Four-player co-op is all the rage at this year's E3, but like Turtle Rock's Evolve, Lionhead's upcoming Fable Legends is letting you take on the role of the villain as well as the hero. I'll confess that I'm not the biggest Fable fan out there, but its Villain mode is a very different beast to the traditional Fable fare. That's not to say its regular third-person combat isn't enjoyable. Indeed, playing as the ranged character Rook, I had some fun taking on monsters with his ranged arrow attacks, and blowing them up with his explosive bolt ability while trying to co-ordinate with my co-op chums.
But it was Villain mode that I found most compelling. I grew up with top-down Bullfrog games like Dungeon Keeper and Populous, and perhaps it's because there's more than a hint of those classic franchises when playing the villain that I found it so impressive. As the villain, you're given a top-down view of the map and equipped with a bunch of different units that you can send in to take down the heroes. Before each quest begins you're given a set amount of time to set up the map by placing different units and traps around it. The amount of time you're given varies from quest to quest, but in the demo I played, there was just a mere 60 seconds to get things set up.
Naturally, this meant most of the units were left in their default positions. Lionhead told me that those playing as the villain in single-player mode setting up the perfect attack can save those layouts for use in multiplayer, which is a useful addition if you'd rather take your time setting things up. Once the quest begins, the heroes storm into the play area, and from there you can start sending units in to attack. I was worried that the control system might be a little finicky given that few real-time strategy games have made the transition to console in the right way, but Fable Legends has made a few concessions for the controller.
Your four unit classes are assigned directly to the face buttons, so rather than highlight a unit to move it, you just select where you want it to go and hit the relevant button. With unit types automatically grouped together, you do lose some fine control, meaning you can only move individual classes, not units within a class. However, the system's ease of use more than makes up for it; because you can select and move units so easily, it makes for some fast-paced combat. As the heroes moved in, I could easily send in a group of my melee class to surround them, while laying some suppressing fire from afar with my archers.
Holding down the right trigger launched special attacks, which needed to be charged between each use. For the melee units this meant going into a rage, dealing double damage, while the archers launched smoke bombs to confuse the team. Having been on the receiving end of those smoke bombs earlier, I can certainly vouch for just how confusing those smoke bombs made things. Another unit I had was able to launch mortars, which--when combined with the smoke bombs--did some seriously impressive damage to the heroes.
Unfortunately, launching the mortars and arrows gave away my ranged units' positions, making it easier for the heroes to find them and take them down. You're given units in waves, with each wave giving you additional units, ramping up the difficulty for the heroes. Given the tactical advantage you have playing as the villain, your units have much less health than the heroes, making them relatively easy to take down once found. The key to victory was trying to separate the heroes from one another, weakening their attacking strength. Gates scattered around the map could be activated at will, letting me separate the group and concentrate my efforts on a lone hero.
With a range of smoke bombs, arrows, mortars, and the invisibility ability of one of my units, it wasn't long before I'd taken down two of the four heroes. Amusingly, this meant the remaining pair spent much of their time trying to revive them, which made them an easy target for the mortar as they stood around their fallen comrades. While they did eventually decide to stop trying to revive their teammates and come find my units, they were far too weak to take on the next wave. A few more well-placed attacks later and victory was mine.
I might well have tapped into my evil side with Fable Legends. If griefing a bunch of strangers at a demo booth was this satisfying, I can't wait to find out what it's like to do it with a group of friends. This is also the first time that I've been tempted to give the Fable series a go again, something I haven't really done properly since Fable II; I do wonder whether playing against the AI is going to be anywhere near as compelling as playing against a human player, though. But for now, this is the most impressed I've been with a Fable game in ages, and I'll certainly be hitting up Xbox Live when the multiplayer beta launches on the Xbox One this holiday.