* * *
I was ecstatic when Lionhead Studios announced Fable Anniversary last June. The original Fable – the game that sparked my interest in video games (beyond racing, sports, etc.) as an adult – turns ten years old this year, and remains one of my favorites. A long-hoped-for, remastered-for-HD version of my favorite Xbox game, originally expected to release less than five months after its announcement? I was 100% there.
Of course, it was pushed back to February, ostensibly so that Lionhead could add some final polish and make it the great remake that it deserved to be – and that its fans deserved, and craved.
I picked the game up on its release date (February 4), but I didn’t get around to starting it for a couple of days. Since then, I have put approximately 25 hours into it over the course of a half-dozen play sessions. I’ve spent my time in-game savoring the HD graphics, basking in the soundtrack, and exploring every nook and cranny of Albion. It’s wonderful to see the original Fable in its updated glory. The adventure can be completed in a relatively short amount of time, but I’ve been taking my sweet, sweet time, and I have no regrets about doing so.
The not-real review:
Graphically, Fable Anniversary is a pleasure, although this is expected: in the Xbox 360 era, we’ve already had Fable II and Fable III, which both look bright and colorful; Anniversary feels right at home when compared to those two.
The gameplay is faithful to the original, with the added option of using the Fable II controls. Personally, it’s a pleasure to play a 360-quality Fable game with the map on-screen again, and while the menu interface design has been updated, it still feels like old times, in a good way.
I won’t go into detail about every aspect of the game. I’ve been thoroughly enjoying myself, and I’m sure most fans of the original game would have a lot of fun revisiting Albion in Anniversary. Plus, this is not a real review.
However, I will note a handful of troubling issues with the game.
1. The original game’s “trade between shops for gold” “bug” – where a player can buy out a vendor, instantly increase that same vendor’s demand (and buy price) for items, and then resell those items back to the vendor for a profit, instantly re-lowering that vendor’s demand (and sell price), ad infinitum – made it into the remastered game intact.
It’s fairly obvious that Lionhead isn’t terribly concerned with the ease of gold-making in the series. After all, Fable II and III both had fairly simple, repetitive job systems that made gold-making a mindless afterthought after players put in a little bit of initial work. However, I would argue that this a broken system that needed to be fixed. They did fix it to some extent in Fable II, which had a much better “sale” system, but in remaining faithful to the original in this case, they trivialized several other systems. For instance, with basically unlimited gold, the use of Health/Will potions and Resurrection Phials goes from somewhat strategic (in the first hour or two of play) to completely trivial: when you’re sitting on 500+ Health/Will potions, you can use them like candy and it’s not challenging. Additionally, getting very good armor and weapons becomes simply a matter of opening up new areas (and thus, new vendors), with little-to-no real cost. And getting the “Choosing My Religion” achievement for donating at least 100,000 gold at the Temple of Avo (which also rewards a very strong melee weapon) is a drop in the bucket. There is no real choice necessary there (unless you deliberately choose not to make gold that way); instead of making choices have consequence, you simply buy what you need – even an achievement – while suffering virtually no effect on your overall gold balance.
2. The game freezes way too often, which is a problem. It’s happened to me more times than I’ve cared to count. On Sunday, for instance, I played for just over two hours and had to shut off/restart my 360 three times. The first time it happened was early on in the game, when I was halfway through the “Twinblade’s Camp” core quest. I was mollified when I realized that I could load from the latest checkpoint, but that doesn’t mean it’s acceptable. I’ve had to hard-restart my 360 almost 20 times with Fable Anniversary, and even though Lionhead came out with a stability update a few weeks after release, I’m still having many of the same problems.
3. There are some annoying jagged edges in the game. The one that has annoyed me the most – probably because I’ve used it so many times – has been a problem where, if I run straight into a cullis gate (usually at the Heroes Guild), I can’t actually get onto it. I have to approach it in a semi-circular manner in order to avoid the jag, which is just a pain. There are some other ground jags, but nothing that has been as consistently frustrating as the cullis gate issue. Fortunately, we have the Guild Seal, and I’ve taken to using it almost exclusively for teleportation.
