We can't stay mad at Peter Molyneux. Even though he's prone to making outrageous promises he has no hope of ever fulfilling, and even though the previous game in Lionhead's flagship series, Fable II, never made it to the PC, there's something about the fabulously overreaching development veteran that makes every project he's involved in impossible to ignore.
So while there's a hefty gap between the original Fable and Fable III, which is set to be released on PC before Christmas, we're hugely excited about this next instalment in the series. Not least because it seems to have lost much of its traditional RPG setting and mechanics since we last saw it.
Fable III picks up the story of Albion during a period of tyrannical rule by a dictator named Logan. As a result the world is no longer the cheery Merry Olde Englande flavour of fantasy featured in the first game, and bears much more of a resemblance to Britain during the industrial revolution in the late 18th and early 19th century. Bowerstone, a city that was the largest settlement in Fable and a magnificent citadel, has now become rammed with smoke-belching factories – and the population is well and truly downtrodden. For the first half of the game, your quest will be to overthrow Logan and ultimately ascend the throne of Albion, presumably with the intention of fixing things for the better. But that's where life gets complicated. While the first half of your adventure will be based primarily on traditional questing, you'll need to make promises to the populace in order to gain enough support to usurp Logan. Once you're in the seat of power, it'll be up to you to try and live by those promises, making judgements as supreme ruler. According to Molyneux it won't be as easy as it initially seems to be a completely benevolent monarch. OK, you can shut all the factories and replace them with schools, but then you'll see the royal coffers (which are represented by a Scrooge McDuck-esque money room) become considerably less bloated, and your spouse will start complaining when the castle begins to fall into disrepair. When Albion finds itself at war with an entirely new continent called Aurora, inspired by Morocco and the Middle East, cash is going to be even tighter. You'll also be regularly hassled by your subjects wanting you to pass judgement on the kind of domestic squabbles that even Jeremy Kyle wouldn't touch. It'll be up to you whether you pay off either party, dismiss the case or haul the hapless perp to the executioner's block.
If you do choose to condemn someone to a horrible fate, most of the time you'll have to drag them there yourself. Fable III has what Molyneux is calling a touch system that makes physical contact an important means of interacting with NPCs. If you're going to sell a homeless person to the factory, you'll have to haul them by the hand to the factory gates. As they approach they'll begin to squirm and attempt to escape when they realise their fate – it's an uncomfortable thing to watch and a remarkably effective way of prodding your morals. The touch system will also feature heavily as a positive means of communication in your interactions with your family and the pet dog that serves as a constant companion.
Lionhead are promising an ambitious sounding cooperative mode for the game. For a start, any friend who enters your kingdom will be able to venture to any corner of the map and complete quests without being bound to the host of the game. What this means is that once you're ruling Albion, you can send your co-op buddy out to mop up quests as your trusted first knight. Still sounds pretty standard? Well it's also possible for a co-op partner to become intrinsically involved with your own path through the story, either by going into business with you or, better yet, marrying and having children with you. Just be sure they have enough time for the commitment, or your children's relationship with their absentee parent will sour. It'll be fascinating to see how the game adapts to such major roles in the story being filled by a potentially irrational human character.
Fable III is shaping up to be a sumptuous, richly designed adventure that will play unlike anything else. In fact, Molyneux himself is trying to distance the game from the traditional RPG label by streamlining the interface and abandoning pause menus and lists in favour of a physical series of chambers that contains all your kit. The headline features are exciting enough, but more responsive combat and a more sophisticated reflection of your moral choices in the physical form of your character suggest that even when you're performing more traditional questing, Fable III will be a satisfying experience. Welcome back Peter, we've missed you.