Hands-on with Fable The Journey: can Lionhead’s experiment redefine Kinect?

“Oh my god, this looks shit!” Fable: The Journey’s creative director Gary Carr laughs as he recalls the hostile reaction to the game’s E3 debut. “Normally you get a free pass when you’re previewing something. People say, “it’s early code, it’s unfinished, that’s okay,” but this was different: we quickly realised that this wasn’t a game you could understand by watching it. We needed to get it into people’s hands.” The reception since, it’s fair to say, has been a little warmer.

And rightly so, too. Three hours in Albion demonstrates several fine uses of a capricious piece of technology. In a game full of wild creatures, Lionhead has managed to tame the most unruly beast of all: Kinect. User motions are intuitive and accurately read by the camera, and there are one or two clever tricks that work around the device’s lack of precision.

Chief among these is aftertouch, a smart way to guide wayward spells to the right place. Hold your hand up to your shoulder and fire the default Bolt spell, and more often than not the glowing blue orb will head straight towards its target. Occasionally you’ll misfire, at which point you can guide the projectile in mid air, dragging it across and down to smite a Hollow Man, perhaps. Indeed, it’s often more entertaining to deliberately miss, then to suddenly change the spell’s path mid-flight to take out an enemy crouched behind cover. There’s a generous amount of invisible assistance here to compensate for Kinect’s idiosyncrasies, but crucially it never feels like you’re not in control. In other words, it’s a very convincing fudge.

These shooting galleries play rather like a Kinect-controlled arcade shooter: Time Crisis: Albion Edition, if you will. You travel between these set-pieces riding a cart pulled by your horse, Seren, who fulfils a similar role to Fable II’s dog, as the animal you’re encouraged to bond with. She’s a believable steed, beautifully rendered and expertly animated, a vital factor in making the player care about – and for – her.

To which end, you can slow down over rocky ground to avoid injuring her hooves, or yank the reins to bring her to a halt at rest stops where you can gently pull arrows out of her flanks. Larger camps allow you to pump water into a trough for Seren to drink, or to reach upwards to pluck an apple from an overhanging branch before holding your hand out to feed her. Even those unconcerned with the wellbeing of a digital animal may be tempted to take time out for a bit of equestrian husbandry, with each action contributing additional experience points towards your next spell upgrade.

If the motions for all these interactions are instinctive, Lionhead takes great pains to ensure players are getting them right. The unfortunate side-effect is a rather staccato rhythm to the early game, but Carr believes such interruptions were necessary to make the rest more enjoyable. “Very early in development, Peter [Molyneux] said “no tutorials in this game”, and we did intend to do that,” he admits. “But one of the things we found through user research is that if people are trained incorrectly or not at all, they’ll just play on with their mistakes. We’ve seen so many people not correcting themselves and so we revised some of the gameplay so that we could teach people best practice early in the game to make it easier to understand.”

It’s certainly thorough but noticeably less intrusive as you progress futher through Albion in the shoes of amiable daydreamer Gabriel. This likeably shiftless traveller may be the protagonist, but once again the world is the real star: a leafy, inviting setting that begs you to explore it even if, as is the case here, you’re unable to venture off-piste. A standout early sequence sees you negotiate a winding road that eventually leads out onto the coast, an expansive vista lit by a low-hanging sun, with angry clouds swirling around the Spire on the horizon, and the city of Bowerstone gradually looming into view.

“It’s the prettiest Fable’s ever been”, claims Carr proudly, and after witnessing this scene it’s hard to argue. It might even be the prettiest the Unreal Engine has ever been, too. “We basically switched to Unreal because we spend two years making a game and about 18 months of that we’re waiting for the engine guys to finish writing the tech,” explains Carr. “Now the artists can put their stuff in the engine and iterate on it rather than cramming to get their stuff looking right. It was a smart decision that Peter Molyneux made.”

Indeed, the influence of Molyneux still lingers, even given his well-publicised departure from the company he founded 15 years ago. The Journey began life as an extension to Fable III, a familiar tale of a Molyneux promise unkept, as the team ran out of time to fully implement it in a meaningful way. “We didn’t want to shoehorn Kinect into the game and do it a disservice,” Carr recalls. After Molyneux’s other pet project, the infamous Milo And Kate (Carr affectionately refers to it as “a Pinocchio game”) fell through, Lionhead suddenly had a wealth of tech answers going spare, and the perfect game to raise the right questions.

“Seated play came across from Milo,” says Carr, “and then there was the audio empathy, where the game can hear the tone or timbre of your voice. So, for example, when you get to camps and you call the horse over she’ll twitch, she’ll look, she’ll come over to you based on your tone of voice. And the sorcery came from this little water-bomb minigame.”

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