Pretender to the throne?
The first 50 per cent of Fable III is the best traditional fantasy questing, combat levelling and villager-farting the series has ever delivered.
The second is even more exciting; arguably the best sim Peter Molyneux's produced in his career. The problem is, this exhilarating 'half' of Fable III isn't a half at all - in fact, it's more like a quarter. And when we'd finished the most cinematic, inventive and thoroughly entertaining Fable yet, we were left wanting a whole lot more...
Fable 3: Story
The premise should be familiar, this time you're the King, or rather you're his Prince and/or Princess, out to take his place on the throne.
You see, the slick-haired ruler of Albion has been making some rather unpopular choices of late - putting children to work, hiking up taxes, beheading protesters; that kind of thing. And when the King crosses you in a dramatic opening hour event, it's time to kick away your palace duvet and take to the streets to start a rebellion.
Much of Fable III sees you travelling around the kingdom, meeting the rebel leaders and exiled rulers done wrong by the current King of Albion, and persuading them to take up your cause. Your quest to the throne is represented by the Road to Rule, which ends at a big representation of Bowerstone castle.
Trouble is, it's blocked off by a series of iron gates - each one unlocked whenever you reach a significant milestone in your overall quest.
Also scattered along the Road are various chests containing melee upgrades, magic spells and social abilities - the sort of stuff you would've accessed via a barrage of experience points and levelling in the last game, but disguised in a more approachable adventure game mould here.
You purchase these chests with Guild Seals - Fable III's camouflaged XP - which are awarded for every townfolk follower you acquire, and marginally built up by slaying beasts and working.
Combat advancement has gone a similar route, with weapons - while also upgradeable in their own right - automatically balancing themselves to the player's individual melee, ranged and magic skills. It's fair to say, then, that Fable III is a more accessible game than its predecessors - while still managing to maintain the depth and role-playing systems the fans love.
Ultimately this leaves you free to focus on your adventure rather than a series of menus and progress bars, and it's a more entertaining game for it.
Playing through the main story and its many side objectives is a genuine joy. In just an hour's sampling you'll see more originality and humour than most games manage in an afternoon session.
One side-quest sees you agreeing to participate in a game of Dungeons & Dragons between nerdy wizards - which sees you shrunk down to pint-size, running around their model 'set' acting out the part of the hero.
What follows is a snog with a playing card Princess, arguments over the wizard's constantly changing plot (and some impressive dynamic set-switching) - and a Monty Python satire that has you battling evil, fire-breathing chickens in a pit of bones ("our hero will dine on Chicken flesh tonight!") It's brilliant fun - and representative of the quality you can expect from almost all of Fable III's scenarios.
Fable 3: Engine
Entertainment value and deceptive depth aren't all Fable III has in common with BioWare's game, though; it's also really ballsy with its player choices - and their consequences.
Throughout your march to the throne you'll commit yourself to various promises and deals in order to get the number of disgruntled tribe leaders and exiled generals on side.
To make sure you're not taking them lightly, the game will even have you plant a virtual signature on a contract - complete with Gamerpic and Tag - with a press of the A button (this is then hung on your wall in the Sanctuary hub). Commitments range from pledging troops to defend a remote village to stopping to abuse of Bowerstone's factory worker children.
Being King of Albion is properly good fun. No, really - we said in the opener to this review that it's the best simulation Peter Molyneux produced in years, and we stand by that judgement.
With the crown on your head and the laws at your feet, you can make direct and significant decisions that immediately change the Fable III world and the characters that inhabit it - and every choice genuinely does have a consequence.
What about drinking laws - will you accept cash to outlaw pubs, or endorse boozing altogether and have villagers puking in the streets? And when, my lord, you're propositioned with a plan to build a brothel on a crumbling orphanage for ridiculous profits, which way will your conscience sway? For many of you reading this, the promise of virtual cash might not seem like much incentive for permanently scarring the game world or throwing virtual orphans on the streets, but - without spoiling the surprise - the plot presents a huge motivation to build up cash in the Royal treasury. You WILL care.
Fable 3: Conclusion
The King-half (quarter) of Fable III feels meaningful, fresh and immersive - it's just a shame that it's over so quickly. Ignore side quests, pie-making and messing around with the palace cleaners, and you can storm through your Royal duties in little over two hours.
Although we concede that the run-up to Kinghood is absolutely part of the pay-off - and in its own right a well-paced, dramatic and entertaining chapter of traditional Fable - we were disappointed the King section wasn't further exploited.
Another niggle is that where Mass Effect 2's ending gives players fair warning that 'pressing A' could result in a game-ruining finale if unprepared, Fable III's own risky conclusion forgets to give us a final opt-out point. It's all-to-easy to muck up your whole game world. Believe us.
You have been warned. Ultimately, however, our complaints are mostly 'wants' rather than genuine game flaws - and we can say with utmost confidence that this is the best Fable yet.
It's entertaining, thoughtful and crucially, not entirely for RPG lovers - which could lead to the series capturing an entirely new audience of adventurers.
But be warned: Make the wrong choices and there's no going back. Just like us, you too could be left feeling like your potential as ruler hasn't been fulfilled when the all-too-sudden credits roll around.
Fable 3 release date: Friday 28th October