With about seven hours under our belt, here are our initial impressions on Fable III.

While the first Fable failed to deliver on many of its ambitious promises, it was still an instant classic that will be fondly remembered for a long time to come.  Fable II upped the ante significantly, adding a massive number of new features and ideas.  For all intents and purposes, aside from some story decisions, Fable  and Fable II were wholly different animals that could have come from two different series of games.  Now, enter Fable III.

Fable III is a mixed bag for us so far.  The world is a bigger and more complicated place, with more to see and do than ever before.  A number of tasks that were tedious in Fable II have been streamlined, and things are mostly kept simpler (an ever-increasing trend in modern gaming.)  The revamped map works great; looking down at a table, you choose which town/area you want to go to, and from there you can instantly teleport to any building you’ve visited within that town (even while inside the same town as the building you want to teleport to.)  This cuts down on travel time by a lot, and can help you complete quests quicker.  You can also conduct real estate deals right from the map screen…a handy option indeed, considering the emphasis that Fable III puts on earning money.

That’s part of the problem, though: Fable III puts far too much emphasis on non-combat or non-story related things.  I should be playing a sweeping epic, filled with nigh-unwinnable battles and a gut-wrenching story, all while having no idea what will come up next.  In Fable III, you will spend a huge bulk of your time earning money through crappy mini-games, interacting with villagers (one at a time, by the way…a horrible design choice), and watching your dog do nothing more than telling you when and where to dig.

Speaking of the dog, let’s talk about him for a bit.  In Fable II, the dog played an integral role in character and plot development.  It was a companion given to you early on, with a lot of time focusing on cementing the bond between the character/player and the canine.  In Fable III, however, the dog is just sorta “there”.  Yeah, he likes to play fetch, and the mumblings your character makes when playing with him are fun to listen to, but there is ZERO emotional attachment to the dog at this point.  I don’t know, maybe that will come later in the game, but for now, the dog is neither positive or negative: it just is.  Considering how well the dog was utilized as a plot device and bonding point in Fable II, I’m surprised to see how generic and lifeless it is in Fable III.

The problems with the dog could be applied to much of Fable III: it’s not that Fable III is bad, it just lacks the spirit of its predecessor.  There’s VERY little in Fable III that is superior to the previous entry in the series, mostly confined to visuals (some of the environments are BEAUTIFUL, although the character models somehow look slightly worse) and the streamlining of wheeling ‘n dealing in real estate.  The “Sanctuary” replacement of a traditional menu will likely polarize gamers: it’s certainly happened in our household.  I like it because I enjoy spending time fiddling with my character, so having an entirely separate part of the game instead of bland menus appeals to me.  In contrast to that, Brittnie can’t stand messing with her character; she wants to get in there, change out a weapon or save her game, and get the fudge out.  For someone like her, the sanctuary is nothing more than a headache, whereas for me, it’s something that I wish appeared in more games.  As always, YMMV.

Combat in Fable III is stupidly easy, with almost no tension regarding survivability.  Right from the very beginning of the game, you feel like a badass that could trounce anything in your way.  Despite this, combat still feels a bit clunky.  There is an auto-lock-on system in place that works well enough, but the block button is the same as the melee attack button; considering the triggers are more or less unused during combat, this seems like an odd choice.  Also, you won’t be able to switch to your ranged weapon as quickly as you could in Fable II; it’s harder to string combos with it than it used to be.  On the plus side, ranged magic attack spells are GREAT when you’re surrounded, since you can face one direction but fire off the spell in another (the animation that’s used when your character lobs a fireball at an enemy behind him/her is exceptional.)  This is smoothly integrated into combat, making it (too) easy to deal with hoards of enemies.  The dodge system is utilized by tapping the “A” button and moving the left stick in the direction you want to roll.  It takes time to get used to, but you’ll find yourself expertly avoiding attacks without much effort once you get the hang of it.  Considering these issues with the combat system, it’s even crazier how easy combat is.  When fights are still too easy even when the system in use is clunky, you know something is wrong.

There is no doubt that co-op has been vastly improved over the system used in Fable II.  Not only do you do you get to use your own character, but everything carries back over into your game.  You can even get married and share assets with your in-game partner (Brittnie and I got a giggle fit when our in-game avatars got married, since they were both shirtless at the time.)  All is not wine and roses, however: whomever controls the second character is all but ignored by NPCs.  You can still interact with NPCs, but unless you deliberately engage them, the second player is little more than a ghost.  Another major issue is getting stuck: there seems to be an invisible box that extends in all directions from your character’s avatar.  This is barely noticeable when you only have one player character, but when two people are playing together, it can make navigating the environment difficult if the areas are narrow.  The main character controls the camera if you’re playing co-op on the same system, but if you play over Xbox Live, both characters have independent control over the camera on their own systems.

In the end, Fable III is an enjoyable yet flawed game.  It seems like every time Lionhead took a step forward in the overall design, they took two steps back elsewhere.  What it comes down to is this: if your preferred way of playing Fable II involved becoming a real estate mogul, Fable III will give you wet dreams.  If you preferred to fight and feel engaged in the story (rather than just watching it unfold), I’d say wait until the game receives its inevitable price cut a few months from now.

Recommended, but with reservation.