Fable Legends: Albion goes online in Lionhead's riskiest adventure - Games Weekly

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Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Fable Legends: Albion goes online in Lionhead's riskiest adventure

Most long-running videogame series are easy to define: in a sentence, you can get to the heart of what makes them tick. Fable is a little different. Loosely speaking, it’s a light-hearted role-player where your decisions shape the narrative, but that doesn't really cover what’s special about it. So what do we want from a Fable game? For us, Geoffrey Rush in Shakespeare in Love always springs to mind: “comedy, love, and a bit with a dog”. Fable Legends, however, is more ‘crossbows, swords and a bit with a pumpkin’. We’re still in Albion, but this is an action-focused tale of four Heroes battling a Villain and their minions in objective-based arenas.

It seems quite the departure. Instead of developing your own Hero, you’re invited to choose from a range of existing champions, all of whom fulfil roles that will be familiar to just about anyone who’s played a multiplayer game in recent years. There are assault or melee-class characters, ranged combatants, tanks and healers. These aren’t new ideas, but they’re new to Fable.

And yet anyone who’s played a Fable game before will feel at home before they jump into the fray. Before you take on a quest, you’ll find yourself in the welcoming bosom of Bright lodge, your home town. “It's our new Oakvale,” director David Eckelberry explains. “[Here] you'll have a lot of the familiar Fable experiences. You'll be able to login and see your friends playing online. You can interact with merchants and NPCs.” Happily, Fable II’s expression wheel is back so you can burp, fart and kick chickens to your heart’s content.

Albion itself looks quite different from when we last saw it Fable III’s industrial revolution transformed Bowerstone into Dourstone, a grimy, ugly factory town. Getting the magic back meant ditching the machinery, and so we’ve zoomed back in Albion’s timeline to before the original Fable. Old Albion is leafy and pretty, but it’s a very British type of rural idyll. ‘No straight lines’ is the design mantra, and so these Heroes are quite the motley bunch. Take Tipple, for example, a mead-swilling tank who’s only here to pay off his drinking debts. He’s a far cry from the buff, chisel-jawed all-American archetype or the lean, spiky protagonists of Japanese fantasy. The rakish, preening Sterling apart, the Heroes all look like they could do with a good wash.

Legendary Fighter
For our first scrap, we pick Evienne like most Heroes, her backstory is a twist on established convention, keeping a sword she’s supposed to pass on to a future Hero for herself. It transpires she’s handy with said blade, too. Devil May Cry might be an optimistic comparison, but we see what Lionhead’s driving at she’s nimble and strong, with a left-bumper dodge that sees her somersault out of an enemy’s reach, while stringing together sword combos with the right trigger. Face buttons are reserved for specials, including a forceful thrust and a temporary buff to attack power and speed, subject to cooldown timers.

Having defeated the first few waves of goblin-like creatures, we’re left in a holding area. Here we find out how a farmer struck a deal with some kind of woodland creature to increase the size of his vegetables for competition. Press A during these interludes and you’ll hear your Hero deliver a line relevant to the plot indeed, they can do this in lulls between skirmishes. “The idea is to give players the level of narrative engagement they want,” Eckelberry adds. It makes sense if, as Lionhead hopes, players return to replay these stages. On repeat visits you’ll notice subtle differences; the relationship dynamics between team members will affect the flow of conversation. In short, not all Heroes get along.
The relationship dynamics between team members will affect the flow of conversation
We’re waiting because the Villain is busy setting up his units. This is the other side to Legends’ asymmetric equation, an RTS-like mode that initially feels like setting up your team’s formation in FIFA. It’s more fun than choosing between 3-5-2 and 4-3-3, mind: you can deploy mines and Ogres, whose guffs are so potent they can damage any Heroes in the toxic cloud.

Directing your troops is simple enough each group of units is bound to a face button, so directing them is a case of aiming and tapping rather than selecting individual minions. In truth, the visual feedback to Villainy is a little lacking, though it’s compensated for by the worried yelps of Heroes in peril.

As the end nears, the Heroes will be given one final objective destroying a maypole to prevent villagers becoming possessed by freaky pumpkin voodoo, for example while downed Villain units can respawn. It’s a natural escalation, and it’s not uncommon to see a team of four dwindle to one or two plucky survivors. Victory isn’t always binary, either. By the time the Heroes lift the curse, half the townsfolk have already succumbed. As such, both sides earn XP: the Villain to welcome new units, the Heroes to buy or upgrade gear.

It’s not the Fable you might have expected, then, but we’re not sure that matters: Legends sparkles with the magic and warmth that makes Albion such a pleasure to spend time in. Lionhead has given us a bit of what we want, and a lot of what we didn’t know we wanted. All we need now is a release date. Oh, and a bit with a dog.

Stage Debut
Fable Legends' theatrical opening act
Once you’ve picked your quest, you’ll get to watch a 2D picture-book style fresco, which provides some narrative context for the impending battle, while masking load times. “i'm really passionate about giving players agency all of the time,” content design lead Ben Brooks tells us. “so we’re aiming to make [these] interactive as well.” it’s a hybrid of theatre and pop-up book, and will collapse to reveal the real albion as the four heroes stride into view.

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