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Hands-on: Fable unchained

We fly solo with Big Blue Box's groundbreaking Xbox RPG. In-depth hands-on impressions with latest code this way...

It's been a long, long time coming, but Fable, Big Blue Box's and Peter Molyneux's ambitious life-long RPG finally arrives on Xbox next month.

Fable is both revolutionary and evolutionary, promising to cram a whole life-time's worth of RPG adventuring onto your Xbox as it takes you on a spectacular fantasy journey which stretches from the cradle to the grave.

Fortunately, way back in July, we were able to join the Fable team for a full hands-on foray into the opening levels, just before the game finally went gold.

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However it's only now, having brewed up the correct counter-spell to the +5 doom of non-disclosure which was imposed upon us that fateful day, that we can finally spill our guts on what we think about Fable, the almost finished article.

When I were a nipper

Fable begins with an interesting opening sequence, which shows static scenes done in a medieval stained glass window/tapestry art-style. It's quite an intriguing and arresting opening, with some nicely judged music and a gravelly voice-over detailing the many and varied possibilities as a child becomes a man. Hmm, sounds like there could be a theme there, no?

Anyway, this pleasantly themed opening soon gives way to the actual game itself and you're plunged straight into the village of Oakvale, as a rosy cheeked young nipper. But don't go expecting some epic quest for the one true ring right off the bat, as your first assignment as a tousle-haired rascal is rather more low-key: to find a present for your sister's birthday. Only problem is, you've spent all your cash on Fable's equivalent of sweeties.

However, your kindly father steps in and promises you a gold piece for every errand you run around the village and then you're left to your own devices, free to do good or evil as you see fit. Feeling in a positively sickening, enlightened mood, we're soon knocking over bullies, minding boxes and rescuing teddy bears (no really), which eventually earns us a box of choccies for said Sis's birthday.

She's ecstatic and so are the villagers, as everywhere you go, slack-jawed, stalk-chewing, stout-ankled yokels sing your praises saying things like, "Ooh, he's such a credit to his family."

But of course, Fable isn't about some rural village idyll and after handing over your present, things rapidly take a darker and more sinister turn. Night falls and with it, a bandit posse comes marauding into Oakvale, looting and burning with abandon.

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Rushing through the now flaming village, you scamper back to the family home only to find your family slaughtered and a bandit looking to do a similar job on you. It looks like it's curtains, but suddenly a silver haired stranger intervenes, smites the bandito and drags you off to a new life in the Guild of Heroes.

I'm just a teenage dirt bag, baby

Maze, for that's the stranger's name, soon installs you in the Guild of Heroes (motto: training do-gooders since time began) where you're assigned a room with a more senior trainee called Whisper. Even though your character indulges in quite a bit of unnecessary blubbing and whining at this stage, we're not really sure why.

Okay your family's been needlessly and mindlessly slaughtered, but hey, look on the bright side, you've now got a hot female wizard as a roommate.

Things could be worse.

Anyway, moving swiftly onward, the Guild of Heroes actually provides a very well realised training section for the full game. As an apprentice hero, you're free to wander around on your own and explore, but you can also indulge in some well-organised mini-game sections involving melee, archery and spell challenges against your fellow pupils.

Some are simple arena combat and spell training sections, but the archery, where you switch to first-person and take some pot shots at a series of moving dummies, is especially satisfying. The training sections in most games seem to drag, but in Fable, they're extremely well constructed and blend seamlessly into the overall storyline.

All the time you're under the tutelage of the Guildmaster, who'll occasionally provide some extra mini-missions like sorting out a giant beetle infestation or dealing with any stray ruffians who wander onto the premises. Each challenge you complete earns you experience orbs which upgrade your three main capabilities of Strength, Speed and Will.

These also boast a number of sub-categories so, for example, under Strength, you can add points to your Physique, Toughness or Health which allows quite a range of different progressions, allowing you to create quite a complex, unique character.

