Fable: right game, wrong execution

Steve Dinneen
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Xbox Kinect

Fable: The Journey is exactly the game Microsoft’s Xbox Kinect needs: a much-loved title that plunges gamers into a familiar environment. The Kinect has shown it can excel in mini “party games” but has, thus far, come up empty on anything grander. It’s a shame, then, that The Journey is so hopelessly, infuriatingly unplayable.

The Journey is the fifth game set in the lush, sandbox world of Albion, in which you assume the role of an annoying Yorkshireman elf called Gabriel. Unfortunately, the conversion to the Kinect format means there is zero opportunity to explore this world. Instead you spend vast swathes of time waving your hands in the air trying to steer an unresponsive horse who is compelled to run head-long into whatever obstacles present themselves.

This is symptomatic of the overall gameplay, which is essentially a re-masked version of Kinect Star Wars, with the same powers: pick up and throw foes or use the force to push them away. Only The Journey doesn’t even let you wield a lightsaber, which is that title’s only saving grace.

The basic principle is straightforward: hold your hand in the air and “push” forward to fire magic bolts at enemies. It should be childishly easy but the biggest battle is against the console itself, which rarely responds how you intend. When you finally get it to work, it never feels like enough of a challenge, even after you have waded through the chronically slow first 90 minutes.

The half-hearted nods to exploration, which are sandwiched between soupy cut scenes, are so “on rails” they are laughable. One early truck-stop invites you to look around a stable, which involves leaning left and right to cycle through items you can interact with (“reach up to pick an apple”, “hold out your hand to feed the apple to your horse”). It plays like an updated version of Granny’s Garden on the BBC Micro, in which yes or no answers dictate your progression (“you start to walk up the stairs. Would you like to hold on to the bannister? [YES] The bannister turns into a snake and eats you. You are dead.”).

Microsoft desperately needs a successful, rollicking adventure game to prove its Kinect concept is more than a neat party trick. The Journey certainly ain’t it.

Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PC

SLEEPING Dogs takes a rare gamble for a mainstream game – it displaces its action from America (or a quasi-American intergalactic set-up) to Asia.

It sees you take the role of an undercover cop called Wei Shen as he infiltrates the grimy criminal underworld of Hong Kong. This, though, is the only gamble it takes.

It is essentially a clone of Grand Theft Auto IV, right down to the idiosyncratic details that make Rockstar’s franchise so endlessly playable (push past people in the street and they will respond with lines like: “I hope my dead grandmother comes back to haunt you!”)

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing: GTA IV is one of the most successful – and best – games of the last decade. All the familiar gameplay mechanics are present: from the mini-map displaying your missions to the ability to march up to a parked car, elbow your way in and promptly streak off, this time through the streets of Hong Kong.

Where it differs slightly is the combat system, which relies much more on martial arts-based scrapping than its trigger-happy inspiration. The free-flowing fights take a leaf out of Batman: Arkham City and include John Woo-style slo-mo scenes that allow you to take down several enemies before they see you coming.

In a world without GTA IV and its various imitators, five stars wouldn’t be enough for Sleeping Dogs. As it is, it’s a solid, well built sandbox crime thriller, albeit one that feels a little too familiar.