E3: Microsoft Kinect
Heading into E3, Microsoft’s Project Natal was a mysterious device. We knew it uses a camera to track motion and apply it to in game characters, and we knew that the camera could also capture images and create objects in 3D space (such as handing an in game character a picture). Outside of that, little was know about the device and the games that would make use of it.
Now that Microsoft’s press conference has wrapped up, details of Project Natal are plentiful, if not boring. First off, forget the Project Natal moniker, the device has been renamed to “Kinect,” which seems to be a mash-up of the words kinetic and connect. Silly name aside, Microsoft very seriously intends for gamers to do both with the Kinect, even if they don’t want to.
Much of its basic use seems superfluous. You can navigate the menus with your hands, poking and prodding at on screen tabs, and use your voice to bring up more options. Any of these things are easily executed with a controller.
Once Microsoft showed off the Kinect’s amazing ability to navigate menus, it segued into quite possibly the most desired feature in console gaming today: Zune integration. If you are one of the 17 or so people to own a Microsoft Zune, rejoice! All of your music and movies will be playable through the Zune channel, and will be fully controllable with the Kinect. As boring as that sounds, and it does sound boring, the Kinect voice recognition ability will have one practical feature; you can pause and play movies with voice commands, removing the need to frantically find the remote when the phone rings or someone needs to use the restroom. Outside of that, however, I seriously doubt anyone really uses their 360 for Zune music.
Continuing the trend of treating old technology as new, Microsoft demonstrated Kinect’s video chat service. The presentation featured two twenty-something girls using a basic video conference while painfully acting out scripted dialogue, talking about such interesting things as Avatar: The Last Airbender and forcing dry jokes about grinding gamerscores. In a world with webcams, ichat, skype, etc. Kinect brings absolutely nothing new to the table.
Kinect’s next feature, however, did catch my interest. Signing an exclusive deal with ESPN, the Xbox 360 will feature an ESPN channel that will reportedly bring live sports, in HD, to your console. For anyone who shells out serious cash for satellite sports packages, they would tell you that this is quite a big deal. While the details remain to be seen, such as how many games/out of market games/obscure sports will be available, the service is definitely worth looking into, as all it takes to use it is an Xbox Live Gold Membership. That’s right, free live sports at no additional cost. Sign me up.
With the new features and services demonstrated, Microsoft jumped right into what Kinect games will be available:
Kinectimals: Acting as something similar to Nintendogs, Kinectimals allows the player to interact with an animal of his or her choosing. In the case of the demonstration, a little girl played with a tiger, scratching it, petting it, etc. While those features are pretty old hat, one thing that did pique my interest was the fact that the girl ran away and hid behind a wall, confusing the tiger. He looked around for her, and then became happy when she reappeared. I must say that I’m impressed with the mechanics of the game, but it’s impossible to tell if the demonstration was for real. It may well have been scripted and not work nearly as well in practice. Until the masses get a chance to play with Kinectimals, it’s really hard to judge it.
Kinect Sports: I think it would be an insult to you the reader if I had to explain this in depth. Kinect Sports is Wii Sports without the Wii-mote. It features soccer, bowling, track and field, ping pong, boxing, and volleyball.
Kinect Adventure: Remember the show Nick Arcade? The Nickelodeon game show where kids played arcade games and answered trivia questions to earn the right to enter the video game world? If not, the final portion of the show put contestants in the game itself. Using their bodies as the controller, they moved on on rails platforms collecting potions and jewels while avoiding obstacles. Kinect Adventure is exactly this: you stand on a moving platform and collect targets while avoiding objects that would knock you off.
Your Shape: Fitness Evolved: Let’s just ignore the silly title and focus on what this game is: a Wii-Fit simulator. Not much of actual gameplay was shown, but you can expect to work up a mild sweat while performing aerobic exercises. One mini-game in particular featured rapidly appearing bricks that explode when you punch them. Upon seeing it, I wrote in my notebook “brick genocide simulator where you take on the role as the muscular black man from the old spice commercials.”
Dance Central: What came next was a pleasant surprise, a Kinect game developed by Harmonix called Dance Central. In DC, you have to match dance moves that rapidly appear on screen in beat with the music, using the Kinect to capture your body motions. It looks like a fun game that, unlike the other games shown today, really makes excellent use of the Kinect. While my dance skills are laughable at best, I really want to take Dance Central for a spin.
Racing games were present as well, a Kinect Kart game, as well as Forza Motorsport title. Each game controlled the same way: mimicking a steering wheel. While they looked nice, I have to imagine that they don’t control as well as they would with a normal controller. Again, we need a demo to confirm.
I guess my issue with these games is that they won’t be practical to play. Each demonstrator was standing about 7 to 10 feet away from the screen, requiring room space that I fear many gamers will not have available. Additionally, while I’m sure that the Kinect will be able to properly identify up to 4 individual people for multiplayer, how far out of the device’s line of sight can they be before they are no longer recognized? If they have to be even relatively close, I imagine everyone bumping into each other and causing a mess. Also, what if you are playing a game, and someone else walks across the room?
Will Kinect recognize that person and put them in the game? These are questions that still need to be answered.
However, the last Kinect game on display revealed my biggest concern: navigating a 3D game world. An exclusive Star Wars game showed a Jedi running through a war torn city, deflecting laser beams with his lightsaber, and using the force to push around enemies. As cool as it looked, the one thing that really bugged me is that the player seemingly had to clear an area of all enemies before he progressed, and “progressing” was merely warping forward and then stopping for the next wave. It was similar to an on-rails shooter. I have to assume Microsoft has thought of a way to navigate through the game world with the Kinect, but they didn’t show it today.
While overall, the Kinect demonstration featured a lot of ho-hum features, I have to say that I am excited for its potential. Its body recognition is smooth and quick, and should provide for an excellent new way to play games. However, until details are ironed out (read: price point, why did you hide it MS? Is it on the expensive side?), it appears as though Kinect will only be useful for party style, casual games. Here’s hoping it’s better than what was on display today.