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New looks, old problems: Fable Anniversary reviewed

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Just like the first Halo got a makeover in 2011, so too has the first Fable game been re-done. Fable Anniversary is 2004’s Fable (including the Lost Chapters add-on) with a new lick of paint and some remastered audio, a fact that finally brings the complete series to the Xbox 360.

Unfortunately, it brings those visual and audio updates to the game, leaving bugs, crashes and strange behaviours from the first game intact. It is pretty disappointing for me as a fan of the franchise, as I feel it’s ultimately a missed opportunity for Microsoft and Lionhead Studios to fix the remaining issues of what was a pleasant and original game and introduce it to a new audience on the best possible terms. Final sales will tell, I guess.

If you haven’t played Fable before, here’s the skinny: you get to be a newly-minted Hero in the medieval fantasy land of Albion, and it’s up to you to choose whether you want to follow a good or an evil path. Whichever you choose will be reflected in the world, in the way its people treat you and especially in how you look, and you’ll have plenty of opportunities to decide which way you’d like to go.

This is called "The Bandit Look".
This is called “The Bandit Look”.

There is of course an over-arching plot involving a mysterious figure along with a few plot twists relating to your hero’s origin story, but both of those play second fiddle to the appeal of watching your character evolve into this paragon of goodness or bastion of evil over time.

At the heart of the game is still its combat system, which is both good and bad. It’s good because it’s as simple in the remake as it was in the original, complete with bonus XP drops and individual buttons on the Xbox controller dedicated to melee, magic and ranged combat, but bad because the actual technicalities of fighting, like locking on to enemies and dodging prove to be a literal hit-and-miss affair.

FA (3)
Definitely a hit.

Pressing the left trigger is meant to lock on to the nearest enemy in visual range, for example, and while that does happen at least half the time, at others you’ll lock on to someone behind you when there are clearly-visible enemies in front of you. Or it’ll lock on to nothing at all and you’ll spend a few seconds swiping at thin air while nearby enemies wail on you unopposed.

It’s okay at the start of the game when enemies are small in number, but as the story progresses and you’re expected to deal with more and more of the buggers, it gets very irritating. You have to develop a completely new skill entirely outside of the game, namely working around the poor controls. It makes sequences like the Arena battles you must fight in rather more aggravating than they should be.

And then there’s the camera. In what universe does “Invert Camera” mean that both the X and Y axes are inverted when you choose Yes in the settings? Apparently that’s how it works in Fable Land. And while the camera tries hard to keep your view playable, it often fails spectacularly – it clips through the scenery quite often, it’s angled too far down most of the time, and attempts to move it to a more preferable angle generally end up with the camera going “Nope” and returning to the view you were trying to get away from. It’s very frustrating, and something that not even switching between the Traditional and Fable 2/3 control scheme helps.

The problem is, this sort of thing is perfectly understandable in a new game, with an unproven and untested combat system and an experimental camera, but this is a remake so you’d think the developers would at least have tried to fix things like this while they worked on the new paint job. It’s not like they were starting from scratch.

FA (2)
Where the bugs hide.

I understand Lionhead/Microsoft wanted the remake to remain true to the original game, but when that commitment extends to game-freezing bugs that occur in both the 2004 and 2014 versions at the same places, that’s just ridiculous. During the review, my full retail version of the game froze my Xbox 360 to the point where it needed to be rebooted at five different points.

While bugs in any game are to be expected, all of the glitches and gripes I encountered in Fable Anniversary are unforgiveable. Not because I’ve got a grudge against game developers, but because I’m a fan of the series and had hoped to see something a lot more polished than the glitchy mess I ultimately played. The issues are so glaring that I have to ask if Lionhead did any play-testing whatsoever before release, because it really doesn’t appear so.

On the positive side, Fable Anniversary retains the same approach to levelling up, a system that I felt worked really well in the original. Your character still gets noticeably stronger as you unlock abilities, resulting in very satisfying spell and combat effects that will eventually have you mowing down enemies in spectacular fashion, despite combat controls that occasionally fight back.

I also enjoyed the charm of the land as much in this remake as I did playing the original. The land of Albion and its decidedly British flavour fits very well with my idea of a fantasy world, and I liked hearing the silly/cheeky/funny comments of the people as I walked past, especially as my renown grew. I liked the morality system that tracked my actions, assigning Good and Evil points to the things I did, and I thoroughly enjoyed seeing how my alignment and actions affected my character’s looks. By the end of the game, I glowed blue from all the magic I’d wielded, and had a permanent halo around my head.

Basically, when Fable Anniversary works – and it occasionally does – it gives players a glimpse of all the good ideas Peter Molyneux and the people at Lionhead had for the game, and an inkling of what could have been had all the wrinkles been ironed out. Despite having the chance to do exactly that – fix a few outstanding problems and add a layer of polish along with prettier graphics and remastered audio – it just didn’t happen. All the developers did, ultimately, was pretty it up while leaving the technical flaws in place.

The prettiness belies many, many technical issues.
The prettiness belies many, many technical issues.

So should you play the game? It’s actually hard to say. Fable Anniversary is not a great game on its own for technical reasons, but it’s also very true to the original and certainly looks much prettier than it did back in 2004. That makes it nice to look at, but an annoyance to play. Since it offers more for fans than for new players, the question of whether to buy it or not should ultimately come down to how you feel about the Fable franchise.

Fable Anniversary by Lionhead Studios, published by Microsoft
Available on Xbox 360 Only
The good: Charming world, quirky quests, beautiful graphics
The bad: Bugs aplenty, freezes, awkward controls, terrible camera
Rating: 6/10

Deon du Plessis

Deon du Plessis

Deon got his first taste of PC gaming at the tender age of 11 when his father bought an 8088 XT, ostensibly to "help him with his homework". Instead, it introduced him to Leisure Suit Larry, King Graham, Sonny Bonds and many more, and Deon has been a PC gamer and hardware enthusiast ever since. He landed his first professional writing gig in 2006 at a prestigious local PC magazine, a very happy happenstance as he got to write for a living about things he loves - tech, PCs, gaming, and everything in between. He's been writing about it all ever since, and loves every minute of it.