E3 2014: Fable Legends Preview

Fables has had an uneven legacy at best. Under Peter Molyneux’s tender but hyperbolic wing, it was originally going to be the Xbox RPG that ended all other RPGs, with such detailed—but pointless—features like planting trees and having them grow as your character progressed, and children imitating your haircut if you became sufficiently popular. While the series never did quite reach those lofty heights of inane detail, it did allow for polygamy, sexually transmitted diseases and the kicking of chickens, though none of these activities are necessarily related to each other. Now, with Fable Legends, a Molyneux-less Lionhead Studios tackles this Xbox exclusive franchise one more time and boldly goes where no RPG has gone before; four versus one multiplayer.

Wanted: Sadistic Dungeon Masters

Someone over at Lionhead is obviously a big Dungeon Keeper fan and wants to keep the concept of that game—an evil mastermind constructing lethal dungeons for hapless adventurers—alive. Rather than show off the main campaign, Lionhead took five players through the new multiplayer component, and it’s a radical departure from what has come before.

The new multiplayer game mode Fable Legends is a bizarre mix of four players teaming up cooperatively against one player taking on the role of “villain.” Villain, in this case, is more accurately thought of as “dungeon master,” because this player can lay traps, drop barricades, set up enemies and take control of them as players struggle to find and defeat the force laid out against them. In a way, it’s the answer to something many tabletop RPG fans have always criticized as a major weakness of videogame RPGs; the inability for a cunning, improvisational human to get in the driver’s seat and challenge the heroes.

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The new multiplayer mode plays host to four traditional character classes, with a slow heavy hitting melee fighter, faster rapier wielding melee fighter, magical ranged and bow ranged characters teaming up. The dungeon, with its traps, gates, monsters and bosses, is under the control of “the villain,” a human player that volunteers to be the one that makes the lives of the others challenging or miserable. This all seems good in theory, but how does it actually play out? Well, if you’re experiencing in the controlled “laboratory conditions” of an E3 demo with developers coaching everyone, it works out pretty well.

The Importance Of Cunning

As with a tabletop game of Dungeons & Dragons, the quality a Fable Legends multiplayer experience is going to depend on the mix of players in general and the effectiveness of the villain/dungeon master in particular. In the sessions held during E3, with everyone playing the game for the very first time, the villain had a dedicated “coach” in the form of one of the Lionhead Studios developers. As a result, the villain during my particular demo wasn’t so much strategizing as he was diligently taking every “suggestion” of the developer as gospel for barricade placement, trap activation and monster activity. The practical result of this was that four newbie players were going up against an experienced “villain’s advisor” who was quite effective at harassment and derailment techniques.

In the hands of someone that knows what they’re doing, walls or gates will suddenly block access, monster hordes will spawn right when you’re at you’re at most exposed, and bosses will appear when it is the worst time possible for you. Conversely, if someone lacks a flair for strategy and creativity, such dungeons will be a brief, shameless exercise in easy XP as players stumble through with little or no  challenge at all.

On one hand, this is a fantastic opportunity for some players to showcase their game design instincts and provide a truly fun, perhaps even frustrating adventure that everyone can enjoy and talk about afterwards, just like the very best D&D tabletop campaigns. On the other hand, designing and running a fun dungeon is not something everyone can do, and honestly, most people are quite bad at it. In the same way that only a handful of outstanding user-created levels have come out of LittleBigPlanet over the years, the same can be said of this unique four versus one multiplayer mode. It’s doubtful that every player that takes the role of villain will have both the improvisational skill and tactical sadism required to create a challenging, exciting dungeon adventure. HOWEVER, those lucky players that do have such a person in their circle of friends will enjoy dungeon crawling adventures far superior to most, and on a regular basis, without having to wait for a “content update” or new DLC from a studio. There’s an enormous amount of promise in what Lionhead is creating with this new mode. How many people will have the unique sensibility required to make this shine is another question entirely, but it’s bold of Lionhead to have this much trust in the gaming community at large. Hopefully, their faith will be rewarded.

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