4. On that note, I’ve also noticed some instances where, when attempting to use the down button on the d-pad (Guild Seal) to teleport, the game instead reflects that I’ve used either the right or left d-pad buttons, which means I use some type of expression (usually a fart, which I guess is hilarious in its own way), eat something I didn’t want to eat, or something to that effect. At certain points, that has been frustrating, particularly at times when I was some distance from the nearest cullis gate. Since the update, this seems to have toned down, although I don’t know if that’s just a coincidence.
There are other gameplay elements that aren’t the cleanest, but these bugs are the ones that have bothered me the most, because they’re particularly immersion-breaking and because I would think that, aside from #1, Lionhead would have been able to smooth out the game’s rough edges (bugs) with the extra time afforded them by the delay.
* * *
In general, I’ve had a heck of a lot of fun playing Fable Anniversary. It’s been great to revisit the old stories, places, music, and choices. I’ve laughed a lot, and enjoyed the coziness of the game. At the same time, I’ve found myself getting chills during certain quests, even though I’ve done them before: the quest sequences where you a) find out Lady Grey’s secret at Grey House and b) fight through the graveyard on the way to Bargate Prison were, in particular, very cool combinations of atmosphere, music, and spooky situations.
Looking back at the original through this fresh experience, it’s easier to see how Lionhead took some big leaps forward from Fable to Fable II, with jobs, the vendor sale system, combat system, expanded pub games, and the social/Renown/relationship overhauls. While I still sort of want to look back on my experiences with the original and tell people that the first Fable was the best game in the series – and I do think that it’s still my favorite – I have a much greater appreciation for the changes in game mechanics that Lionhead made in the second game now. Fable Anniversary is great, and it’s a loving tribute to the original classic, but it also shows both its age and its limitations when compared to its newer brethren. As such, it generally deserves its decent-but-not-smokin’-hot review scores.
I would definitely recommend Fable Anniversary to fans of the original Fable, as well as fans of Fable II and III who haven’t played the original, if for nothing other than to experience the original story. Albion is rich with lore, and for those who never played it on Xbox (or never owned an Xbox), this is a wonderful opportunity to visit that era in its history.
* * *
My experience with Fable Anniversary:
- Previous Fable experience: played the original several times. Also played II several times, and III once.
- General game thoughts: beautiful – and still a lot of fun – but also a bit buggy, and shows its age.
- Graphics: not cutting-edge anymore, but generally on par with other 360 Fable entries.
- System/game performance: generally consistent with the original, and very playable, but – again – has some unfortunately frustrating bugs.
- Music: excellent, as usual – a game soundtrack worth buying.
- Xbox Smartglass: I didn’t test the Smartglass features. Additionally, I didn’t feel like spending extra money for the premium features, and they aren’t totally necessary anyway (although from what I’ve read, they’re pretty cool).
Note: Not a real review is a new series here at Dischordant Forms, where I write about my experiences playing through various video games – usually older games that I can get at bargain bin prices (although this game is something of an exception in that regard). These posts should not be considered actual reviews, which are usually written by people who are both competent gamers and decent writers. These are simply my impressions, and the context in which those are formed may be vastly different from that of most other players/readers.
* * *
In which inspiration for an unlikely creative direction comes from an even more unlikely source…
This past Sunday, Metallica uploaded the 50-minute EPK for their 1998 album of covers, Garage, Inc., to YouTube. I spent some time watching it the next evening, and while the video is of some interest to fans of the band / the songs, something happened – as I watched the video – that I hadn’t been expecting: I became inspired to begin writing a new piece of music.
Of course, by the time this was happening, this inspiration came at a time of night when grabbing my guitar, in order to flesh out the structure and see where the muse took me, was absolutely not an option. This is par for the course with me… but when you live in an apartment with someone, and that person is sleeping and needs to be awake at around dawn, late night writing sessions with even an unplugged guitar are nothing less than disrespectful and rude.
So I sat here in my chair in the stillness and thought about the sound that was in my head. The picture that I had was of me playing an amplified hollow-body guitar, but the sound – as strange as this may seem – was like a vibraphone. “Bells” was the word I was thinking, but a vibraphone was the sound. Of course, my guitar doesn’t sound like bells or a vibraphone, and I don’t own any bells or a vibraphone. And right there, I had my first challenge in the can for future exploration.
