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Games of 2014: Fable Legends prepares for its season premiere on Xbox One

By Chris Schilling on Friday 24th Jan 2014 at 7:00 PM EST

How apt that Lionhead should choose to demonstrate the first major new Fable release (spin-offs and remakes notwithstanding) of the post-Molyneux era with a mission where you're tasked with retrieving an artefact called The Moon on a Stick. After all, the studio's former head spent many years in charge of the Guildford-based studio and the Fable franchise, promising the same while never quite delivering on his audacious visions.

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Legends has equally grand plans, though it's ambitious in a very different way. With Microsoft's Head of European Publishing now in the boss's seat, it's fair to say the publisher's taking a more hands-on role with the IP: John Needham is already talking of a 5-10-year plan for the game, depending on how long the current console generation lasts.

Fable Legends will run on the new Unreal Engine 4, with Lionhead aiming for "cutting-edge visuals", while offering regular updates via the cloud.Second-in-command Stuart Whyte claims Legends has an "online Fable with friends vibe", yet anyone expecting Fable IV under a different name may not get quite what they bargained for.

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That's because Fable Legends is more dungeon crawler than RPG, with a primary focus on combat. You'll be spending less time interacting with townsfolk, expanding your property portfolio and moulding your own hero through moral choices, and more time tackling bite-sized MMO-style quests with up to four other players. A hub city offers a range of asides, with jobs, pub games and other activities, but it isn't where the real action is. Fingers crossed you can still let off steam between rounds by launching an air biscuit or punting poultry, two of Fable's most popular staples.

This time, your chosen hero isn't a blank slate but an established archetype. Among the available characters to choose from are a foppish, narcissistic swordsman, a mage who specialises in ice spells, and a burly warrior wielding a crossbow. So while in previous Fable games you could switch between strength, skill and will attacks on the fly, here you're asked to specialise. By narrowing the focus, the new set-up will allow for a wider range of attacks, so the combat should theoretically be deeper and more complex, even if you've less freedom within your chosen role.

The fifth player, meanwhile, has the job of stopping these heroes from completing their goal. Viewing the action from a safe distance (malevolent overlords don't like to get their hands dirty, after all) the villain of the piece can call in waves of Hobbes, Balverines and trolls, or use tricks and traps to stall, snare or separate. They can also use their phone or tablet to prepare their plan of attack in advance thanks to the game's SmartGlass functionality.

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It's pushing in a different direction then, but is this the right decision? Fable's combat has always been fun in an immediate kind of way, but that's never really been its defining feature. You could argue, perhaps, that the more traditional role-playing elements of the series have been streamlined over the course of three mainline entries, with Fable III in particular attracting criticism for stripping away a little too much. Yet Legends takes that idea a step further.

Yet elsewhere, it retains much of what the series' fans fell in love with in the first and second instalments. Albion remains one of the most appealing game worlds around, a warm, picturesque fantasy setting that the new game engine brings to life more vividly than ever.

It's also still defined by its raucous (and defiantly British) sense of humour, its heroes sharing witty badinage and quips in a range of regional accents. This is precisely what makes the series stand out among its peers: other fantasy titles have darker, more serious sides, whereas Fable leans towards a gentler, more whimsical take on swords-and-sorcery questing.

That long-term plan, then: Microsoft aims to expand the core game over time, and as such is demanding a fresh approach to the game's development. Already, Legends is up and running within Lionhead, a base for coders and artists alike to build upon. The publisher claims that new game types will be added to it in the months and years after launch, though that process will no doubt be costly over such a period of time.

Taking an educated guess, it's likely that certain items, upgrades and costumes - even game modes - will be monetised. Quite apart from the labour, something has to pay for its online infrastructure, with Microsoft using around 300,000 cloud servers to power Xbox Live. If that's the case, it's crucial that Lionhead balances it in such a way that players aren't pressured too heavily into paying, nor feel at a disadvantage if they don't.

And talking of pressure, it's certainly on for Fable Legends - and, indeed, the series itself. After the mixed reaction to XBLA scrapper Fable Heroes and Kinect spin-off The Journey - not to mention the general disappointment with Fable III - Lionhead has a lot to prove. Fable is still successful and well-liked, but is Microsoft's release plan placing too heavy a burden on slender shoulders?

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Historically it's always been a fun, breezy if slightly lightweight kind of game: the mainline entries have been engaging enough for the time it takes to finish them, but that doesn't necessarily mean that they could support a userbase for five years or more and hold players' attention for that length of time.

Lionhead has suggested, however, that fresh stories may be folded into the mix at regular intervals, and that Legends may be considered Season One of an ongoing narrative. It's likely we'll see more games like this during the new console generation, games that offer a steady flow of episodic content.

The model could arguably be likened to a subscription to a premium cable TV channel: creators offering new stories and new twists over the course of several seasons. It's a change of tack for the series, but one that may prove to be the right move in the long run. As long as it doesn't outstay its welcome, that is; to continue the TV analogy, we'd rather end up with a Breaking Bad on our hands than a Dexter.

All these questions and more are yet to be answered, though we'll surely be closer to finding them out when the game goes into public beta later this year, ahead of a possible fourth-quarter launch. And who knows? Maybe this time Lionhead really will deliver the moon on a stick.

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