The watchword, however, is ‘accessibility’.
Fable has traditionally appealed to a wide audience, and no one at Lionhead wants that to change, though some characters will be easier to learn than others. Our first game sees us take control of Evienne, a warrior wielding a magical sword, which she swings with taps of the right trigger, building simple combos while dodging incoming attacks with a responsive left-bumper evade. As with all the other characters, her specials are bound to the face buttons and are gradually unlocked as you finish arenas as well as being subject to cooldown timers. Plague doctor lookalike Leech, meanwhile, proves more of a challenge: his primary offensive move involves keeping a crosshair trained on enemies to drain their life, building up a meter that can be expended on healing allies, though it’s also depleted when you deploy his defensive ability, which conveys temporary invulnerability. The trick is to stay close to an assault-class hero for the boost gained by draining creatures that are currently taking damage. The controls may be straightforward, but there is depth in how powers are combined, and with over a dozen heroes to pick from, those combinations are plentiful.
In a game where communication is key and a universe whose characters are rarely quiet, it’s no surprise to discover that Legends reserves the A button for conversation. Press it during combat and you’ll hear your hero issue out a context-sensitive remark, such as a warning, revive request, or general observation. Holding areas feature quest-specific NPC chatter and you can press A once more to interject – the responses varying depending on which hero you’re controlling (Brooks says the studio has assembled a “relationship matrix” to determine the dynamics between characters, since not all heroes get along). It’s another way to encourage repeat plays, of course, but it also allows players to determine their personal level of engagement with the story. “There can be as much or as little as you want,” Brooks says. “Diehard Fable fans will go looking for narrative tidbits with all characters, but we expect a spread. Any game that gets fairly popular, which we’re hoping to be, the second half of your fans are people to whom somebody said, ‘Hey, you should try this game’. Whether that’s Madden or FIFA or Halo – I mean, I’m a casual Halo fan, but I couldn’t explain the lore to you – we want that player to have a good time and understand what’s going on, even if they don’t understand the last ten per cent. And I’m OK with that.”
Heroes are, of course, only one side of the equation. “We want both sides to create fun gameplay while trying to win,” Eckelberry says. “Our villain makes the game fun for the heroes while trying to kill them. A good dungeon master is trying to tell a good story and creating a threat that you can barely handle. This guy is trying to make a threat that you can’t.” If Legends as a hero is like playing an RPG with a hint of MOBA, then playing the villain is more akin to a realtime strategy game. “RTS isn’t usually done terribly well on console,” Brundish says, “so we really wanted to focus on how we do something like an RTS with a controller.”
Unit selection has been smartly streamlined, with each group of creatures assigned to a different face button. To command a cabal of melee outlaws to attack, for example, we aim our cursor at the heroes and press X. The right trigger, meanwhile, allows you to launch special attacks, allowing archers to set up smoke clouds and our hardy Pucks to briefly become invisible – beginner’s ambush tactics, perhaps, but not ineffectual ones, it transpires. Later on, we get a little more experimental, shifting mines and raising gates to not so much trap heroes as launch them as they walk by. With a limited number of points to spend on forces, we sacrifice two melee units for an Ogre, trapping it in a room with two heroes and unleashing a potent guff attack. It’s not quite enough: by the end, all four heroes are out of potions and two are down, but their objective is reached.
Not that we should be too downhearted. To Lionhead, this is the most difficult role to master. “The villain is much more ‘hardcore’, if we want to use that term,” Smith tells us. That’s by design, of course, as only one-fifth of Legends players will be able to assume the role. “It’s important we get that ratio right,” he says. “If we made the villain phenomenally accessible, everyone would play the villain and we’d have no heroes.”
Our immediate concern that a minute isn’t a long time to set things up is quickly assuaged. Preset layouts can be quickly modified, and villains will be able to tinker with strategies in their own time, loading them in once they’ve perfected their masterplan for an arena, rather than always having
to race against the clock. We observe that a tablet interface seems ideal for villains. “We did experiment with that early on, and we’re still working with that at the moment, but all we’ve got to show at the moment is the controller-based [setup],” Brundish says. Days later, we discover Legends is heading to PC, and will stream to Windows 10 devices. The gains for same-room multiplayer could be immense, especially given the most satisfying feedback for a villain is the cries of unfortunate heroes caught in a devious trap.
