Is it too soon to write about Fable 3? My wife hasn’t finished it, so I’m sure it is for some (Keisha, stop reading this until you finish it; there are some spoilers).
The problems with Fable 2 have already been pointed out, but I haven’t really seen the same sort of analysis about Fable 3 yet (from Shamus Young or Alan Tew… I don’t really read game reviews in general, so it’s possible this criticism is everywhere and I just haven’t noticed).
Fable 3 again has some interesting ideas, and avoids some of the problems that were in Fable 2: the story doesn’t have your character captured for a decade, and there isn’t a final choice between chump change, some ambient “thank yous” from villagers, and part of your character’s ability to usefully interact with the world. Actually I thought the idea/intent behind the final choice in Fable 2 was good: tying the game mechanics (the dog) to the decision to make that loss feel more significant. But of course the other two options were completely broken, one because it has absolutely no impact on the world or game mechanics at all (some vague ambient “thanks” you could easily fail to even notice), and the other because of the game’s loose treatment of time.
That last is the main problem with the similarly good concept behind what happens in Fable 3. In the process of becoming king you make promises to the various peoples of Albion, and the intent is that once you make it there you must make tough decisions, balancing keeping your promises against raising the funds to properly defend your land against an invasion of evil black goo. The whole thing is completely hamstrung by the game’s handling of time, i.e. that you gain income from your properties every five minutes of playtime, and the day/night cycles pass continually as you play, but the “storyline time” never passes until you specifically take certain actions.
You’re supposed to believe that perhaps your brother isn’t so evil, that he was just doing the best he could, when you are faced with the same challenges. Instead I thought that of course he couldn’t handle it: he’s an NPC. Time flows normally for him while I, being the PC or “Hero” can create as much time as I need. I had no trouble at all fulfilling every promise I made while also raising enough money to save every citizen of Albion by the simple expedient of buying every property in the world and procrastinating in my kingly duties to run around and do side quests. Later I even sold all the residential properties so I wouldn’t have to worry about repairs anymore, and still collected a pretty penny every few minutes.
The way villagers treat you once you’re king is a bit weird sometimes, as is accepting certain side quests, and I suspect some of that hints at a bit of a rush toward the end of development. The problems with the time mechanics may be attributed to the same, since it seems like in attempting to tie the “storyline time” to real playtime it would be difficult to find a balance which would provide the right feeling of tension without making it too difficult or too easy for the many different types of people who will play the game. There are indicators to imply that the goal was to have time tick down to the day of the invasion; there is a display of the days remaining and the current balance of the treasury on every loading screen. But the time leaps forward in increments of a month or two at a time when make certain story-related decisions at your leisure, rather than tensely ticking away as you play.
Ultimately I had a lot of fun with the game (and will have more, playing co-op with Keisha). I didn’t really expect more than that, but it is a little sad to again see interesting ideas miss their potential.