Lionhead Studios' now former frontman Peter Molyneux is known for his gift of the gab. Capable of talking up anything, he could build hype over watching paint dry. But he is also known for boasting about features that end up as watered-down versions of his ideas. No one would call him over-ambitious, but damn has he let us down a few times.
Some of Molyneux’s most major fibs and Fable related foibles were admitted by the man himself, who at his BAFTA fellowship ceremony, said he had lied to journos to keep them awake.
“I could name at least 10 features in games that I’ve made up to stop journalists going to sleep and I really apologise to the team for that.”
Walking into a demo room with a handful of other journalists, we’re expecting a preview of Fable: The Journey. What we weren’t expecting is that standing there with by the Xbox and 50-inch screen would be Peter Molyneux to walk us through it. With his sharply receding hairline and dressed in a black jumper, blue jeans and trainer combo, he’s a British Steve Jobs and with the acid charisma to match.
“I’m going to need a guinea pig,” he says, beady eyes scanning his audience of intimidated faces, and it’s Pocket-lint that thrusts its hand into the air like an over-excited school boy trying to play teacher’s pet. It’s as much in excitement getting close to a person responsible for some of our best, and worst, gaming moments as it is to be one of the first to go hands-on with the latest installment of his medieval fantasy dynasty. That said, hands-on is probably exactly what this game is not. Fable: The Journey is played through nothing but the Kinect for controls, and as Molyneux told us repeatedly, is not on rails.
As we sit down in the gaming hotseat, we’re confronted with a looping video of the game's hero playing with a horse.
“This is the character you’re going to be playing. He is called Gabriel,” begins Molyneux, wry smile across his face.
“He starts the game as well, pretty much a nobody. As you know, the best stories feature somebody being a nobody and eventually becoming heroic.”
Every Fable game then.
“When we first started Fable: The Journey, the horse was just a way of you being carried around in the world. Then we realised you could have an emotional bond with the horse.”
“I would ask you that you not be overly cruel to this horse.”
Pocket-lint might mention at this point, that we really, really don’t like horses - something we failed to say to Molyneux as we tugged on our stead’s reins as hard as we could using the Kinect sensor. Now a caveat here we must mention, this is an early piece of game code so who knows how it might pan out in the end but, from what we played, the horse really didn’t do as we told it.
“You are going to be driving a horse and caravan in the same way that you drive one in real life. You need to grab the reins - some people kind of over use the reins - you just need to gently snap them.”
“That’s all I’m going to say to you, I’m just going to let you experience this for yourself.”
So off we go, careering slightly out of control, slapping our horse with the reins like a drunken jockey. Eventually, we get the hang of the thing and manage to slow the beast down and get it going where we want, but there’s certainly a learning curve. This game it certainly not on rails. It’s more like a steam train that’s come off of them.
Kinect doesn’t seem to be happy all of a sudden, so Molyneux gives the system a reboot - or tries to but there’s a ripple of amusement about the room as it appears for a moment that he doesn’t know how to turn an Xbox 360 off.
“Realise with Kinect that its not only the gesture you are doing, but the speed of the gesture,” he says as he gets the demo going again. “If you snap and pull back quickly or snap and pull back gently, these are both going to do something different.”
The loading screen fires up.
“Here is a map of the world. As you can see, there are lots of routes through this land. We really are giving you lots of opportunities for exploration.”
So, off we go again; this time with the horse doing as its told.
“You’re really putting a hell of a lot of energy in there. Just try just doing it a little bit less,” he says, after we confess our dislike of horses.
The game continues and its hero winds up confronted with a few of the usual Fable enemies. Up until this point in playing, it hasn’t really felt like a game at all; more just a horse simulator. Now there’s a reason to progress and it’s done in such an effortless way. Enemies rush towards us and we’re granted the ability to throw magic from our hands (more on that later). The chase is over and it cuts to an image of the side of the horse.
“Your score is how hurt your horse actually is. It’s your job to heal and remove the arrows from him”.
We start trying to yank an arrow from the side of our steed. Our cack-handedness and lack of finesse with Kinect translates to the horse squealing out in agony. We look at Molyneux who is wincing at the sight of us injuring his beloved animal. It would later emerge that we had actually stabbed the horse repeatedly and Molyneux had told every other journalist shown the game of our cruelty.
“You can push the arrow in. Right, so pull it out gently then.”
We get the arrow out from the side of the horse.
“Personally, I love just stroking my horse,” Molyneux say,s as we try not to picture him cradling the thing during long winter nights in front of the fire.
“I just can’t help doing it. If it’s dirty or hurt, I give it a good stroke.”
Clearly a man who really loves animals. No surprise really, every title since the first Black and White has put furry creatures at the top of the gaming agenda.
Away from the horse-mounted part of the demo, we arrive at a puzzle. “This is an extremely easy puzzle,” explains our guide.
It involves using our right hand to throw magic orbs at various lock symbols on a big stone door. To our relief, we get it right first time.
“So what we are trying to show there is that you can actually control it quite finely. It’s not like throwing a dart, but it does feel different the harder or softer you throw.”
A set of Balvarines approach us from behind the stone door. We then prep ourselves for a full on onslaught. Molyneux, in his typically calm voice, has us fairly relaxed as they go leaping about on screen doing their best to savage Gabriel with their razor sharp claws.
“Your right hand’s all about throwing things that hurt, the left hand’s all about grabbing and manipulating objects.”
It works really well and has us doing all sorts of damage to the Balvarines in no time, including slamming them against walls and pillars. The sense of power is quite spectacular. There’s a heavy emphasis on physics-based destructive environments in the game and that works particularly well with the left-hand grabbing tool.
“Grab something and then flick it and up!” Molyneux says, getting excited. “Grab something and then hold it.”
The game then crashes.
Naturally, it’s forgivable at such events. This is a preview build after all. Just a shame. We were getting quite into smashing things.
So back we are in Balvarine town. We get going again, working away nicely at the on-screen enemies with left and right-handed throwing action. A quick cut scene and then the PR behind us explains we are out of time. Molyneux immediately interrupts and leaves us with a few nifty factoids. Whether or not these will ever appear in the game remains to be seen, but exciting none the less.
“Only one person has used their voice so far today. Your voice, if you use a lot of aggression, the right hand is going to get more powerful, if you speak more softly, the left hand will get stronger.”
“You can also use your voice to speak to the horse. Its ears will twitch and you can train it to respond to different commands.”
One journalist asks the question that a lot of people have been waiting for Molyneux to answer: “How large and how linear is the game.”
Looking slightly miffed, Molyneux snappily replies: “Very large and not very linear. As you saw on the map, there are lots of different routes you can take. You are free to stop and explore anywhere.
"There are all the rewards that you would normally get for going off the beaten path into a dungeon. Chests and the like. In fact there was a section of this demo that did precisely that but we didn’t have time to show you.”
It seems we'll have to wait till a little nearer to the release date later in 2012. In those last few minutes Molyneux had us convinced of Fable: The Journey’s possibilities. We wonder if he was just trying to keep us awake?
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