When it was launched on the Xbox last year, Fable was received differently by different audiences. Some were charmed by its cartoonish and yet spooky feel, while others expected more going from the reasonable hype it received before release. As with a few other big name MSGames titles, such as Halo, Fable would see release on the PC at a later date, and while this date hasn't quite arrived yet, we recently went hands on with the latest preview build, and came away reasonably impressed.
In case you are oblivious to the Xbox version, Fable is a tale of a young but determined hero making his way through the land of Albion played out in the RPG style genre, complete with experience point spending, character customization, item and weapon collecting, primary missions and side quests. This hero's path is determined by your actions, as you control everything from his childhood to elderly adulthood. With it's move to the PC platform, Fable has also brought along some new content - as suggested with its official PC title "Fable: The Lost Chapters". Whilst at this point in time we can't comment directly on any of the new quests, we can confirm the bulk of the new storyline content will be present following the story already found in the Xbox game.
The story in Fable: TLC is certainly one of its strongest points and your ability to change the outcome of events based on decisions you make is present at almost every turn. While a lot of games claim to have nonlinear gameplay, the implementation in Fable certainly seems to be one of the more effective in recent memory. Most of the decisions you make are between good or evil, and while no one decision will leave your character doomed for either side, eventually any pattern in either direction will influence the way the game is played - become evil, and you will grow horns and strike fear in people everywhere, but play nicely and you will be received with cheers and grace. Some quests (usually side quests) are designed for one or the other, and some will present you with a real time decision during your efforts. Your alignment, as it is referred to in the game, isn't just influenced by your quest and mission decisions though, the clothes you wear, the tattoo's you ink and the leisure activities you take part in also pave your path to good or evil.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect so far in the game is the combat engine. While it does feel a tad bit "arcadey", it is actually very well executed and offers real depth to the game. To start with, blocking and dodging attacks is a real strategy and becomes vital to triumph in battles - not many RPG's can claim this. On top of that, large powerful swings will hit any enemy in its path, meaning any one attack can impact multiple opponents, and of course, this works for NPC enemies too - this is certainly one of the strongest physics engines I've seen in a RPG title to date. Again, unlike many RPG's, you'll have to be aware of your enemy's placements. They won't simply form an orderly single file queue and try to attack you front on one by one, you will be attacked from all angles at the same time and these can be brutal, particularly from the back. Some enemies will be smarter and work as a group, whilst others, like Zombies, act like they should and conduct less coordinated attacks.
The good combat system is just the cake though - the AI is the icing, and if this build is any indication, the icing is tasting pretty sweet. While a few quirks here and there are not uncommon, the enemies in this game are generally very tough. They will not hesitate to attack and they will capitalize if your guard is down. They will also react accordingly when a friend of theirs close by is attacked, so sniping from a distance is only an initial strategy in instigating a battle (unless you develop your character into an exceptionally deadly archer, of course). Speaking of sniping, the enemy arching units are deadly accurate and demand respect, so much so you will likely develop a system where you target and eliminate them first (the same going to long distance "Will" enemies, i.e., enemies who use magic). When approaching a group of enemies, Fable: TLC does a great job of making "hack and slash" gameplay redundant as you'll really want to plan your approach carefully if you plan to come out the other end healthy.
There is a lot of land to cover in Fable and luckily a huge time saving teleporting system has been adopted. Unlike most teleporting systems in similar games, in Fable, you can basically transfer to any known teleport station on demand by simply holding down "G" until a menu pops up. It doesn't really matter where you are or what you're doing - a new region is mere seconds away (although some twists in the storyline will prevent this ability in some stages of the game). As mentioned, this is a huge time saver because missions often have you going from point A to B, back to A again to collect rewards etc, and while going the long way and walking the entire distance can grant some handy experience points in the form of extra kills, sometimes you just want to get the quest over and done with and move onto the next one, and Fable: TLC allows this in most situations.
When it comes to the visuals the PC version should serve a few extra treats compared to the Xbox version. Although our machine usually has an ATi Radeon videocard and hence no PS3.0 support, it is highly likely PS3.0 is supported because max detail settings produced a "your hardware does not support this" error - an error which does not appear on recent Nvidia hardware. Even on the ATi card though it looked great. Control wise Fable is reasonably basic with a well organised button map, however more advanced functions like gestures and using objects like spades (to dig for treasure) and fishing rods (to fish...duh) require you to go through a few menu's before activating them. There are a few shortcut buttons for these displayed on the screen, but these get filled quickly and often leave a few without a shortcut, although you can customize which shortcut button does which function easily enough.
If I were to wrap up my current experience with the Fable: TLC preview build into one word, it would be "intrigued". While the Xbox version of Fable failed to live up to much of its hype, I came away pretty impressed with the current PC build, there is definitely some unique charm here that might appeal more to the PC audience, and even though its somewhat "mainstream" RPG feel would usually seem more suited for the console audience, perhaps the PC version will benefit from the lower degree of hype it seems to be receiving - in particular, it could surprise a few PC gamers who are oblivious to the happenings on the Xbox and haven't played it yet. With Dungeon Siege II (also from Microsoft Games) representing an RPG for the more polished veteran, MSGames seem to have a good complimentary title in Fable: The Lost Chapters that will appeal more to the part time RPG fans and new comers to the genre.