By the end of Fa­ble III, Al­bion had lost its magic.

EDGE - - HEAVY ON THE MAGIC -

This most quintessen­tially Bri­tish of game worlds was no longer such a green and pleas­ant land. The Industrial Revo­lu­tion had trans­formed Bow­er­stone into a fac­tory town, all belch­ing chim­neys, filthy slums and open sew­ers – grim with one ‘m’ in­stead of two. While Lion­head’s re­luc­tant to ad­mit it, when it talks about try­ing to re­cap­ture the magic of Al­bion, it’s not just re­fer­ring to tak­ing Leg­ends back to a time when Will users were more preva­lent ei­ther. “It’s an op­por­tu­nity to re­set things, and try a new di­rec­tion,” says stu­dio direc­tor Stu­art Whyte.

It’s a good time for a change. The stu­dio’s fig­ure­head, Peter Molyneux, left upon com­ple­tion of Kinect spin-off Fa­ble: The Jour­ney in 2012, by which time Lion­head had al­ready be­gun pro­to­typ­ing its next game. There is a sense in the stu­dio of one chap­ter hav­ing com­ing to a close, and a new one about to begin. “The Fa­ble sto­ry­line had nat­u­rally ended with Theresa dy­ing off,” says ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer Ge­off Smith, “so it made sense to go back be­fore­hand. But we did also want those beau­ti­ful Bri­tish fairy­tale en­vi­ron­ments. We wanted to go ru­ral.”

“The idea of go­ing hun­dreds of years prior to [ The Jour­ney], back to the start of the for­ma­tion of the Guild, and this land where there’s loads of magic and it’s ac­tu­ally re­ally danger­ous out there, seemed like a su­per-ex­cit­ing place to be,” says Whyte.

In­deed, there’s an el­e­ment of dan­ger at the core of Fa­ble Leg­ends, be­cause it rep­re­sents a bold step out­side of Lion­head’s com­fort zone. This may still be a role­play­ing game, and it still takes place in Al­bion, but it sees a tra­di­tion­ally sin­gle­player-fo­cused se­ries move firmly into the mul­ti­player arena. No one’s call­ing it a MOBA (stu­dio head John Need­ham comes clos­est, brand­ing it a “mul­ti­player on­line quest ad adventure”), but we hear League Of Leg­ends m men­tioned more than once dur­ing our visit. Is this sh shift, then, partly dic­tated by in­dus­try trends? “T “That’s def­i­nitely fair to say,” Whyte replies. “There’s a load of gamers at Lion­head, so yeah, some of those [t [trends] are kind of built into the DNA of what ha hap­pens at the stu­dio.” And if the game’s asym­met­ric ap­proach to mul­ti­player, which sees four he­roes bat­tling a lone vil­lain, doesn’t seem rad­i­cal now, it was cer­tainly un­con­ven­tional when devel­op­ment be­gan. “There are num­ber of games now talk­ing about four-ver­sus-one modes,” Whyte says. “None of them were out there when we started this process.”

It’s a more log­i­cal step for the se­ries than it ini­tially seems to be. Lion­head did, af­ter all, ten­ta­tively ex­plore the idea of co­op­er­a­tive ad­ven­tur­ing as early as Fa­ble II, even if Smith ad­mits it “hadn’t re­ally done a good job with it”. The stu­dio knew Al­bion was a good fit for a mul­ti­player game, it just needed to find the right for­mula, some­thing that was more than sim­ply an it­er­a­tive im­prove­ment on the ex­ist­ing Fa­ble tem­plate. One day, the idea of a dun­geon-mas­ter-style fifth char­ac­ter was mooted, and quickly that char­ac­ter was con­ceived as the vil­lain of the piece. Pro­to­typ­ing be­gan, and im­me­di­ately Lion­head knew it was onto some­thing.

