Fable III Hands-On Preview

By Lee on August 31, 2010, 5:36PM EDT

It is a time-honoured tradition that sequels are "bigger, better, and more bad-ass." Building on the success of their predecessors, they typically add more story, more weapons, more enemies and more features. When it comes to sequels, conventional wisdom is unequivocal, more is better.

But that's not entirely true of Fable3.

Stung by research department feedback, Peter Molyneux says over half the people that played Fable 2 used less than half of the features. So for Fable 3 he has stripped back what he considers to be extraneous, to create a smoother, more streamlined experience.

The first of two sections we sampled recently was Brightfall. All bright skies and cobblestones, Brightfall is the quintessential Fable town. Children play, the bars are full and people go about their daily lives. It's a charming return to world of Albion.

The series' chucklesome humour is also in effect here. The first mission we played, from an early stage of the game, tasked us with gathering some lost chickens scattered around the town. Of course, this isn't achieved by just wandering around, that would be far too simple. Instead the player must first don a ridiculous chicken suit, the idea being that flapping your feathery wings and scratching at the floor will entice them to follow you back to the coup.

So this is all familiar. However, the first noticeable change comes when you equip the chicken suit.

Instead of a pause menu for you to flick through, a click on the start button whisks you off to The Sanctuary. There's no options, no stats and no fiddly menus, just a entirely new environment.

Essentially a hub space with a world map at its centre, The Santuary features a series of doors, each leading to a visual representation of your various options, weapons, clothing and achievements. So instead of clicking on some text, you'll navigate the room and approach the outfit or weapon you would like to equip.

You can see the reasoning, Molyneux has been banging on about increased accessibility for years. The Sanctuary will certainly break some of the barriers for those that are confused by reams of options. But it actually makes the process of equipping items more cumbersome, slower. Time will tell how successful it proves to be.

Thankfully, however, your butler is on hand to inject a little light-heartedness into your visits. Making snarky comments about your choices in a way that only he can, John Cleese is caustically amusing, just one example of a stellar voice cast.

With the chickens successfully rounded up, this stage of the playable demo was over and it was time to visit Shadelight, a combat-heavy area designed to show-off Fable 3's streamlined fighting and levelling mechanics.

Shadelight is a fearsome place, offering a slightly darker tone than usual for the series. Impressionistic monochrome marks a departure from the warm glow of Brightfall. Populating this environment are shadowy, ghostly spirits and warriors clad in bird-like armour. All of them want you dead.

Except, of course, you can't die. Just like Fable 2 you can only be knocked unconscious, your temporary death marked only by scars on your avatar's body. Furthermore, there is no longer a health bar signifying your remaining strength. It has been replaced by FPS-like desaturation, the colour draining from the screen as you take on more and more damage.

Unfortunately, because Shadelight is black and white anyway, it wasn't immediately obvious that this was the case. We're sure it will be refined before the game's Q4 2010 release.

As we attempted to fight off our aggressors another streamlined mechanic revealed itself. Where Fable 2 offered a simple one-button attack system, Fable 3's combat is even further refined. The swaps between magic, ranged and melee attacks are now far smoother, with flourishing combos highlighted by dramatic camera sweeps. Molyneux felt the previous approach was far too clunky.

The other immediately noticeable difference comes in the lack of XP. While the Fable series has become known for employing that old RPG staple of stat-building orbs, the latest iteration does away with them completely. Instead, all the statistical faffing goes on behind the scenes. You'll not spend any time attributing points to skills in Fable 3.

Instead, now when your weapon levels up, you'll hoist it into the air and it will blast out a shock of power. Think He-Man's "I have the power!" battle cry and you're not far off.

Molyneux's attempts to move away from the minutiae of the RPG are incredibly brave. Just about every other genre in gaming is currently moving in the opposite direction, adding XP, stats and customisation as a more personalised, compulsive experience. Fable 3 doesn't reject these tropes entirely, of course, but it does cut them back in ways that may upset the hardcore.

All of which puts more pressure on Fable 3's key innovations. We're yet to sample the powers promised for later in the game, where you can exercise Kingly authority over the people of Albion, but Molyneux is promising that your choices will have a profound affect on the land's communities, leading them to rags or riches. We'll have to wait and see.

Until then we'll just have to console ourselves with the knowledge that Molyneux's pruning and streamlining has created a solid, accessible foundation from which to build. It may not be bigger or more badass, but it's arguably better. Fable 3 promises to be a thoroughly different sequel.

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