I have a problem. Sometimes, games come along that are so addictive that I begin bending my life to accommodate them.
The most recent game to enrapture me in this way was Elite: Dangerous. It starts innocently enough. You might lose an afternoon to it. Procrastinate on your hobby projects a little - until you're up at 5 am on a work night repeating to yourself "I'll do just one more mission."
In a lengthy Fable Legends playtest with the game's director, David Eckelberry, I began to realize that Fable Legends is my kind of drug.
I must admit that I've allowed the game to fly under my radar a bit. I wasn't a massive fan of the original games, and the fact Fable Legends is free to play eliminated the need to keep tabs on it for making a purchase decision. "Sure, I'll try it out, it's free after all."
However, after going hands-on at Gamescom 2015, I felt that twinge of addiction I'd attribute more to games like World of Warcraft. Most Xbox fans are probably drowning in Scalebound, Crackdown and Quantum Break hype right now, but I feel compelled to share my experiences with this game. Which I'm happy to say is now among my most anticipated 2015 titles.
Fabled Combat - Finding the action RPG sweet spot
For my demo, I went hands-on with Evienne, whose charge was to safeguard the awkwardly named 'Brobdingnagian' blade (try saying that fast three times). Evienne resented being in charge of cleaning a sword, and instead chose to wield it, becoming one of the game's premier damage classes. Playing as a damage role, I was able to get a good general overview of how the game plays in combat scenarios. I spoke to Lionhead's David Eckelberry about the game's battles, noting that previous Fable games didn't live up to my sword-swingin' expectations. He told me that Lionhead would be the first to admit that Fable's combat could've been better, noting that Fable generally won praise more for its charm and RPG systems. David told me that he bought some of his experiences from other third-person action games into creating Fable Legends' hero characters - specifically citing famed hack n' slash Devil May Cry as providing inspiration for Evienne.
At its core, Fable Legends will reward cohesive play between the different classes. I was joined by a healer called Celeste, a defensive tank called Malice, and a marksman called Rook. I took on the role as damage, as my World of Warcraft self did before me. Evienne wields a magical two-handed sword as mentioned earlier, and Fable Legends combat system really shined in this role. As a damage class, your aim as Evienne is to simply smash faces and survive. She can dodge out of trouble with graceful pirouettes, and summon a whirlwind of blades which chip away at foes health in an area of effect.
Regardless of the lacking cohesion between me and my fellow testers, combat felt fun, responsive and just plain nice. David Eckelberry cited Devil May Cry, but it felt a little more weighty than Capcom's famed hack n' slash. Evienne conjured memories of War from Darksiders - forceful but agile, and not without the occasional sarcastic quip.
Eckelberry explained that as characters level up, they'll gain access to more powerful abilities, as will the villain character in kind. So far there's ten playable heroes announced, all with their own unique skill sets, back story and designs. Those who go all-in with Fable Legends will enjoy a boatload of diversity in the combat space, not just as a hero, but also as a villain. The diversity gets multiplied when you throw in 4-player co-op, and a human controlled villain. The urge to organise and yell at my teammates for not tanking and healing properly was palpable, and, as an ex-Warcraft junkie, exhilarating.
Fable Feeling - Structure and visuals
In Fable Legends, you fight your way through quests with varied objectives. For our demo, our task was to fight through an enchanted forest. David Eckelberry cited Grimms' Fairy Tales as an inspiration for this particular area, and I'd say it was pretty close to the mark. I'm kicking myself for not asking about the DX12 elements, but Fable Legends is simply gorgeous. It might lack the sheer wow-factor of a game based in realism like Quantum Break, but that needn't matter.
The character designs are diverse and striking; the environs are densely detailed and mysterious. But what really struck me were the game's monster designs. Goblins that looked like they'd been plucked straight from Pixar and strewn through the darkness of Pan's Labyrinth, flanked by gigantic walking trees that were every bit as detailed as they were dangerous.
While Fable Legends is not photo-realistic, it displays technical prowess for a completely different reason. A couple of the stations in our play test were running the Windows 10 version of Fable Legends, to show off how the game plays cross-platform. David noted that because Fable Legends is a co-operative experience (for the most part), balancing issues between controllers and keyboard/mouse don't really factor in like they would in an FPS.
