Fable III feels like the game that Fable II should have been. It has a lot in common with its predecessor, though now it exists in a much more streamlined, accessible, and enjoyable format. But simply calling it a more refined version of its predecessor would be a disservice, because Fable III offers several innovative improvements, some excellent and emotional moments, and whole lot of fun...even if it is a bit buggy and rather disjointed.
A half-century has passed since the events of Fable II. The industrial age has come to Albion, and with it oppression, despair, and hunger. Children toil in factories while beggars line the smog-filled streets. A ruthless tyrant -- the son of Fable II's hero -- sits on the throne, squeezing the life out of his subjects. Albion needs a new hero and that's where you come in. As the brother or sister of the despot king, it's your charge to amass an army sizable enough to overthrow the king and restore hope to Albion.
It's a typical fairy-tale story, though Fable III is anything but typical. The base gameplay design is very close to past Fable games. You'll go on quests, fight with hobbes, collect various hidden goodies, and explore an open and flexible world filled with very British humor. Everything is more streamlined this go around with less clutter and traditional role-playing to get in your way -- which some may cry foul at, though I rather enjoyed.
What makes Fable III feel unique is the layer of politics wrapped around the standard Fable setup. The whole point of the game is to gather enough followers so that you can progress down the "road to rule," thereby unlocking new gameplay elements, upgrading your character, and ultimately sacking the throne. It's a lot like running for political office. Completing quests, handing out money to beggars, shaking hands, and making promises to important leaders are all ways you can prove your worth as a hero.
And once you do, that's where things get interesting.
Unlike most fairy tales or games, simply becoming the king or queen is not the end. All of the campaign promises you made and people you met will come calling with demands and you'll be tasked with running the show. This is a portion of the game that feels wholly unique, and forces the player into making real decisions with real consequences. Though Fable III is not a difficult game -- even novice players will likely finish without ever getting knocked out -- I found the decisions you have to make to be some of the most challenging and stressful moments in gaming this year. It's emotional and intriguing, and there's no easy way out. Your worth as a ruler will be tested. You can be good or evil, but the question is often more of what you feel is morally right. This section of the game is a fantastic climax -- I just wish it was a bit longer.
This portion, and other excellent story elements in Fable III, could be even more impactful if the game didn't feel so disjointed and lacking in cohesive direction. Like past Fable games, this one does not shy away from puns, cheap jokes, and the absurd. One moment you'll be walking down the street, listening to the wails of children forced to work in factories. The next, you'll be given the option of burping in their face or fist bumping a beggar while wearing a chicken costume. The jokes and immature bathroom humor that Lionhead injects so liberally into Fable III are at times hilarious, but often do a disservice to the overall sense of cohesion.
This freedom to play Fable III how you like is both a huge strength and the source of many of the game's issues. The simulated world you play in is so flexible that it allows for a huge variety of things to do. Building a family, committing murder, taking up odd-jobs, playing merchant, or simply customizing the look of your character are all included as side distractions, and the world of Albion will react to your actions. Buying up houses and playing slum-lord to rake in cash is always fun. At the same time, since so little of the game is pre-scripted, things do go awry. Bugs pop up with frustrating regularity. Dialogue overlaps itself quite often. Wacky things happen that clearly shouldn't.
The good news is that Fable III is still a lot of fun. The entire game -- from the combat to the near-total lack of menus -- has been streamlined and made more accessible. The 3D interactive world map is a huge improvement over Fable II, and a particular high point for me. Though many will get upset over the lack of traditional RPG elements -- there is no health bar, no branching skill tree, and no leveling up -- the action-adventure approach works quite well. The combat, which evolves with you as you gain followers and move through the "road to rule" is very cool thanks to a fantastic set of finishing animations.
Another strong point is Fable III's sound and mission design, which oftentimes go hand in hand. A ton of high quality voice work was recorded for Fable III, so much so that even the smaller side-quests feel special. Sure, there are your standard, boring fetch quests and collect-a-thons that are ubiquitous with big games like Fable III. There are also a lot of high-quality, well-written and smartly designed quests that are both imaginative and enjoyable.
Exploring Albion is a lot of fun, both before and after the main adventure comes to a finish. Once done, I found myself drawn back to complete side quests I'd left unattended and to see if I could find all of the many hidden goodies scattered around the world. This is particularly enjoyable if you've played past Fable games -- Albion has changed quite a bit in your absence -- or if you've got some friends around to play with online. The co-op mode in Fable III is greatly improved. The screens are no longer tethered and you don't have to take up the generic role of henchman, which makes the whole experience feel worthwhile as opposed to the chore that it was in Fable II.