Flipping through the Xbox's library of Kinect enabled games isn't a particularly thrilling experience for the action-obsessed gamer. Despite the hardware's knack for corralling quadrocopters, puppeteering primates and refining robotic surgery, the list of supported titles mostly offers up family friendly micro-experiences, few of which revise the Xbox's most popular genres with the Kinect's potential. Over the next few months, however, a trio of previously announced games will try to change that by applying the device's motion sensing and voice recognition chops to some very recognizable IPs.
Steel Battalion Heavy Armor
Gamers familiar with the Steel Battalion series will remember it as the title that shipped with its own massive, proprietary controller. This preposterous peripheral sold at a premium, kicking the game's price up to $200 with two full size joysticks covered in a mad array of brightly colored switches, buttons, a throttle, and hooked up to a trio of pedals. Immersion was the game and Steel Battalion and its controller played it well, putting the cockpit of the game's battle mechs in the player's living room. Steel Battalion Heavy Armor and Kinect hope to replicate that same immersive experience, but without the bulky hardware. The game uses the sensor to create a virtual cockpit around the player, requiring them to physically reach out to flip switches, pull levers and slug their insubordinate mech crew members in the face. The experience feels more natural than it sounds.
Heavy Armor is one of the first Kinect titles to meld the device's gesture control capabilities with the traditional Xbox 360 controller -- rather than replacing dual-stick controls with a clumsy motion experience, it augments it. Driving your mech, aiming your cannons and gunning down your enemies is a familiar, thumb dominated affair. Changing gears, pulling down your precision aim periscope or pressing the self destruct button, however, is just a surprisingly natural arm reach away. It's smooth, it's easy and, to be honest, it's a breath of fresh air. This is Kinect done right.
Fable: the Journey
As natural feeling as Steel Battalion's controls were, it still had a fairly in-depth tutorial attached to it, ensuring gamers knew exactly what its limits were. According to Peter Molyneux, Fable: The Journey, won't. Molyneux's latest addition to the popular Fable franchise is a Kinect controlled action game with lofty design aspirations -- that is, it hopes to introduce gesture controls so intuitive, the player will instinctively know how to play the game. The idea is to create a world that contextually tells a new user how to interact with it without spelling it out for them. Does it work? Sort of. In our brief time with the title, we had no trouble flinging spells at goblins or steering our digital horse carriage, but didn't get the chance to discover interactivity more complex then a few basic flick and lean motions. Fable's gameplay is relatively simple, but the idea of how it presents itself to the user is compelling -- a motion experience that's natural, easy to learn and downright instinctive isn't just more accessible than one with a lengthy tutorial, it's also more respectful of the user's intelligence. Regardless of the title itself, this design approach is somewhat admirable. If Molyneux can keep the tutorial out of Fable: The Journey's final cut (and deliver on the promise of intuitive gameplay), we'll happily give it a slow, respectful clap.
Mass Effect 3
Without a doubt, some of Kinect's most impressive work on the home console front has been in its voice recognition. From auto-configuring awesome firearms to navigating Netflix, barking orders at machines and having them actually obey you still remains one slick experience. Mass Effect 3 isn't the first title to put on Kinect's ears, but it may be the first one to wear them particularly well. This action RPG -- hitting store shelves this week, with a Kinect-enabled demo already available -- sees players filling the space boots of Commander Shepard, a galactic hero trying to save the galaxy from an overwhelming force hell-bent on the destruction of all life as we know it. Part of Shepard's journey is carrying on complicated, story-driving conversations with characters throughout the universe, traditionally requiring the player to pick dialogue options from a radial menu. That scheme is still available of course, but Kinect allows the user to simply respond using their own voice, drawing them more into playing the part of the hero than ever before -- you're talking directly to the characters in the game, and they're responding.
It works, and it works well. Similarly, the hero's powers and abilities can be activated by simply calling them out to the screen. This recognition isn't dissimilar to the voice control trick Ghost Recon: Future Soldier pulled with its gunsmith feature, but its deeper integration gives the game a "wow factor" that might leave PC gamers (or Xbox owners without a Kinect) wanting. We're still a bit perplexed as to why the Kinect's microphone is the only audio input device that will do, but a representative told us that the voice recognition algorithms were exclusively tied to the peripheral.
It's true, Kinect's coolest tricks can still be found on the PC, and now that Kinect for Windows has made the hardware just that much more accessible, Kinect fun labs probably won't be outdoing the wider development community any time soon. Still, Spring's software line-up shows that the console's mastery of the device is maturing -- delivering experiences that are easier to learn, that feel more natural and that draw us further into the game. Developers are finding a balance between the gimmick and the game, augmenting the traditional gaming experience instead of replacing it. No, Kinect isn't killing the controller, but it is growing up -- and maybe that's enough.