal. Finish quests, get Guild Seals. You spend those Seals on the Road to Rule, a road-thats-really-a-menu dotted with chests containing various power-ups. For example, you'll use some of your Guild Seals to buy new expressions en masse, though I was never able to figure out how to use them. A perfect instance of a feature they streamlined nearly out of existence.

The one area where Fable 3 hasn't at least tried to improve upon its predecessor and in fact takes a large, awkward, and clumsy step back, is polish. When Peter Molyneux told us, with some incredulity, that "a very unique" thing about Fable 3 was its two year development – "I've never done a game in two years before," he said – I had hoped that much of that time would be spent polishing Fable 2's decidedly homely presentation. And while, after years of waiting and mountains of expectations, that homeliness lent Fable 2 some charm, it's altogether unwelcome in this sequel.

Get used to collision detection that has you spading your shovel straight through your loyal dog; texture pop-in that would make Unreal Engine blush; clipping that will get you stuck in the game's geometry; a breadcrumb trail that's more inconsistent than a bowl of rock pudding; a frame rate that can, on occasion, aspire to double digits; laggy minigames that have to be seen (and barely played) to be believed; and co-op load times that will challenge not only your patience but a friend's.

While it's easy to complain about the presentation, it's tough to get caught up on it when there's so much else to appreciate. The introduction of co-op is one area where Fable 3 bests its predecessor. I say introduction because, while co-op was much-touted in Fable 2, it was so appallingly executed that it's fair (and marketable!) to think of this iteration as the first. In co-op, you and a friend, or a stranger if you choose to be paired randomly, will share a single game world. This is your hero, your money, your Guild Seals shared with another, narrative continuity be damned.

In the short time I spent in co-op (about three hours) I had a range of experiences from the wonderfully unexpected to the predictably banal. For example, while facing a bug (the technical kind) that wouldn't allow my friend and I to leave the orphanage after adopting our daughter – no, teleportation wouldn't work! – there was only one thing we could do: have lesbian sex on the bed of our recently adopted child, surrounded by the rest of the orphanage. It managed to fix that problem and provide one of the most bizarre (and unpredictable) video game moments I can remember. Other times, it's quite the opposite. If chasing your dog to a dig spot can get old playing solo, two Heroes chasing two identical dogs to a dig spot will certainly provoke doubt. And speaking of the dog, while your Heroes will often appear dramatically different from each other, the dog is strangely not customizable. Weird, right?

Co-op play also provides a window into other player's worlds and their choices. Did they keep their promises as revolutionaries or capitulate to the fiduciary pressure of being a leader. Is the orphanage rebuilt in their Bowerstone? Is Bower lake drained? If your partner finished the game, do they have angel wings? Those choices make up the meat of Fable 3 and the opportunity to see the effects in another player's world are truly exciting, especially for those of you uninterested in a second, morally opposing play through.

If you were concerned that Lionhead's mandate to streamline the game was at odds with how much content you managed to extract out of Fable 2, you may have been right. Fable 3 doesn't strive to introduce new mechanics but is instead pre-occupied with fixing and streamlining existing ones. But if Fable 2's unwieldy menus kept you from much of the amazing content that game had to offer, you're going to like what Lionhead's built for you. While it's puzzling to watch so much effort go into streamlining Fable 2's already superb design without fixing its obvious technical shortcomings, try not to let that distract you from what remains an exceptional game. It may not be revolutionary, but it is royally fun.

This review is based on an Xbox 360 review copy provided by Microsoft.

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