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When you feel you've mastered everything the Guild has to offer, you can eventually opt to take on Maze and defeat him in some advanced combat and spell challenges, before being summoned to the Chamber of Fate where you finally graduate and begin to make your own way in the world.

This is a man's world

So school's out and it's time to walk like a man and begin some proper grown-up questing. In the Guild's map room you'll find a giant ...Er map which shows you all the quests and missions available to a novice hero.

Core quests, the ones key to the overall storyline, are marked with a gold token, but selecting what we thought was a relatively low level mission to clear the gardens of a giant wasp infestation we were soon coming to the aid of some oppressed yokels, hacking, slashing and fireballing some minor examples of the pesky Vespoidea.

Easy meat, we thought, skewering another on the point of our sword, but then the queen turned up and suddenly what was a fairly straightforward encounter turned into a bitter battle to the death. However, after myriad arrow and fireball strikes, the
queen wasp finally succumbed, leaving us with a nice wasp's head trophy to display to the awestruck locals. Score one for the good guys and yet, we hadn't really had a chance to score one for the bad guys. Hmm.

Fable-ous or sweep it under the Fable?

So around two hours playing time in and what have we learned about Big Blue Box and Peter Molyneux's latest masterpiece? Well certainly that it promises much if this initial foray is anything to go by.

Okay, the first sections really are largely on the rails, because they have to be, to get you to graduation and your first steps into the adult Fable world. Even so they're nicely realised, well paced and there's more than enough story and motivation to keep you playing to see just what's around that next corner.

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Underlying the nicely designed interface, Fable certainly boasts enormous complexity and if you like your RPGs to be full of detail and delightful touches, Fable has them in spades. One small example? After defeating the wasp queen, we were able to brandish her head to the locals who were suitably impressed and grateful, muttering stuff like "behold the wasp slayer".

There's certainly plenty of variation too, with over 10,000 lines of dialogue and counting, which is remarkably context sensitive and makes it feel as though you're really part of a living, breathing world.

There's humour too and good portions of it, with the ability to go and boast about your achievements on the boasting stage and purchase titles from the local title-monger. Spend some coin on these impressive nomenclatures and people will call you stuff like Lord, Druid, Ranger or even Arsehole, if you want to adopt a more ironic post-RPG stance. Marvellous.

You want more subtlety? Fine. How about the expressions system, where your character can earn extra expressions like flirting or threatening? There's a wealth of detail, and it's probably fair to say, if you can imagine it in an RPG, Fable's got it, and probably quite a few things you can't imagine too.

Still, we all know how important caveats can be nowadays and our one slight concern from the day's event was Fable's graphics. It may have been because of the large plasma TV we were playing on, but they definitely didn't seem as crisp, sharp or detailed as some of the Xbox's finest.

It could be that Big Blue Box has had to make compromises on the game engine and textures because of the huge amount of other data in Fable, or it may have simply been the TV, we're not quite sure; but from what we saw the graphics are best described as functional rather than spectacular. Happily, they're certainly quick and smooth enough for combat purposes.

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We have to say that this concern doesn't really detract from the game hugely, because there's such a wealth of other RPG detail to enjoy. We'll await our review copy with bated breath to see how they pan out in the final version.

That's about the only blot we reckon on an otherwise stain-free Fable landscape. It's a hugely ambitious and admirable attempt to take the RPG genre by the scruff of the neck and give it a good shaking and is crammed with amazing amounts of detail and customisation. We await our appointment with its darker side, with genuine glee.

Fable is released on Xbox in September, but in the meantime you can check out this latest fine selection of screens from the game here on this page.

But that's not all! Be sure to point your browser this way again tomorrow, as we present a fresh set of screens from the good side of Fable and chat with Big Blue Box maestros, Dene and Simon Carter.

Wednesday brings even more screens, this time from the evil side of Fable, as well as our exclusive interview with gaming legend Peter Molyneux.

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