Microsoft's motion gaming peripheral is, if executed correctly, quite possibly the future of gaming. It might even be the future of Windows 8 and computers everywhere. But how much fun is playing with Kinect right now?
Xbox 360 Kinect Add-on
Works with: Every Xbox 360, but better with Xbox 360 S (no power cord)
Launch titles: Complete list here
Space requirements: 6-8 feet stated, but really should be 8-10
Games: $50 each, $10 less than standard Xbox 360 titles
Sony's Move and Nintendo's Wii MotionPlus both enable the same type of gaming—using a wand-shaped controller to represent a piece of equipment in 3D space. Microsoft's Kinect is the only one that actively integrates both voice, a camera and full-body sensing into games and the core Xbox experience.
Despite a launch lineup comprised mostly of party and exercise games—stuff that appeals mainly to the casual gamer—it's easy to imagine this technology adapted to augment any type of game. Or best of all, to create new experiences you can't get anywhere else, like with Dance Central.
Here's Dance Central. It's a dancing game, sure, but it's a dancing game that doesn't require you to dance like a guy landing a plane (with two batons in your hand)—something unprecedented even in the highest-end arcades. That you and your friends look silly playing it is just a bonus, as is the potential to learn real-world applicable skills—like the "Dust-Off" and the "Keyboard Cat."
Kinect has to pack a full buffet of party games, because the market still associates motion-gaming with casual gaming. I'd probably buy one or two of these for visitors, but no more than that; they're not that much better than a Wii's titles when it comes to pure fun-quotient, even if the technology allows more things.
Just as important is what Kinect means for computing as a whole, as shown by how the way navigate the Xbox experience with gestures and with voice.
Gesture navigation consists of moving your hand in time with the cursor, holding it in place while a selection confirms. It works, and is fairly accurate, with the only downside being things take longer than with a controller. Voice, on the other hand, works almost flawlessly, even if you're limited in things you can do with it because you're just saying words that are on screen. It's accurate, even mid-movie, thanks to its directional mics. If I had to choose between gestures and voice, I'd choose voice when possible.
Oh, and there's video chat, compatible with Windows Live Messenger.
This experience is genuinely new. If motion games until now were like boxing, Kinect is like kickboxing. You can use your freaking legs! Your Shape: Fitness Evolved is like Wii Fit if Wii Fit actually knew if you were keeping your back straight or arms held out, instead of cheating by sitting on the couch. Kinect Sports Volleyball knows when you've jumped in the air for a spike. Hell, just the fact that you can use more than your arms is cause for celebration.
I also like what this means for gaming, and for computing, in general. Just the fact that you can now navigate through the Xbox menus, music, movies and games using your body and your voice heralds change; something that usually needs an entirely new console to accomplish. I hate to use the old cliches of Minority Report or Blade Runner, but being able to wave at a machine or say the equivalent of "enhance, enhance, enhance" and have it actually know what you want is science fiction in practical terms. Imagine doing this not only for games, but for your desktop, changing from email to your browser to IM either with a wave of your wrist or a quick utterance of "Computer, go to YouTube." Suck it, past. This IS the future.
I really, really love Dance Central as the epitome of the platform. Learning to dance is embarrassing enough, and dance classes reveal your lack of rhythm to 15-30 people at a time. But with this? Nobody knows except you and your living room. It might be somewhat niche in that it appeals to people who enjoy dancing games, or music games, or rhythm games, but it also shows what developers can do when they take full advantage of the technology that Kinect gives them. Think of what else you can learn in the privacy of your underwear.
If I had to pinpoint Kinect's one major source of problems, it's that the camera's viewing angle is too narrow. Not only does this restrict the play area to a 6-8 foot block in front of the TV but, it can barely hold two wildly gesticulating people on screen without one of the players being cut out and told to step back into frame. In fact, to squeeze a little more viewing angle out of the camera, you're told by some games to place the Kinect on top of your TV. Great idea! Except you have to pay extra for the stand that lets you mount it securely there. And if you come too close to the camera in your excitement, it'll remind you, schoolmarmishly, to back away from the TV. I feel like if it could, Kinect would forcefully shove you back.
This leads to the second major problem: You really need a lot of room for Kinect. Matt's New York apartment was not big enough to get a satisfying play experience, and even my decent-sized suburban living room felt slightly confined. I was backing into my couch well before I hit the recommended "back wall" shown by Kinect. People in average-sized urban apartments will get a sub-par experience just because they don't have enough room. Who wants to pay $150 for a machine to tell you that you should get a bigger domicile?
The fact that you have to do a little bit of setup in each game is awkward, but it's not as awkward as the fact that there's no standardized way to navigate menus with your body. Every single game does it differently. Even the gesture you need to remember to pull up the Kinect Guide (a pause menu, essentially) is a bit wonky. It boils down to the fact that setting up the system and getting the gestures to consistently work in multiple games isn't fun, and doesn't work right all the time.
I'm conflicted. Although the potential of the Kinect platform is evident, it's still unclear how more mainstream titles like Gears of War or Dead Rising or Fable can use these new gaming mechanics. Will you act out chainsawing soldiers and zombies with an invisible saw in your hand? Will you gesture and wave to your peasants as you stroll down the streets as king?
It's also hard to justify the $150 price tag right now—especially when you need to purchase a whole raft of new games at $50 a pop just to use the thing. You also need a lot of space—way more than either the Wii or PlayStation Move requires, and this is a big problem.
Having only 1 title out of 17 launch games truly do something compelling and new isn't a very good launch, especially for people who don't like dance games. Right now, the answer to the fundamental question of "are you having fun with Kinect" is, unfortunately, "not really." Unless you like dance games. The potential is there, but you need to think of Kinect like the launch of a new console: Wait until the games you really want are available—or maybe even the next generation.