Fable III will impress, despite the baffling design choices.
I spent alot of time trying to decide whether or not it's a good or bad thing that my biggest complaints about Fable III were almost entirely technical in origin. After completing my play-through of Fable III, I found myself having enjoyed what I considered to be the most refined and laudable story experience that the Fable series on the whole has given me yet, while feeling the game's confusing interface design decisions were holding back a series that is already known for it's "good, but not great" affliction.
Let's start with the basics: You're the son of the Hero of Fable II, younger brother of King Logan, and by the end of the game's first 20 minutes, fledgling revolutionary. After witnessing in gruesome detail your brother's increasing madness and tyrannical attitude, you set out on a quest to unite the towns of Albion against the King in the belief that you will be the more benevolent and effective ruler of the Kingdom.
Immediately you'll notice some of the improvements this installment in the series has received that I cherished. The main character can now actually speak, employing full sentences, the ability to carry actual conversations outside of button-press decisions, and the willingness to actually show emotion. The character model designs also recieved a bit of altering over the style of the rest of the series before it. Instead of an awkward looking character in a cartoonish style evolving into a slightly-deformed look as the game goes on, the characters in Fable III are modeled as realistically as the game's engine can provide. Your character no longer stands oddly forward nor does his chest grow into a weird thickness and shape as you age. In fact, you don't really age in Fable III at all.
All of this sets the tone for a story and style that is trying to take itself just a bit more seriously on the surface than the games before it, and this is something I greatly appreciated. But then the interface gets in the way. Or rather, the lack thereof.
The menu system has been scrapped entirely in favor of the "Sanctuary." A location that sort of exists in the real world and sort of doesn't, which allows you to walk to a map, instead of open it with a menu. You also walk into other rooms in the Sanctuary to see weapon racks that you are forced to cycle through in your own person to choose different weapons. The same can be said for magic and clothing. Instead of seeing the items on a list within a menu, you see it in real time and make the decision without pausing the game. You even have to open the Sanctuary and walk over to an object on the wall to manually save the game.
In fact, I hope you don't mind never knowing what the hell you have on you, because you're never going to be able to tell unless you go to a pawn shop. There is no inventory menu of any sort that allows you to observe what you're currently carrying. Want to propose to someone, but not sure if you have a wedding ring? You're forced to either go ahead and propose anyway in the hopes that you have one on you (they're used automatically) or go off and buy another one just to be sure, potentially wasting money since you're unable to see if you have one already. The exact same can be said if an NPC requires you to give them a gift to increase your relationship status with them. Need to give Ruth the Beggar some jewellry to make her happy but don't know if you actually have jewellry on you? Guess you'll never know.
Shopping is also infected by this unfortunate design decision. There are a grand total of three different potion types in this game. Slow Time potions, Summon Creature potions, and Health potions. That is all. The game is forced into dumbing this down for you because you can't manually select potions anymore, nor can you cycle through a list to look at different potions individually. And when shopping, items shouldn't be too hard to find because, since the game can't give you menus anymore to see a wide selection of merchandise, everything for sale is displayed on huge pedastols.
The entire process of shopping has been dumbed down to an almost insulting degree. I went through the entire game using only two swords and two guns, counting the starting weapons, because there were simply no other options presented to me that were worth considering.
Note to Peter Molyneux, if you're reading: Menus? They're not evil. They can be incredibly useful, in fact, downright essential, if you actually design them properly. Having no inventory management whatsoever is downright unforgiveable, in my view. In no way does it prevent playing the game, but it is a constant annoyance that will spring up from time to time as you're trying to play.
Other annoyances like those listed above include the lack of any health bar to tell me when I'm about to die. Of course, the combat is relatively easy, so you shouldn't have a problem staying alive, but you can never actually tell when you're seriously hurt aside from a nearly imperceptible red glow around the screen, which led me to engage in a downright paranoid overconsumption of health potions when I likely didn't need them. The framerate completely collapses on job minigames, which can screw up your timing in a way that is completely out of your control and prevent you from getting the amount of money you rightfully deserve. This can happen even with the game installed to your system.
