Lionhead is leading its bucolic battler, FABLE LEGENDS, into PC country. By Joe Skrebels
The last time I played a Fable Legends villain, I was using an Xbox One controller. The button presses, trigger holds and analog stick cursor movement required for that role had been refined to an ergonomic sheen by a specialised Lionhead team driven by a desire to make a perfect RTS system on an Xbox One pad.
I did OK. I downed a few heroes, opened and closed a few gates, summoned an ogre. It was good fun.
This time, on a mouse and keyboard, I am become god.
I’m not even that good at RTS games, but Fable’s small, complex arenas and concise palette of squads and mini-bosses mean that even a multitasking dunce such as I can master quick-click commands and hotkeys within a match or two.
I am ordering my Outlaw Footpads to throw bottles of controlreversing potions at heroes, just as they try to dive out of the way of medieval artillery shells. I am remotely closing gates as groups of heroes funnel through them, trapping squishy support units alone in a room with suddenly uncloaked Puck assassins. I am laughing and laughing. I am alienating the entire room. It’s brilliant.
This is partial proof that Fable Legends has improved hugely by becoming Windows 10’s gaming flagbearer. It’s what Microsoft is calling its ‘hero title’, arriving exclusively on the new OS with full cross-platform support, Xbox Live integration, and cross-play. The series may have its roots in console space, but this incarnation has been built from day one for PC play.
The continuity is of tone. It’s still a deeply British game – something its American director, David Eckelberry, happily brings up repeatedly, not least when he can’t understand a word Scouse warriornymph Evienne is saying. The story also sticks to the wider narrative, set in the same medieval world but some five centuries before the first Fable.
Lionhead’s changes to the formula, however, are widespread and fundamental. The game has shifted from the multi-faceted, moralistic RPG it once was to become an asymmetrical multiplayer showdown.
The hero team plays an arenabased, four-player battler, featuring moment-to-moment strategy, ability cooldowns, and distinctive heroes with wildly varied playstyles and personalities. Rook is a gruff soldier in exile, armed with a full-auto crossbow and the ability to resurrect fromthe brink of death. Newly revealed Malice is a tortured ghost in a haunted set of armour who prefers resurrecting others, turning the souls of dead enemies into a controllable squadron of Shades. He acts differently, plays differently, even has a more zoomed-out camera than Rook, abandoning the precision of over-the-shoulder aim for something a little better suited to keeping an eye on multiple bodies.
Every hero has a quirk, a reason for you to favour them, and synergies that should make experienced teams practically unique.
The lone villain aims to stop the heroes reaching the end of the level. They play a miniaturised RTS that casts them first as level designer – silently placing creeps and traps across self-contained battlegrounds – and second as Dungeon Master, leading enemies to their deaths through bluffs, double-bluffs and full-frontal assaults. Meanwhile, a story plays out automatically in the background somewhere.
All of which is to say that Legends draws on the current MOBA explosion, as well as Lionhead’s lost history as an offbeat strategy developer, right back to the Bullfrog days of Dungeon Keeper and Populous. It’s a melting pot of PC-centric influences. And then I found out it was free-to-play.
It steals League of Legends’ hero rotation – four heroes will be made free to use every two weeks – and Valve’s commitment to fair play, as any item that affects your abilities can be earned with in-game currency or found as loot. Only vanity items making up the pure premium content. This is a game steeped in the language, business and compulsion loops of the current online scene. It’s PC as all hell.
“Right from the off, the big thing with Fable Legends wasn’t about making a business model,” says Stuart Whyte, studio director. “It was about making a game as a service, it was about having a live game that we release but then have a relationship with our players that we’ve never had before.”
This is the final piece of the Legends puzzle: every element is part of a far wider plan than your typical AAA year-long post-release schedule. Quests will be part of seasons of storyline, released regularly, for free. Lionhead employees repeatedly talk about releasing new heroes and villain minions five or ten years down the line. They also plan to have every one tie into the storylines of earlier episodes. With enough clamour, theoretically anything could be added. Studio head John Needham points to the creativity of Steam Workshop as an inspiration (although modding is very much off the table at this point) and doesn’t even totally baulk at the idea of a PC vs Xbox event weekend to determine who the real master race is. It was just a tiny little baulk, really.
Lionhead is, for better and worse, a studio known for big promises, and much of this long-term thinking falls very much into the realm of promise. The difference here is that free-to-play gives the studio a chance to show what it has on offer at precisely no cost to sceptical fans of the older Fable games, or those left nonplussed by the 4v1 conceit.
