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

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