There's also the lack of a minimap that occasionally led me to having no earthly clue where to go (and the minimap in the Sanctuary is a downright lie in terms of representing the town in question's layout) when I was doing a quest that wasn't set as my primary, or when I was doing a quest where there was no guiding line breadcrumbs.
Breadcrumbs, by the way, that seem make a habit of slacking off and disappearing for a few seconds, forcing you to stand back and let them reload themselves.
If it sounds like I'm complaining a lot, it's because I am, but I'm only telling you what I feel like you should know. Fact is, the technical issues above were only so fiercely on my mind because they were the only thing that I took great issue with in the game.
Fable III takes several steps forward elsewhere. The music is just as mood-appropriate and well designed as it was in Fable II, and the gameplay itself is left largely unchanged, which is for the best. If you're a fan of the Fable series before this game, you know what you're in for in that regard. You don't need a review to tell you the basics of the games controls. That's why they make instruction guides.
Though the Fable series has never really been terribly original with it's plots in previous games, Fable III by far does the best job the series has managed so far in telling a story that doesn't feel overly short or unbelieveable. As your revolution proceeds, you make promises with the towns to get them on your side; Such things as promising to build schools and end child labor in Bowerstone Industrial to ease the plight of the underclass, or promising the Dwellers of the mountains that the natural resources in that area shall be returned to them to be their own. The characters and story of the game feel much more grounded in reality than in the past, and they are easily believed and sympathized with.
I would dare say that this Fable is darker than the others, if in only a small way. With more of a focus on realistic style than the past, and a far-and-away more modern setting in comparison to the last two Fable games, you will see much more of the dark and gritty side of Albion than you ever have before.
Bowerstone Industrial is a dirty, polluted, sad place, with little color to it's features as you roam the streets. You will see the crushed protests of overworked and under appreciated laborers as they clamor for fair and just treatment. Anyone in touch with colonial and early industrial era history will be able to understand the feel of Fable III better than the previous two games. It connects in such a way that the previous Fable titles don't even come close.
Much a-do has been made about the ending, however. It has been well publicized by now that, toward the end of the game, your character eventually assumes the throne, and you are quickly filled in on the threat that Albion faces which turned your brother into the tyrant that he was. You will have to deal with choices that will greatly impact the finale of the game, and will be presented with countless simple choices in your daily life as King. Do you hold your promises, and cut deep into Albion's treasury, potentially bankrupting the kingdom to be a ruler that is loved? Or will you make difficult and cruel choices that will give you massive amounts of wealth to defend your Kingdom from impending doom, even if it means your subjects will hate you?
Let me be clear about this section of the game, while trying to avoid spoiling anything the best I can: There is no sense of urgency to these sections unless it is brought upon you by your own actions. You are able to stop your objectives as King at any point and side-quest to your heart's content, take days off from your Kingly duties to raise your real estate empire to allow yourself to donate massive amounts of money to your treasury. You are able to play the game in the same open-ended fashion that you do up until this point. If you are a careful gamer, you will avoid the worst-case scenario ending (and it is brutal indeed), but take warning that there is a part at the end that will lurch you forward into a point that you cannot skip, and cannot load out of.
But don't let such statements scare you! There are alot of complaints out there, and the reason for such a thing is this: Complaints are easier to put to writing and continue talking about. It's easy to list off a littany of small technical issues that plagued you, and easy to express your frustrations with a game. Praise, however, is often something that goes unsaid simply because it is downright dull to talk about how wonderful a game is for paragraph upon paragraph.
Regardless of any complaint I have lodged against it in the above, Fable III is a great game. One of the best this year, especially if Action-RPGs are your flavor. While the lack of any sort of user interface to speak of is a step backward for certain, the story and basic game-play side of Fable III is by far the superior of the series to date. It is rare that I take no breaks during long playtime sessions, but I found myself always wanting to move forward with the game's story in a way I rarely do with other titles. Fable III is no Fallout 3, but they share the similarity in that they are great games that should be experienced despite their shortcomings and flawed endings. Despite all its technical missteps, Fable III will still shine bright amongst this years releases.