TimeOut games guy Troy Rawhiti-Forbes reports from San Francisco about how Kinect is continuing to fire the imaginations of developers, and trials a contender for Xbox game of the year.
You would not expect to find The Almighty just hanging around in a boardroom, clad in his casual attire, but there he was. One of the true surprises at Microsoft's 2012 Xbox Spring Showcase in San Francisco was the presence of Peter Molyneux OBE, the man some gamers claim is left in charge by God when He's on a break. Molyneux was there to guide the media through a preview demonstration of Fable: The Journey, the latest title in the world-beating RPG series.
No guns, no swordplay, just magic - and played entirely with the hands-free motion sensor, Kinect.
"It makes core games even better," Molyneux said. "It's tougher to design for, but I think it is a far more emotional, engaging, and interesting experience. To prove that, I'm going to ask one of you to be a guinea pig and control the demo."
Eager to get the first hands-off/hands-on experience for New Zealand, I raised my hand.
After 10 minutes of racing my horse through valleys while seeing off determined enemies and negotiating tricky turns, I realised I did care about my horse, and if I was distressed when Trotter took two arrows in the side, I was downright gutted when I saw what my sloppy rein technique had done to my poor mount's shoulderblades.
I instinctively reached out and stroked my horse's quivering body, and to my surprise, the wounds healed. Magic. If I wanted to be cruel to my horse, I could have just shoved the arrows in further.
Speaking of magic, there's a wonderful advancement. You deal with your enemies with a two-handed approach - the right hand shoots spells, and the left controls a kind of grip-and-whip device that hurls baddies and solid objects about. When I started throwing fireballs with my hand and seeing the corresponding foes explode like fireworks over the Waitemata, I felt very powerful indeed, and it doesn't stop there.
"A lot of us gamers talk to our games, and we want to use the emotion in your voice to make the magic in your right hand even more powerful." Molyneux said. "Imagine you're facing some horrendous baddie and you say 'for God's sake, die!' then you will be thermonuclear. I love that feeling of power."
If this early build is any indication of just how emotional, engaging, and interesting the finished product is going to be, then consider The Journey a promising contender for Xbox game of the year.
Its closest rival for the crown is obvious. After a five-year cryogenic nap, the Master Chief will burst back into life in Halo 4. The hands-off multiplayer demo video gave more questions than answers, and the small army 343 Industries sent to California guarded their secrets so jealously that I feared even speculating with myself in my hotel room about how the Chief got his new armour set would result in the Feds kicking down the door and dragging me off to Gitmo.
Expect the classic Halo feel, but a gamechanger as well. Players are used to fighting the different alien races of the Covenant, and the parasitic, zombified legions of the Flood, each requiring a change in tactics and weaponry for combat. In Halo 4, the Master Chief will face a new enemy, with scary and ancient origins. The impact of this threat on the classic Halo gameplay is expected to keep the franchise fresh as it enters its second decade.
"We can't say too much because it's a spoiler, but it will radically alter things," 343's Frank O'Connor said of the mysterious foe. "It's a way of expanding the universe in a meaningful way."
It seemed there couldn't be much said about most things. The team deflected questions about how the new multiplayer combat and player progression system would work, leaving my imagination to tempt me with possibilities. One of the two multiplayer maps shown, called Warhouse, features a large battlemech under construction. Though the maps are purpose-built for action, rather than being pulled straight from the campaign as they were in 2010's Halo: Reach, it is nice to dream that players might take charge of a mechanical Godzilla at some point.
For the waiting world, Halo 4 is currently a game of speculation. Expect that game to change at the E3 expo, this June in Los Angeles.
When Kinect was released in 2010, its potential as a party game essential was there, but questions were raised about its suitability for blockbusters. Those questions remained as Dance Central 2 - fun, but a party game at heart - boogied its way to the front of the Kinect pack while Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary's voice commands scored some hits, and some sobering misses.
So consider 2012 Kinect's campaign to win over the gaming core. Fable: The Journey may end up leading the pack, but it's not the first horse out of the gate.
The Xbox 360 version of BioWare's Mass Effect 3, out this week, improves upon Halo's effort and makes Kinect voice commands a key aspect of directing battlefield operations, as well as allowing players to speak directly into the game's plentiful cutscenes.
Walking the hybrid line is Capcom's Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor, which will utilise the controller and Kinect as you lead the crew of a bipedal tank through a shattered America. The initial playthrough was a bit awkward, but dexterity should come with practice.
The upcoming Tiger Woods PGA Tour 13 is, according to Electronic Arts, the first true sporting simulator totally playable in Kinect. I'm no golfer, but through the Kinect sensor I got a fair idea of how my swing should work, and if I'd wanted my caddie's advice then all I needed to do was call out and ask.
EA believes that if a player can master the game on "hard" they could most likely best a real golf course. You couldn't draw that kind of confidence from a party game.
-TimeOutBy Troy Rawhiti-Forbes @TroyRF Email Troy