Fable III is a massive game. What better way is there to demonstrate that to a group of journalists than by letting them sit down and play it? For four hours.
The opening cinematic, revealed recently, does a great job of setting the stage with Lionhead's typical brand of quirky, British humor. Albion has grown up and entered an age of industry. A revolution is just around the corner and your role in it will be pivotal. So it's up to you to take a first step and … choose your gender.
So begins the first hour of the game. A well paced introduction, which is more linear and narrative than in Fable II. A lovable Butler named Jasper, immaculately voiced by British comedy legend John Cleese, wakes you, the Prince or Princess of Albion, from your opulent slumber. It's all very whimsical and cheerful as you choose your clothes and explore the castle grounds with your dog at your side.
Things start going downhill when you hear that your brother, the King, has executed one of the Royal washers and is planning even more nefarious acts. Without going into too much detail, the player is given a difficult decision, which starts the story off proper. There was no indication of what difference the various choices you make during this section have on the story, but the developers hinted that it would make sense in the full game.
Suddenly you're on the run, along with Jasper and your mentor Walter. You're off to “become your father's son”, your father of course being the “Hero King” and the protagonist of Fable 2. He left you an artefact called the Guild Seal, which allows you to unlock chests on the Road To Rule. This metaphor-turned-literal-road lets you clearly see your progress through the game. As you reach various milestones more gates will be unlocked, allowing access to new chests containing skill upgrades, spells, dyes for clothes and expressions (such as dancing and burping).
Chests cost Guild Seals to open and it's here that one of Fable III's most interesting new features makes itself known. In order to obtain Guild Seals (essentially experience points) and develop your character's skills you will need to defeat enemies and gain followers. While fighting enemies to gain experience is nothing new, attaching an experience mechanic to the pretty powerful interaction/Sim engine is a stroke of genius. Peter Molyneux has championed the need for an emotional connection in games for years and, like the dog in Fable II, this could be a step further to making you feel emotionally invested in the world.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the co-op mode, which has been completely overhauled. Players now take their characters into other players' worlds and it's possible to play through the entire game in co-op. Anything gained in co-op mode is taken back to the single player mode. But it's the relationship system that makes Fable III's co-op so different from any other game. Players can get married and have children and the full expressions system is open for people who play with their spouses, boyfriends or girlfriends. It's these people (and apparently there are a lot of them) who gave Lionhead this idea in the first place.
Apparently Guild Seals are tough to get hold of, unless you already have one. Your first is a hand-me-down from your father and Walter and Jasper treat it as if it's a rare, ancient artefact. Ten minutes later you'll be loaded down with ten, twenty, thirty of them as you fight off bats and shake hands with random townsfolk.
Soon you gain access to your father's Sanctuary. This isn't just a cool little hideout, but acts as the menu screen for the game. Jasper decides to hang out here and, as you progress further, will discover more areas of the room/menu. Here you can check out your achievements, change costumes, equip weapons, rename your dog and fast travel around the Albion world map.
Getting to the Sanctuary is as simple as pushing Start. It's clear the developers have been very careful to balance the Sanctuary's ease of use as a menu, whilst still making it fun to explore. You can zip between rooms by using the D pad and return to the game by pressing B, or you can run around and explore at your leisure.
So the revolution begins. Your quest is to gain followers around Albion to cause an uprising and take the throne from your brother. Apparently that's only the half of it, however, and after that the game starts for real. After four hours the castle was still a way ahead on the Road To Rule, so Fable III promises to be a meaty adventure. The world of Albion opens up quite quickly and you'll soon be performing errands for random townsfolk. The map even allows you to zoom into towns and see exactly who has quests for you and how many Guild Seals you can earn off them.
Fable III's combat has been overhauled, with the developers convinced they've come as close to Peter Molyneux's mythic one-button-combat as possible. Stringing together melee, guns and magic is simple and it takes very little effort to pull off some cool looking combos. Magic in particular feels great. Holding the button creates an area effect spell around you, whilst pressing the left stick towards an enemy will aim it in their direction. It's very simple and intuitive.
At only two years, Fable III's development cycle is much shorter than Lionhead is used to. Perhaps this is the reason the graphics haven't really been much improved. It looks like Fable II and, as a result, looks a bit dated. It doesn't help that there were a lot of noticeable graphical glitches. Texture pop in was quite frequent and character models don't really stand up to close scrutiny. Whilst talking to Sabine, the leader of a people called the Dwellers, his head seemed to turn inside out during part of the dialogue. Trees in the distance appeared translucent, as if only every other pixel was being rendered.
There were a few audio glitches, too: mostly lines being spoken too quietly, or not at all. After reaching the Sanctuary, Jasper's lines would tend to cut off a second or two from the end. Which is a massive shame, because Jasper's dialogue and acting are some of the best and funniest. With the game due out in October, there's not a lot of time left to get this polished up. It would be surprising if Microsoft delayed one of the few big hitters releasing this Christmas, so don't be too shocked if some of these glitches make it into the final version of the game.
However, don't let that put you off what promises to be the most refined Fable experience yet. It sounds like there's an interesting twist in the gameplay once you reach the castle, too, so there will be plenty more to discover once the game releases.