There are a lot of ways to describe Lionhead's Peter Molyneux.
Obsessive. Full of bravado. Overly confident. Bald. These are all accurate, and if you were to leave it there you'd have to assume he's more prone to damaging the gaming industry than contributing in a meaningful manner.
But you have to hand it to the man, he's part of the furniture. The gaming industry would inch a shade closer to beige without him. After a while, the initial response to his outlandish statements morphs from scepticism to entertainment. Much like listening to Rodney Hide, you'll chuckle, shake your head and wonder how in the hell he's allowed out in public without a muzzle and a precautionary lobotomy.
Nowhere is this ambition demonstrated more keenly than with the Fable series. Molyneux's grand vision to produce a world where outcomes are controlled directly by the player, rather than a roll of the dice, is indicative of the kind of restless determination inherent in every Lionhead press release. I know, because I'm looking at one right now. It implores me to try Fable III with a loved one, friends or family members to see if I learn anything about them, and it's signed personally by Molyneux's photocopier. Such personalised attention towards the gaming media is rare, but then this man knows a lot about promoting games.
On Earth, two years has passed since Fable II hit the shelves, which translates to fifty in the magical kingdom of Albion. This lurch forward in time mimics the kind of progression shown between the Georgian and Victorian age in our own history, where any man could assert his authority by becoming extremely fat and inventing a steam-powered machine that made people unemployed. This rampant industrialisation has transformed the land; there's a veneer of soot and grime that was wholly absent from Fable II, which sets up a metaphor for the storyline that is equally shifted towards the darker end of the scale.
The opening cinematic overview of the kingdom (incidentally, one of the best in recent memory) paints the world from the perspective of a chicken, and should under no circumstance be skipped. It's here, along with the initial exploratory stages, that you'll learn about your evil brothers machinations, and the necessary tasks you'll undertake to overthrow him.
You're assisted in this rather ham-fisted plot mechanic by your stalwart steward and master-at-arms Sir Walter Beck, together with your sufficiently submissive butler Jasper, voiced by John Cleese. Cleese, the perennial master of enunciation, manages to imbue his character with calculated whimsy in most situations, even if it sounds like he can't be bothered every so often. Nevertheless, his position as assistant and advisor allows you to effortlessly flow through the more complicated aspects of character customisation and interaction with the core gameplay.
To achieve this, Lionhead have opted to remove the menu system from Fable II, and replace it with a central hub room occupied by your butler. Accessible in lieu of a pause option, and with no loading required, this Sanctuary level contains individual rooms which must be entered to alter various aspects of your character, such as clothing, or weapon loadout. Initially it's comforting to have a visual representation of your options, but after a while it becomes somewhat ponderous.
The action is divided down the middle between progression towards the throne, and numerous side activities designed to add longevity to your purchase. The heart of the franchise is intact, with memorable quests and distractions that satisfy the RPG qualifications. Gone are the orbs and points, replaced by Guild Seals that are spent in a mystical "Road to Rule" level where you can unlock chests containing bonuses to your attacks and job skills. The latter include such menial tasks as lute playing and pie making, your success in completing these activities is down to chance as much as skill due to an occasional and inexcusable framerate drop.
Whilst Albion's environment may have changed, the graphics are largely the same. Lionhead are lucky that Fable makes no pretence towards cutting-edge effects in order to convey the story - there's an alarming amount of pop-in, along with a weird shimmering effect at near distance that makes NPCs look like the front row at a KISS concert. The draw distance isn't huge either, but again, the point of this eponymous game is the story, not the graphics.
Combat has been altered this time around to incorporate the same mashable configuration of ranged, magic and melee attacks alongside the added annoyance of slow-motion final moves that block your ability to see the position of other enemies nearby. The combat moves are still clunky, you'll still swing a sword at nothing in particular far more often than you want, and the utterly useless manual targeting of ranged weapons would be capable of making that woman from the Briscoes advertisements apoplectic with rage. In addition, it was more than an hour into the game before I killed anything that wasn't a bat, a wolf, or a hollow man.
Strangely enough, for a game that prides itself on conveying adult themes such as sex, prostitution and chicken herding, the combat is remarkably pedestrian. Some of the finishing moves involve an element of gore, but for a MA15+ rated title you can't help but think someone has missed an opportunity for some gratuitous violence. Equally baffling is your inability to die - you simply get knocked down and lose your progression towards the next Guild Shield - hardly the kind of terrible outcome designed to instil fear and a sense of careful consideration in your character.
Happily, things get better - your weapons, and your ability to use them improves rapidly, showing a progression curve that rewards you for exploration and combat alike. The first half of the game is undoubtedly the strongest in this respect - the second half, when you're actually in control of the kingdom, feels as half-baked as the endless pies you'll be inexplicably making dressed as a potential monarch. Lionhead have once again missed an opportunity to make your decisions (and more importantly the reaction to those decisions) less black and white, and more open to variation. That said, often the decisions you make prompt a great deal of thought, as each NPC typically presents a compelling argument.
The Co-op mode is a welcome addition to the series. If you're able to convince a friend to play along, you'll be able to purchase businesses together, marry, and even have children, if two beers, a bowl of chips and avoiding eye contact is your thing. I don't have any friends I wish to marry, virtually or not, but at least the game allows you to play through as either male or female.
Once again, we're faced with a sequel to a well established franchise that gradually nudges the series forward in a safe, controlled manner. There's no real innovation, rather a consolidation of central tenants found in Fable II mixed with an updated interface and a story that doesn't end happily ever after. There's a lot to like about Albion. There's some genuinely entertaining quests, whether or not you choose to do them in a chicken suit is irrelevant, the humour is persistent and engaging throughout.
Those expecting a quantum leap forward in this release will be disappointed, however the multitudes of people eagerly anticipating the kind of clever twists and darkly humorous social commentary Lionhead excel in will not come away empty handed. The trip to Albion is well worth the price of admission.