“A few months after we announced the game, Evolve was announced,” says Eckleberry. “We had no idea that they were going to be developing something similar. The thing I like about free-to-play is that I can tell friends to play and they can’t give me any shit about it. Just play the game. For me, as a game creator, it’s so cool that there’s no barrier there. We can be incredibly fair to our players and offer them something that makes them want to play more.”
It’s as much a freedom to the designers as it is the players – and possibly as good a calling card as Microsoft could have found for their new integrated, cross-platform gaming ideals.
“Make a great game, then worry about the money,” Eckleberry says. And even then, he doesn’t want to worry about the money. “Let the business people handle that… It’s risky, but that’s a risk Microsoft is taking on, not the players. You’re not going to get scammed, it’s not that kind of game.”
Another thought occurs: “And it’s freaking Microsoft, right? We could have the most successful Xbox or Windows game ever and it wouldn’t budge Microsoft’s stock. It’s a huge company that we’re a small part of. It’s more important for us to have a great community, to be out there and say ‘hey, this is a great game that’s on Windows’. It improves gaming on Windows – not as a financial return, but in esteem and respectability. Gaming for Microsoft is a prestige project.”
Part of that prestige, it seems, lies in creating the first functional, widespread PC-console framework. The mechanics of Windows 10’s cross-platform setup were kept secret during my time with the game – the best thing that can be said for cross-platform play at this point is that I didn’t notice a difference between either format, nor any negative performance when playing with both in the same game. But there are little details that mark a positive, proactive approach.
On PC Legends is cross-controller, as well as cross-play, for a start. “If you put a controller into your PC,” Eckleberry tells me, “the moment you input it, your user interface will flip to the controller controls, and the minute you tap any key on your keyboard, it’ll flip to the keyboard controls. You could change moment-to-moment.”
That’s useful not only for changes between hero (designed initially for controller) and villain (judging by my utter domination, a neater fit for keyboard), but even between hero types. Eckleberry admits that while he prefers the precision of mouselook with a ranged character, melee play is probably better suited to a controller.
Alongside this, cross-platform cloud processing comes into play, bringing both formats’ physics, loot and end-of-quest rewards into line. Both sets of players are working towards the same Achievements, under the same restrictions and requiring the same skill levels. And, apparently, implementing all of this has been a relatively simple process. Legends’ lead Windows 10 engineer, Raymond Arifianto, is enthusiastic enough to suggest that his game is proof that any Xbox One game could, and perhaps should, end up on Windows 10 too.
“The goal from a platform perspective is to make it easy for people to do what we’re doing,” he says. “Hopefully, we’re just the tip of the spear and people will say, ‘huh! That is doable, let me think about it for my next game’.”
Beyond the intentions, promises and, let’s face it, Microsoft evangelism at work here, lies the simple fact that we could be getting an excellent multiplayer game for absolutely nothing. Every member of Lionhead’s staff perks up the moment I ask them who their favourite character is, what tactics to use as a newclass, or their best villain’s ruse. As I unsteadily lurch vampiric healer Leech behind an experienced party, a villain-playing producer cackles at every Redcap sneak attack he sends around a scenic route to take me by surprise. Developers mill about discussing hero tactics and combos throughout my entire day, questioning whether brutish fistfighter, Tipple, works best as a control user for the lethal, brittle Sterling, or alongside support mage, Winter, who can freeze his unlucky targets for him. Factions begin to appear in the studio, as people reveal themselves to prefer hero or villain play.
“There should be, and there is, something for everyone,” says executive producer Geoff Smith. “There are so many hero types to mix and match, or you can really get your teeth into the villain, which is exciting and different. It’s great fun playing against human villains – we will have AI, but against humans it’s just so much better. Humans will open gates to knock over a single human player over and over again – Stu [Stuart Whyte] does that a lot. He loves gates.”
Bear in mind that this man is primarily in charge of high-level organisation, getting the game shipshape and out of the door. He’s spending time trash-talking a colleague for their virtual gate strategies and etiquette. That central design philosophy – that the game comes first, long before the business or the technology – seemingly suffuses everyone working on Fable Legends. It’s the first thing they want to talk about, and they constantly want to play.
Above and beyond its role in the vanguard of a new operating system’s games, or the fact that it stands on the brink of a true multiplatform player base, or its general technical wizardry, this is a game that offers friends the chance to go on adventures together or to get ogres to fart on guys in big hats. Windows 10 might have offered this game a lot in development, but it’s increasingly likely that Legends will offer it more after release.