Since this is a game in which Microsoft has invested substantially – with an ambitious five- to ten-year plan in place, its publisher hopes this is a fairytale that can delay its happily ever after for a while – there are plenty of extrinsic hooks in place. Villains will be able to recruit new creatures to their cause, expanding their repertoire. Hero players will be able to level up their character and unlock new gear, such as outfits and weapons, upgrading their equipment at Brightlodge’s blacksmith. There will be minigames in the hub, too: could Legends really be a
Fable game without the chance to kick some chickens? “But at its heart, it’s got to be fun,” Whyte says. “We talked about Left 4 Dead earlier; what keeps those players coming back? It’s just a great game. So longer term for us, it’s going to be the variety that comes out of the weaponry and the customisation and the hero types, but also the range of the creatures and traps that the villain can have.”
Yet as a story-driven series, the structure is necessarily unconventional. The pitch, then, is to introduce new stories in the form of TV-style seasons, each containing quest arcs, optional side missions, new heroes, creatures and gear. Eckelberry won’t be drawn on details of the main story, alluding only to “a certain antagonist that the villagers are scared of and the heroes have to confront”, but we know that it will be accompanied by light-hearted sidequests. “They’re more just romping, rollicking fun, and wackiness-driven, like you’d expect from Fable sidequests.”
Legends has been in gestation for more than two years at this stage, and Eckelberry admits it’s been a steep learning curve for everyone at Lionhead, but with the first season almost finished, future content should follow fairly regularly. If the finer details need thrashing out, the outline is firmly in place. “An exact time period isn’t possible for me to judge, and we’ve talked about having seasons of different lengths – like how a British season of a TV show is sometimes shorter than an American one. We’d like seasons to have somewhere between six to ten hours of content, at least, and that I imagine takes six to nine months to build. That’s kind of ballpark-y, but that’s our best guess in terms of continuing to release new seasons of content.”
It’s worth pointing out that the figure only takes a single playthrough into account, and the director is confident that players will have plenty of reasons to return. Then again, he’s under no illusions that Legends is a risk, and he’s acutely aware that finding the balance between the immediacy that will allow
Fable players to feel at home and the longterm depth and nuance of its multiplayer peers will be a challenge that persists as long as the game does. Indeed, even during development it’s already thrown up unexpected hurdles.
“One of the challenges with multiplayer,” he explains, “is that the game moves only as slowly as its fastest player. So when [one player] runs ahead, [the others] have to run and catch up. Whoever moves first will pull the whole team ahead – the Leeroy Jenkins syndrome, if you will. But it does mean that the pace of the multiplayer game will always be a little bit faster than you expect, and it’s sometimes surprised us, even in the beta environments. But there’s enough elasticity in the design to support a few screw-ups.”
It’s a game that’s aiming to offer something for everyone – and that involves allowing players to play with whoever they choose. So while heroes’ stats and weapons will improve, the levelling curve will never escalate to a point where it prevents a group of friends from playing together. “It’s not meant to be an MMOG,” Eckelberry says. “If I want to play with you in World Of Warcraft but I’ve just signed up to [it] ten years in and you’re a level-100 character, I can’t play with you. Not meaningfully. So it’s all done via matchmaking. Even after that, if I’m playing, say, Inga for the first time, I’m still a better tank than you playing Leech or Sterling, even if you have the best gear ever. That’s not true in MMOGs, but it’s true of Fable Legends.”
Lionhead remains coy about a release date, but the game is under testing as you read this, with a limited closed beta helping the studio to tweak its balancing. As Eckelberry concedes, while there are smart people within Lionhead who can solve problems internally, it’s undoubtedly handy to have several extra pairs of eyes and hands to assist with the fine tuning. But if balance is vital in a game of this nature, the ultimate aim is a very simple one. “We want to make a fair and fun game for everyone,” Eckelberry tells us. “I can’t promise that every hero will be perfectly balanced, but making every hero fun to play as is absolutely mission goal one.”
In some ways that’s no less ambitious an aim than the outlandish promises made about previous Fables, though it’s a much more grounded objective. And perhaps this post-Molyneux Lionhead attitude is summed up by the final mission we play. “This quest is called Moon On A Stick,” says Brooks with a wry smile. It’s typical of the self-effacing humour for which the series is cherished. Legends might well be a departure from established formula, but it’s unmistakably Fable.
“One of the challenges is that the game moves only as slowly as its fastest player”
LEFT There’s a satisfying metallic snap whenever Rook fires a crossbow bolt.
RIGHT Pucks are elusive foes, able to cloak themselves from heroes’ sight
Fable Legends’ director David Eckelberry has a background in Dungeons & Dragons
Villains can trigger a Bloodlust special for Redcap melee units, in which they attack faster and their blows deal more damage