The problem with reviewing Fable is separating the game from the hype that surrounded it. The game itself is fun, and has any number of great things that'll be influencing other RPGs for software generations to come, but it's not quite the game that its pre-release publicity said it was going to be.
This review isn't about what Fable could or might have been, though. It's about what's in the disc as it stands, and that, at least, is pretty damned good. It's way too short (an issue it shares with the Xbox's other big RPG, Sudeki) and has a couple of glaring flaws, but it's good nonetheless.
You begin the game as an eight-year-old child in the world of Albion, searching his village for money to buy his sister a birthday present. Before too long, tragedy strikes, and you wind up as an initiate at the Heroes' Guild. About twenty minutes of real time later, you're unleashed on the world as a twenty-year-old novice adventurer. What happens over the next forty-four years--whether you become a legendary hero, an infamous villain, or something between the two--is largely up to you.
Fable is a game about two things: choice and combat. Every decision you make, from the seemingly insignificant to the obviously major, is used to influence your character in countless ways: your appearance, your reputation, the experience you've earned, and even the name of your class.
You can become a warrior, a mage, an archer, or some combination of the three. Albion's full of monsters, bandits, demons, undead, and worse, all of which would be improved by a sword through the front of the head. Most of the game will be spent fighting these things, either by yourself or as part of a larger quest, to gain the Renown and money you'll need to take on the bigger jobs the Guild has for you. Alternatively, you can forget the Guild entirely and just wander Albion, fighting random monsters or mugging traders.
The combat engine in Fable is actually very good, allowing you to switch smoothly between melee, ranged, or magical combat with the touch of a few buttons. Every part of it is top-notch, with the unfortunate exception of the targeting system, which tends to have a black sense of humor; I found that it often wanted me to go after the trader in the background who wasn't attacking me, while ignoring the monsters all around me that were. There's a moral to this story, but I hesitate to imagine what it might be.
The rest of Fable can be spent however you see fit. You can buy shops and houses in every village, becoming a businessman and landlord, or teleport from town to town to trade in rare goods. By getting the right clothes, tattoos, and reputation, you can romance just about any woman you see, including the mayor of one city, and even a couple of men. There's a certain pleasure to walking into a village and finding that every woman in it is hopelessly in love with you.
If Fable, as it stands, has any major flaws, it's that it's too short and it's too easy. If you get anywhere near the game's major plot track, you'll wind up with an ending within sixteen hours, and unless you're playing the game as some kind of esoterically handicapped character--Clubwillie Seth the Naked Trader or something--Fable can be shockingly easy.
Part of this is because Fable makes it really easy to recover from damage or death, with commonly available Resurrection Phials (read: extra lives) and health potions. The latter are dirt cheap, you can carry a nearly unlimited amount of them, and they're commonly dropped by defeated enemies. I wasn't actually trying to stockpile them, but I still had about fifty health potions by the final battle. It would've taken a nuclear strike to kill me, and oddly, the game's last boss did not have one of those on tap.
You'll also find that Fable kinda rolls over and dies if you pick the right combination of spells. Direct-damage magic like Lightning and Fireball are nice, and have their tactical uses, but the game is all about Slow Time and Berserk. The former speeds you up, while the latter makes all your attacks unblockable. Used in conjunction, the two spells create an exciting new incantation, which I like to call "I Win."
Fable's easy to break like that, but the character creation system is sort of like a built-in difficulty select. Its ease, or lack thereof, is part of its inherent customizability.
That customizability, however, is limited to your character. A lot of Fable's missions and quests would have been improved by a dose of the same flexibility as its character design. When you go on a mission, it can be accomplished in only one way, and that's usually a direct assault. The stealth system is nearly useless, and there's no option for any cleverer approaches.
For example, at one point in the plot, your character is thrown into prison. There's one way to get out: stealing a key. Given your possible capabilities at this point, which is near the end of the game, I can think of a few other ways to break out without really trying very hard. None of them work, however; they're all arbitrarily denied.
After playing games like KOTOR, Deus Ex: Invisible War, or Thief, which presented multiple options for both morality and accomplishing goals (i.e. a non-lethal or "ghost" game vs. a killing spree), Fable feels disjointed. You've been given a multitude of options as to how to be a warrior, but that's it. It's still a great action-RPG, but it's not the game that its marketing says it is.
There'll probably be a Fable 2. When it arrives, I hope it's everything that Peter Molyneux said the first one would be: an experience that's mostly dictated by the player's choice. As it stands, Fable's a lot of fun, but at times, you can see the beginnings of something much cooler that was sadly abandoned.