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PREVIEW

FABLE: THE JOURNEY

It's refreshing to have a lead character who's a bit of a twat.

And it's very easy to think that of Gabriel, given Lionhead spend the opening hour of Fable: The Journey emphasising that he's a useless, unheroic waste of space.

Good-natured maybe, but a slacker, and when caught between saving a blind woman or outrunning the danger that threatens to kill both of them, he initially chooses the latter. That for a split-second you actually believe he won't change his mind shows how swiftly the studio's impressed his core characteristics upon you.

It's only his unwavering devotion to his ageing horse Saren that we find anything of value to his personality. And it's precisely in this that we manage to find some connection with him.

Fable: The Journey

He loves the horse, and by virtue of the fact that this is a Fable title were the perspective is first-person and a huge part of the game is centred around our interaction with Saren - so do we. And so we start finding some bond with this character to whose hands we control and destiny we forge with the hope that something salvageable can be found within him.

That's the initial arc of the story too. It's traditional fantasy trope, but given the Fable spin. So we observe the potential epicentre of the world's (new) doom not at point-blank range, but as a distant landmark far from the dirt trails of our horse and carriage. Gabriel's imbued with magical spell-casting powers, but immediately wants rid of them. In observing a destruction-filled future through a scrying pool, he's moved only by the seeming death of his four-legged companion. The blind woman turns out to be a seeress, but between eulogising about the old ways during their journey together lashes Gabriel with a barbed tongue.

Much like the Discworld series there's a careful balancing act between comedy and seriousness, and what emerges is a warmth in both character and setting that makes for an engaging experience from the off - though in the hour's slot we have to play the game we only have time for initial introductions of these characters and the game's big bad, tutorials in controlling horse and carriage, and round off just after the game's introduced the spell-casting element as Gabriel's granted a pair of mystical gauntlets.

Fable: The Journey

It's definitely not enough time to see whether the biggest worry about the game - strict linearity in routes that honeycomb the game map - is unfounded or not, but long enough to make us settle in and be intrigued enough by the prospect of seeing where this adventure will lead us.

It's a Kinect game that feels like its been in development forever - who knows exactly how long Lionhead have been working at it before its unveiling last year, but it definitely adds an extra layer of pressure for the Kinect controls to be flawless.

The result so far is not brilliant.

Issues really came to the fore with spell-casting. Twice during the tutorial session that they're introduced Kinect was having issues recognising our movements, asking whether we wanted to recalibrate or stick to default settings. It'd be doing a bang-up job up to then, so we stuck with the defaults.

The setup for spell-casting is fairly simple. Raise either left or right hand, palm out and bring back to the same shoulder, then push out to either launch a bolt (right) or push an object or enemy away (left). There's additional stuff, like raising an arm to block attacks, leaning from side to side to move about a room or dodge dangers, but striking or pushing enemies is the barest of basics.

Lionhead has stuck in an aftertouch on bolts, letting you tap in the direction you want the ball of lighting to turn to after its left your palm.

Fable: The JourneyFable: The Journey

In tutorial it's exampled to hit stuff hidden behind barriers, walls. In practice it's used to try and guide the ball were you wanted it to go in the first place - two times out of five our attacks slamming the surroundings around an enemy or soaring off into the distance rather than where we thought we were casting. It becomes such a strain in the first dungeon that you're free to use your powers that we end up waiting for enemies to get point blank before popping them.

It may be positioning - even the game's played sitting down, it asks you not to move or lean forward once started to retain calibration. But it's an issue we'll need to explore when we get in the office for review.

It's a shame, because there is promise to what we see. A tutorial on using the push motion to latch onto objects and move them aside is very Jedi-like, and there's definite suggestion that the door puzzles, requiring you shift carvings built into them and strike particular areas to open will become increasingly more complex, making for a graceful and more considered use of the Kinect than we rarely see.

Promise as well in the interaction with your horse Saren - a beautiful beast who's eyes and body language convey a Disney-like personality without ever sacrificing realism, and who's understated whinnies genuinely convey much more emotion than oodles of dialogue in some RPGs.

Fable: The Journey

When she's injured early on and you have to remove a jagged knife from her side, being careful's instinctive rather than having to be told by the tutorial, and when you need to race towards a healing shrine to rescue her from poisoning, you do so with an urgency even when you know the diminishing of her health bar's got the safety net of a scripted event.

There'll be areas and situations were you'll be off the carriage, but the majority of the time will be spent travelling along the roads and caverns of the world. Cracking the reins during travel will speed Saren up, and learning how to time subsequent cracks to coincide with her stamina bar's resurgence is key to fast travel.

You need to slow her (hands in to the chest) when travelling over uneven terrain so she's not hurt, while drawing one hand in or the other will turn her by pulling on the rein's bite - though we found the response a little generous, so subtle corrections felt harder to make, and given collectable orbs for upgrades litter the roads, it's harder than needs be to edge her to left or right.

It's a short time with the game, but its the first during a company event that we've had problems with the Kinect, as Microsoft are usually very careful to get the lighting just right, so we're even more interested now to see how the game handles at home. Not to mention finding out how expansive the map is, and how the gameplay pans out or expands on the basics we've seen so far. We're really hoping that Fable's being guided along the right path.

Fable: The Journey
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