Glitches Sink "Fable III"

This column's three regular readers might remember an accusation I made last time to the effect that Obsidian Entertainment's Fallout: New Vegas is the programming equivalent of running one's car into an inopportune ditch.

After playing Lionhead's Fable III, it has come to my attention that I may well owe the good people at Obsidian an apology, or at least the public acknowledgment that New Vegas' bugs, copious though they may be, have nothing on Lionhead's masterpiece of mimetic malfeasance. No mere fender bender, this Fable III. We've got a full-blown software Chappaquiddick on our hands here—Fable III is a game sinking to the bottom of Lake Xbox, with the series' future unconscious in the passenger seat and the guilty developers nowhere to be found.

Imagine that you're playing a fairly run-of-the-mill third-person sword-and-sorcery adventure, immediately distinguishable from its predecessor only by a brief leap forward on the series timeline. You're off on some utterly banal quest to, say, deliver some meaningless package from one of the world's three copy-pasted NPC archetypes to another, when all of a sudden everyone suddenly seems to forget that you exist, thanks to a glitch that removes the prompts that allow you to interact with the world. A good Twilight Zone episode, maybe, but hardly decent gameplay.

Or perhaps a quest NPC leaves his script at home and forgets his lines, trapping you in an infinite loop of accepting a quest, completing it, and then inexplicably having it offered again. Or maybe your dog (whose mechanics, the pride of Fable II, are largely wasted here) just disappears, overwritten somewhere in the bowels of the game's code by an invisible dog or a "SET (DOG) = 0" command that shouldn't be there in the first place. Or why not have time itself run backward, thanks to a countdown clock that inexplicably decides to run in the wrong direction, sending you further and further away from the anticlimactic ending?

Any of those would, in any sane game structure, be cause to load a previous save, but nooo, you're playing a Fable game. Lionhead guru Peter Molyneux is all about consequences—his games are one-way paths, forcing players ever forward and demanding they accept the spoils, for good or for ill, of their efforts. Fable III takes this philosophy a little too far; the game itself seems designed to make players keenly aware of the consequences of wasting $60 on a half-finished threequel rushed to market to take advantage of the holiday season.

Found yourself a gamebreaking bug? Let's hope you liked the game so far, because thanks to the combination of constant autosaves and one save state per character, you're going to be seeing all that content again. Some games measure replay as a value; in Fable III, replay might as well be a mandate.

Not that anyone would be interested in playing this more than once. Those few pieces of the game that aren't crimes against coherent programming are the gaming equivalent of a middle-aged man who wakes up one day and realizes that he's turned into a lamer version of his father.

Fable III's innovations—from the spell-weaving system that can be safely ignored to the king-making storyline that reduces its potential down to a half-dozen good/evil questions—might as well not be there. By streamlining the staple Fable NPC interactions that made Fable II a clunky but workable system, Lionhead puts Fable III in a nonsensical world in which players are either dancing with every peasant in Albion or farting on them. The scope of the game flits back and forth at random between short story and epic; the world itself feels somehow larger and less relevant.

If Fable III required one grace to save it from utter damnation, I would grant it a point in its favor for its writing. Molyneux at least had the sense to retain his series' sharp, wry, always very British sense of humor, and it occasionally makes itself known when the rest of the game isn't doing its best to frustrate all efforts at entertainment. But if that's what you're after, go buy a couple of Terry Pratchett novels. You'll save money, you'll get more content, and you won't have to play Fable III.