When British TV personality Jonathan Ross tweeted that he’d been “asked to do a voice in Fable 3”, the legion of Fable II fans smiled in smug satisfaction at its sequel being inadvertently confirmed – not that it was ever in doubt given how creative director Peter Molyneux revealed last year that his development studio Lionhead had plans for not just a third Fable game, but for a fourth and fifth one too. On the other hand, that man Molyneux does say an awful lot, so maybe this actually is quite a big reveal.
In any case, remaining speculation can now be defused, and it’s time to start wondering about all the changes we’ll see in Fable III. You could argue that there shouldn’t be many, given the glowing reviews, an array of awards (gaming and animal-friendly) and most significantly of all an impressively high Metacritic score of 89. Sure, Fable II was well received, but there’s still that nagging thought in the back of our heads, a thought in the voice of Cliffy B that’s telling us Fable II could have been Bigger, Better and More Badass™. Well, Fable III can quell the sound of that mental upstart, as long as it hits the right notes – so, what do we want to see on Lionhead’s tune sheet for their third symphony?
Co-operative play is a pretty good place to start, given that the method of its inclusion could drastically alter Fable III’s complexion. That was the case with Fable II, with players expecting something closer to a mini MMORPG experience within a world that could be shared by two players, rather than a superimposed Too Human-esque mechanic. Players took exception with the single screen camera that they couldn’t bring in their own characters to another player’s world and other limitations to what they could do within that world. We’d like to see Fable III up the ante to four players, giving each player their own camera and original character that can be taken out of the other players’ screens, giving them free reign (within reason) in that world. Imagine the possibilities; while your mates are off slaying some beastie, you could be sleeping with their wives and eating from their fridge, just like in real life. Whether the Xbox 360 can handle that level of depth is another matter, but that vision pertains closer to the concept of consequential actions Molyneux talked about when he first introduced Fable II’s co-op.
That’s as far we’d like to see Fable III’s MMO focus go – there are already too many mediocre MMOs in existence, whereas there aren’t nearly enough RPGs doing things differently. One of the things that made Fable II stand out as an RPG was the impact players had upon the game world, particularly how the decisions you made as a child shaped the climate of the future. Yet the majority of these choices were too signposted. There was too much clarity as to what was good and evil, a little disappointing for a game unafraid to deal with complex, mature themes. We’re hoping Fable III can bring more ambiguity to these decisions, with significant choices having significant impacts that aren’t easy to predict. Again relating to Molyneux’s philosophy on consequence, we’d like to see Lionhead do what they can to ensure the permanence of these decisions – autosaves, one save slot etc. Eliminating the option to turn back would truly underline the weight of these decisions, and while some players may take issue with an inability to right wrongs, placing more emphasis on permanence and ambiguity would explore new avenues in the RPG genre – and if there’s one series to do it, it’s Fable.
The next area is ironically more ambiguous. Through features like the glowing trail of breadcrumbs that led players to their destination and simplifications like the one-touch combat, Fable II held players’ hands throughout their time in Albion, a design choice that was applauded by many. However, a vocal section took umbrage with the game’s complete lack of challenge, complaining that it was too easy to manipulate denizens as necessary, defeat copycat enemies and readily amass wealth. In fairness, we don’t think the lack of challenge detracted heavily from the experience, but we do feel that there’s a difference between difficulty and accessibility, and we’d like to see Lionhead make Fable III more of a challenge without implementing any barriers to play. Of course, this is never an easy task, but it wouldn’t take much to quieten the faultfinders. For example, the trail of breadcrumbs should definitely stay, but we’d like to see more rewards for players who venture off the beaten track. Similarly, one-touch combat can stay, but it shouldn’t be possible to defeat every enemy with just your sword or magic or whatever; different enemies should present different scenarios, require different strategies to be overwhelmed. If these strategies can involve a mix of players’ arsenals, rather than spamming the same attack over and over, it would give Fable III’s combat another layer of depth without removing its accessibility. If changes like that can be implemented, it would place greater emphasis on the game’s character and weapon customization, giving it more gaming elements whilst hopefully retaining Fable’s sandbox feel. Of course, we’d like to see a higher level of customization within Fable III as well, but that comes under the Cliffy Triple B rule.
The trick with elements like consequence, customization and open worlds is retaining them within a suitable epic, engaging RPG story. It’s something Western RPGs have struggled with, and Fable II was no exception. There were plenty of memorable moments and scenes, the prison scenes burning brightest on reflection, but they never felt important or remarkable as part of the game’s larger overriding arc, an arc that was largely forgettable. It’s the same issue that plagued Fallout 3, another Western RPG with an open world.
Western RPGS tend to fall short of their Japanese brothers when it comes to plots and narrative. J-RPGs are able to sculpt linear stories with prosperity of depth, despite involving crucial barriers like long gameplay grinds. It’s time for a W-RPG with a really strong story, and if there’s one W-RPG that can break the mold, it’s once again Fable – mainly because Molyneux has created a mature universe for this series, one that houses dark and twisted themes. We like to think that there’s a Fable story waiting to be created that could resemble the grim takes of a Gaimen, Mieville or Pratchett tale – Fable II showed glimpses of it. It’s Fable III’s turn to take it to the next level.
Of all the improvements that could be made to Fable II, its spluttering engine is surely the most obvious. We’ve talked about changes we’d hope to see in Fable III, but the only word applicable for the sequel’s technical improvement is “expectation”. While the visuals were colorful and lush, the jaggy animation and low level of detail were particularly notable too, especially when characters spoke. There was stark contrast between the awful speaking animations and fantastic voice acting from the likes of Stephen Fry and Zoë Wanamaker. Lionhead needs to ensure that Fable III compares well against the presentation of some high-end RPGs that will be coming out around the same time such as Final Fantasy XIII, but they also need to eliminate issues like long loading times, game-breaking bugs and exploitable glitches; issues that plagued Fable II. This is one area of improvement where Lionhead simply cannot fail.
So there you have it, the TGR wishlist for Fable III. It’s arguable that we’re asking a bit too much, but when it comes to Molyneux and Lionhead, nothing is out of reach on principle. Knowing this, it’s safe to say that if they can meet just half of their ambitions for Fable III, it’s likely to be another RPG to remember.