The competitive elements in Fable Legends stem from the playable villain character, who can screw with players like a Dungeons and Dragons DM. It struck me as particularly impressive how the RTS-like interface used by the villain works so seamlessly against the 4-player hero teams. The villain can spawn enemies, barriers, harmful status effects, plant mines, and commit all sorts of various nefarious acts against the heroes. There's something desirable about fighting against player-controlled enemies. It certainly evoked memories of Left 4 Dead's versus mode when the villain playing against us sent his trees after me because he saw I was low on health. Enemy A.I. doesn't often react so coldly. I should note that internal tests pin win / loss ratios between heroes and villains within 5% of each other, which is great news for competitive fairness.
As a Fable Legends newbie, I asked the game's director how it scrubs up in terms of story structure. He told me that the game is episodic, with each mission taking place in 20-30-minute bursts. You can match-make games with randoms from Xbox Live, your friends list or play entirely solo with A.I. companions. I feel that the best Fable Legends experiences, in my view, will be with other humans. Fable Legends is probably a tad too linear to be enjoyed like a typical RPG. It comes complete with Left 4 Dead-like safe rooms which provide a reprieve from the villain's onslaughts. This approach is by design, as David Eckelberry explained. The team at Lionhead set out to do "something different" to the previous titles.
Something different indeed! As we found out earlier this year, Fable Legends is free to play.
Free Fable - DLC, loot and monetization
I asked game director David Eckelberry if Lionhead had given any thought to end game. What will keep players coming back once they'd finished the episodes? I realised I was already trying to pigeon-hole Fable Legends into an MMO-box. It's free to play, there are class roles, and perhaps most importantly, there's loot. He compared Fable Legends to Destiny, but fell short of saying it would see similar raid content for larger teams. 4-player is the sweet spot for Fable Legends, but that doesn't mean there isn't going to be epic challenges for those who get to the end.
Besides the obvious DLC characters, extra episodes and the possibility of expansions, Fable Legends will monetize itself by being addictive. Armour is tiered; some items are super rare. The loot is randomized based on quality, and you can purchase the ability to open more chests using in-game currency or real money in the game's cities. Any items that are purchasable outright are purely cosmetic. David Eckelberry assured me that all of Fable Legends' content could be unlocked through regular play. Indeed, he seemed proud to reply with a big "yes" when I asked if players could experience everything without paying a dime (or a quid, for us Brits).
Fable Legends is what you'd get if you crossed Left 4 Dead's versus mode with Diablo's loot addiction and Darksiders' responsive action combat. There's another game that attempted something similar: Dragon Age Inquisition. While DA:I's multiplayer was okay, it's quite clear that the engine wasn't designed for co-operative action. In single player, you control four characters, and the combat leans more on strategy and planning. In multiplayer, the combat isn't responsive enough when you're stuck controlling one guy, in my view. DA:I also has random loot, purchasable with real money, it also has gear upgrades, the elements of addiction - but for me, the engine simply wasn't up to scratch. The scary thing about Fable Legends is that it is up to scratch.
Not only is the combat top-notch, but it features two over-arching narratives, whether you choose to play as a villain or a hero. The Microsoft Azure-wizardry that enables villains to send controlled monsters and obstacles into the fray is laudable. And, ultimately, that little voice that wails "moar loot" as you're playing wide-eyed at 5 am will become amplified because of the quality game on top of it. Destiny hooked me in for a little while, as did Elite Dangerous, but both are lacking in pretty important areas. I now know that Fable Legends combines that dreaded loot addiction with responsive and satisfying action-RPG combat. It's also free to play. I began to realise that all Fable Legends need to seal my fate is a narrative worth caring about and the promise of further support down the line. And after talking to the game's director, it certainly seems to have those too. Oh dear.
David Eckelberry was never afraid to mention other games while describing Fable Legends: World of Warcraft came up, League of Legends, Left 4 Dead, Devil May Cry, Telltale Games. While many other titles fail to marry the elements of various other genres, Fable Legends looks to have done so with confidence and panache.
As someone prone to loot addiction, that prospect is terrifying. In the best possible way.
Fable Legends launches in Q4 2015 for Xbox One and Windows 10.