To di­rect the new game, this Bri­tish team turned to an Amer­i­can. David Eck­el­berry has a back­ground in both Dun­geons & Dragons at US game maker Wiz­ards Of The Coast and MMOGs with Lord Of The Rings On­line de­vel­oper Tur­bine. By Oc­to­ber 2012, Lion­head had se­cured its ideal dun­geon mas­ter. Eck­el­berry is mod­est about his ex­per­tise, though he recog­nises that his ex­pe­ri­ence with the tech­ni­cal de­mands of on­line mul­ti­player games al­lowed him to help the stu­dio solve the kind of chal­lenges it hadn’t pre­vi­ously en­coun­tered. “Also, deal­ing with mul­ti­player dy­nam­ics is a very dif­fer­ent kind of prob­lem,” he says. “Whether it’s mul­ti­player bal­anc­ing or fair­ness, I’ve had to deal with that a lot in my past, be­cause RPGs are a unique thing to bal­ance. I have a tremen­dous amount of re­spect for the peo­ple who have to bal­ance shoot­ers at Treyarch and Ac­tivi­sion and [343 In­dus­tries], but I still think it’s an eas­ier job – you’re bal­anc­ing ap­ples and ap­ples.”

Which isn’t to say that Lion­head would decline to ben­e­fit from some­one with the knowl­edge of what it takes to build a mul­ti­player-fo­cused shooter:

“We still have world­build­ing as­pects, but each level has to flow like a death­match”

one of 343’s level de­sign­ers spent a week at the stu­dio play­ing the maps the team cre­ated in the game’s orig­i­nal Un­real En­gine 3 pro­to­type – which used an adapted ver­sion of the Fa­ble: The Jour­ney toolset – and ad­vis­ing the Lion­head team ac­cord­ingly. A team ac­cus­tomed to build­ing worlds for lone he­roes (all but two of the cur­rent level de­sign­ers have worked on ev­ery Fa­ble game in some ca­pac­ity) sud­denly had to learn a new skill, and this meant an in­ten­sive course in map de­sign.

“We still have world­build­ing and sto­ry­telling as­pects, but also each level has to flow like a re­playable death­match arena,” ex­plains lead con­tent designer Ben Brooks. “So there was a big learn­ing process for us in adapt­ing to that.” Over six weeks or so, each of the level de­sign team built a new arena ev­ery day. At the end of the day, ev­ery­one would play one an­other’s lev­els, which were then thrown away so that new ones could be built the fol­low­ing day. “The idea was that peo­ple wouldn’t get stuck spin­ning on one thing. We’d [en­cour­age peo­ple to] try some­thing mad, be­cause it’s only go­ing to be there for a day, and then ask, ‘Did it work?’ We gen­er­ated so many maps, and it helped build an in­stinc­tive un­der­stand­ing of what worked and what didn’t.” In­deed, the last hour and a half of ev­ery work­ing day still in­volves play ses­sions for the level de­sign team, though now it is scru­ti­n­is­ing more per­ma­nent de­signs.

Mean­while, the stu­dio’s artists and tech team were busy re­fin­ing the game’s look. Work­ing on more pow­er­ful hard­ware was an ob­vi­ous boon for art direc­tor Kelvin Tuite, though he was keen to main­tain vis­ual con­sis­tency with pre­vi­ous se­ries en­tries, which meant fol­low­ing hard rules that have been in place since day one. “Bro­ken cir­cles, cal­li­graphic lines, sweeps and strokes, and no straight lines,” he says. “Ev­ery­thing is twisted in one way or an­other. Those are the main out­line cues, but the other main thing is that colours tend to be dirty colours. There’s no pure red or pure blue – they tend to be darker rather than sat­u­rates, be­cause the light­ing will sat­u­rate them.” In­deed, such was the im­por­tance of light­ing that the stu­dio de­vel­oped its own global il­lu­mi­na­tion sys­tem, which it proudly says has been in­cor­po­rated into Un­real En­gine 4 by Epic. “It’s got to look like a stand­out new-gen game, so a lot of the ef­fort is about that,” says lead en­gine pro­gram­mer Ben Wood­house.

And yet Lion­head’s not aim­ing for ab­so­lute re­al­ism to push the hard­ware. “For me, it’s more that the tools at our

dis­posal – be­cause of the power of this ma­chine – are the kind of things that Pixar use to make a fan­tas­tic film,” says Tuite. It’s more about con­sis­tency, char­ac­ter and beau­ti­ful light­ing, he ex­plains, and Xbox One sim­ply al­lows his team to re­alise their vi­sion more ef­fec­tively than be­fore. “If you look at the first Fa­ble,” Tuite says, “they wanted that lush wood­land feel to it, but the orig­i­nal Xbox could only de­liver so much. What we’re do­ing now is [cre­at­ing] what they would have killed for back then.”

