Peter Molyneux has long been one of the more ambitious developers in the video-game industry. His first big hit, 1989's "Populous," let you play God - and in the years since, his games have gotten only slightly less grandiose.
Over the last decade, Molyneux and his Lionhead Studios have been creating a sort of alternate history of his homeland, England. When we were introduced to Molyneux's Albion in 2004's "Fable," it was pretty much the same quasi-medieval milieu we've seen in a thousand role-playing games. "Fable II," from 2008, moved the calendar forward about 400 years, boosting the importance of science and trade in Albion's growth.
In "Fable III" (Microsoft, for the Xbox 360, $59.99), the Industrial Revolution is in full swing, and Albion's capital, Bowerstone, is degenerating into a squalid, Dickensian cesspool of poverty and corruption. The villain largely responsible is the ruthless King Logan - who, it turns out, is your brother. When you express misgivings about some on his more draconian policies, he boots you out of the castle.
Once your character, who can be either male or female, is an outcast, the goal is nothing less than revolution. To gain the support of the people, you need to prove your bravery by completing a series of quests. Some are standard fare - enter a dungeon and kill all the monsters. Others are goofy, like rounding up poultry while dressed in a chicken suit. And some, like a sublime quest in which you become a pawn in a tabletop role-playing game conducted by three mages, straddle that fine line between clever and stupid.
Humor plays a big role here, and your enjoyment of "Fable III" will depend on your taste for Monty Pythonesque absurdity. Two brilliant U.K. comedians, John Cleese and Stephen Fry, play substantial roles, and even the most serious events are laced with an acidic wit.
And "Fable III" doesn't end with your triumph over Logan. Indeed, it shifts gears once you take the throne, breaking up the quest-based action with a sort of simplified "Sim Kingdom" in which you need to prepare your subjects for an impending crisis.
Here's where the tale stumbles, forcing your monarch into a series of decisions that are too obviously split between good and evil. (Example: Rebuild a homeless shelter or turn it into a brothel?) The evil choices generally put more gold in your coffers, which you can then spend to defend Albion, but the simplistic economy and politics make your decisions less than rewarding.
Still, you can sneak out of the castle every now and then and take on some of the quests you neglected while you were fomenting revolt. You can also seduce other characters, get married, raise children, buy property and do other things that, well, you can do in real life with real people. As in "Fable II," you also get a dog who follows you everywhere - and, again, he's one of the most endearing characters in video games.
"Fable III" has a simple combat system: one button each for sword, firearm and magic attacks. Hardcore gamers may find it dull, but less experienced players will appreciate being able to focus on the story rather than on complicated control schemes. After all, when a game is called "Fable," story should be paramount. Three stars out of four.