Introduced at Microsoft's E3 press conference, Fable: The Journey was immediately categorized as an on-rails shooter, dismissed by many as a side project and something not worthy of the Fable lineage. It seems, however, that our initial impressions (and I was one of those) may have fallen somewhat wide of the actual truth.
When we sat down with Peter Molyneux, director of Lionhead Studios, the very first thing he did was point out that common misconception, for which he shouldered all of the blame. When he set out to craft the announcement experience (including the hands-off demo we were about to witness), he decided to remove the movement stuff so as not to overwhelm the audience with what's involved in playing the game - not anticipating the viewer reaction that he ultimately got.
So convinced was he that we'd be swayed to his way of thinking by the end of our demo, he had a wall of signatures under a hand-scrawled "it's not on rails!" which he asked us to sign if we agreed with the statement. Did we sign? Read on to find out...
The game, for those of you who are not familiar with it, is set in the Fable universe but is not Fable IV. Instead, it's a side story - created to explore a new story telling method and to utilize the interface possibilities of Kinect. You play from the first-person perspective and control the game without ever picking up a controller; instead, movement, combat and interface is handled by gestures.
You spend a lot of time on your horse-drawn cart and, like the dog from Fable II, the horse has received a lot of attention. To control this, you can remain seated and then perform actions which look to us much like what you'd be doing in a real cart; flicking the reins, pulling on one side or another in order to steer, etc. All of the actions are backed up by the reins moving appropriately too, so there was no need for (or sign of) a clunky Kinect overlay. You can also look around the environment by simply leaning around which, while not quite the same as looking around (if you did, you wouldn't be able to see the TV anymore), it still seems quite natural.
We then got to the quest area that you may have seen in the trailer, at which point we got off the cart and headed out to waste goblins with our magic. This is the bit where people got "confused" as to the on-rails nature of the game. In order to minimize confusion as to what people were seeing, Peter decided to remove the movement controls from the demo and focus on the magic system. As a result, the game appears to be on rails because the demo is on rails. Peter assures us, however, that a gesture based go-anywhere system is intended and working on the build outside of E3 - something we'll get a chance to see when the game is demoed at gamescom in just a few weeks.
The magic system is a cool combination of gestures which makes you genuinely feel like you're casting fireballs and so on, even going so far as to let you continue to control certain projectiles once they've been cast. What we saw isn't too deep yet, but the potential is clearly evident - if you ever wanted to be Harry Potter, this looks like it has the potential to engender that sort of powerful feeling.
So did we sign Peter's wall? Tentatively. It's not on rails, as you have some control on what you do. But it's not going to be as freely controllable as traditional Fable games either. Exactly where it falls in the scale between those two types of games is yet to be determined but, rails or not, it still looks like it has the potential to be a rich experience and it's not a dance or party game, so that's a win regardless.
The Good: The magic system has huge potential
The Bad: It's not Fable 4.
The Ugly: Microsoft's constantly shaking booth.