It’s cer­tainly true that Leg­ends re­tains the same dis­tinc­tive vis­ual hall­marks as pre­vi­ous Fa­bles; this is a hand­some game, yet one that’s rough-hewn in the best pos­si­ble way. It can be seen in ev­ery­thing from the hunched, bow-legged stance of ne­cro­mancer-cum-healer Leech to the houses in the game’s hub town of Bright­lodge, which are con­structed so hap­haz­ardly on top of one an­other that some end up tee­ter­ing pre­car­i­ously over sheer precipices, an­chored only by other struc­tures. Tuite is par­tic­u­larly keen to re­tain the game’s in­her­ently Bri­tish feel, which has been in­spired by il­lus­tra­tors such as Arthur Rack­ham and Brian Froud. “This chunky, wonky kind of style is part of what Fa­ble is,” he says. “It’s a world of peo­ple who don’t know how to build stuff and rely on magic to hold it all up.”

Leg­ends presents a world that will feel in­stantly familiar to fans, then, and Lion­head is keen to en­sure that feel­ing extends be­yond the way Al­bion looks. Bright­lodge, from which you set off on quests, is de­scribed by Eck­el­berry as “our new Oak­vale”, for in­stance, a wel­com­ing, rustic com­mu­nity with which you can in­ter­act us­ing ges­tures and ex­pres­sions from a very sim­i­lar ra­dial menu to that of Fa­ble II. Your quest doesn’t re­quire any hu­man com­pany, ei­ther, though you will need part­ners even for the tu­to­rial mission: you’re no longer the cho­sen one, af­ter all, but a sin­gle hero among many. Three AI al­lies will join you, and all four of you will face off against a lone AI vil­lain. In­deed, you can play through the en­tire game with­out other peo­ple if you so choose. “You’ll be able to progress through the story in the way that you would play­ing through a [regular] Fa­ble game,” says Brooks. “There’s no ‘OK, I’m go­ing to jump to this death­match’ op­tion. While it’s al­ways a four-ver­sus-one ex­pe­ri­ence, ev­ery­one else can be AI. Es­sen­tially, we want peo­ple who want to play this through as a tra­di­tional Fa­ble game to be able to do so.”

Which isn’t to say what fol­lows is Fa­ble as we cur­rently know it. There are swords and cross­bows and magic, sure, but this is a world of area-of-ef­fect at­tack­ers, marks­men, snipers, tanks and heal­ers. And yet the cadence of play is more Left 4 Dead than League Of Leg­ends; Valve’s shooter is al­luded to through­out our day at Lion­head, and not sim­ply be­cause Leg­ends is about a team of four bat­tling an evil pup­pet mas­ter. There are sto­ry­telling in­ter­ludes that al­low for some down­time, hold­ing-room equiv­a­lents that give the vil­lain a lit­tle time to pre­pare and po­si­tion the next wave of enemies while the he­roes re­group. And the fi­nal arena in each 30-minute stage brings with it a nat­u­ral es­ca­la­tion, invit­ing the he­roes to com­plete an ob­jec­tive while the vil­lain at­tempts to stop them, the lat­ter spawn­ing fresh units as ex­ist­ing ones fall. “It’s the get-to-the-chop­per mo­ment,” se­nior designer Lewis Brundish tells us, and it’s not as un­likely a com­par­i­son as it may seem.

“While it’s al­ways a four-ver­sus-one ex­pe­ri­ence, ev­ery­one else can be AI”

De­signs for Al­bion’s hig­gledy-pig­gledy houses

Stu­dio direc­tor Stu­art Whyte (top) and FableLe­gends pro­ducer Ge­off Smith

Ogres are best used by the vil­lain as a dis­trac­tion, keep­ing he­roes such as Evi­enne too busy to spot a sur­prise attack

The UI has been tweaked for the PC ver­sion, so that vil­lains can use mouse and key­board to guide their min­ions

Team make­ups aren’t ar­bi­trar­ily con­strained; you can do with­out heal­ers, though you’ll need watch your po­tion sup­ply

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