As I spent the next twenty minutes or so thinking about these sounds and notes, I also started thinking about the process itself. I’ve often written the seeds of songs in my head and translated them to the guitar at some later point; in addition to what I wrote above about (often) being inspired late at night, I’ve also found inspiration in the car, at work, while out walking, and at other times where a guitar was either not handy or wholly impractical. This time, however, I was thinking beyond that. I was thinking that I may have found a way to break out of a creative rut, with respect to the type of music that I’ve created throughout my adult life. And that was exciting!
At this point, we’re way out of the boundaries of anything having to do with Metallica and their music; the event that was “watching the EPK” merely served to plant a seed of inspiration. I thought about the sounds that I was “hearing,” and where the notes could be played on the guitar, and filed that information away for future reference. But as I went to bed, I was thinking more about the process that excited me so: the idea that I could, in some way, deconstruct or distill what I know about putting a song together into more basic musical elements, with less rhythmic constraint (and by that, I mean common pop and rock rhythms), more melody, and a focus on exploring how series of notes sound when juxtaposed. I started thinking about what I have at my disposal instrumentally: the aforementioned hollow-body, a not-very-bright-sounding acoustic guitar, and an electric keyboard, along with various ways of providing percussion, if and when I decided to try to record it. I finally fell asleep with these ideas in my head.
The next morning, I spent a few minutes recalling and familiarizing myself with the snippet of music that I had found so inspiring the night before. It took me a few passages before I caught the vibe again, because while I had the simple melody down, the “song’s” key and the reference root notes escaped me momentarily. Once I had sorted it out, though, I abandoned the idea of playing the melody and root notes together for a moment and began to move up the fretboard, to the highest frets I could reach comfortably while playing the melody by itself… and I quickly decided that my best chance of finding the “bell” sound on that guitar was up in that area.
I didn’t spend too much time on it, however. After a few minutes, I had to put down the guitar and get to work on finishing the one pressing task that I had that day, which was to get my much-needed pre-Thanksgiving grocery trip out of the way before things got crazy at the store. Nonetheless, I turned off the radio in the car, concentrating instead on slow-cooking the ideas that were in my head, with plans to revisit them later in the day.
* * *
Once the shopping was complete, vegetables cut, homemade soup on the simmer, and dishes washed, I got out the guitar, warmed up the tube amp, and set to work. It quickly became apparent that my little amp wasn’t going to produce the sound I was looking for, and an Electro Harmonix Mistress – while producing an interesting mood – wasn’t even close to the tone I wanted. So after messing around with root note ideas and working out a simple complete melody, I moved over to my old iMac, fired up Garageband, and decided to try recording direct to the hard drive.
I have an old Presonus (Firewire) preamp for this purpose, but I hadn’t used it in three or four years, so I plugged it in, tested some levels, and recorded a test track. I found that adding some reverb to the direct signal gave me a nice, if raw, effect, and then I copied it and applied an octave effect to the copy. (The reverb and octave shifter created something of a vibey, bell-like effect that served the idea I was going for, for the time being.) Then I recorded some bass lines, and the notes started to sound fairly nice together! Finally, I re-recorded both instruments** to a click track and saved the file.
**Note: I recorded the “bass line” with the same guitar that I used for the melody – since I don’t own a bass guitar, sadly – but I applied an octave shifter effect to make it sound like a bass… or, at least, to make it sound like a separate instrument.
The idea is now tangible. I now have a cornerstone for whatever this piece can become. I can listen back to it, rather than trying to recall it from memory, and add ideas as they come. And if I ever get to the place where I have a complete piece, I can record it right there and have a finished demo track to enjoy.
* * *
The inspiration came from watching that Metallica EPK (for whatever reason), but the building blocks were already there within me. I’m still drawing from music and instruments I’ve heard before, and knowledge and skill that I already have, but I’m also learning and trying new things, including the idea that it is possible for me to approach songwriting from a new angle.
The song might not end up sounding like actual bells, or as deconstructed as it initially did in my head, but I’ve learned that going to a place of musical simplicity, and starting with some very basic ideas – rather than attempting to build on top of something more technical and in the same vein as what I’ve written before – can open new avenues of musical exploration and enjoyment.
* * *