Kinect Effect: Commanding Shepard's Squad with Voice
Eyes were rolled when a 'placeholder' box art for Mass Effect 3 featuring a "Better with Kinect Sensor" banner emblazoned atop it leaked on June 1st last year. Leaks so close to E3 are rarely untrue, and Bioware took to the stage at Microsoft's press conference five days later to show off a new Kinect feature - using your voice to replace the controller.
It was a boon for Microsoft - at a time when Kinect is performing very well as device for more casual games, getting one of the major core releases of the first half of 2012 to support Kinect is a big deal. But does it actually work? More importantly, is it justification for owning one of the devices?
The first question is easy enough to answer - it works surprisingly well. Bioware have built in voice control for a wide range of the game's command, and programmed it to take commands in English, French, Italian and German. It's programmed to cope with a wide variety of dialects as well, so a New Yorker's drawl will be recognized as easily as a Londoner's.
The voice control works in combat and in conversations, but I found the former feature the more compelling of the two. It's as simple as saying the name of the squad member you want - such as Liara - followed by the command you want them to perform.
"Liara, Singularity" will have Liara let rip her biotic ability at the enemy you're currently pointing your aiming reticule at with the controller, for instance, whilst merely saying "Assault Rifle" will cause your Shepard to switch to the Assault Rifle if they're carrying one.
The commands run the gambit of almost everything that isn't aiming or shooting in combat. Any ability a squad mate has is managed by merely saying their name followed by what ability to you want used. You can even have your squad change weapon, take cover, follow you or attack a specific enemy.
Combat gets stressful, so I figured I'd try to break the Kinect's voice-sensing capabilities. What if I'm super stressed, under fire, and blurt out a command in a yell of desperation? The last thing I'd want would be for the Kinect to fail me and get me killed - and get sent hurtling across the room by my fist. It's an expensive piece of kit, after all - but no matter how I tried to break it, unless I did something monumentally stupid with my voice it understood me. Bioware's voice coding gets top marks there.
With that noted, I can say with absolute certainty that Kinect can absolutely be a useful influence in combat. Mass Effect always did handle the squad-based gameplay well with the ability to pause combat and bring up its command wheel as well as the ability to map one command for each character to the D-pad, but using the Kinect is simpler, as it eliminates all that.
It offers a similar function to the shortcuts placed on the D-pad for your squad and the Y button and bumpers for Shepard, but where that limits you to one shortcut ability for each squad member and three for Shepard, voice gives you split-second access to any ability of each character without pausing the game. It's fast, fluid and just works.
Past that, voice can also be used in combat areas for basic commands. If you want to open a door merely saying "Open" will do it, or if you want to examine a discarded Data Pad for additional story "Examine" will do that. That expands to a full list of commands, but this feels a little superfluous, as these commands only require a press of the A button to do on the controller you'll already be holding.
It's a cool addition, but it feels strangely pointless. As for the Kinect use in conversation, where reading out an option on the dialogue wheel will select it, feels likewise.
This was a little less accurate - they're more complex phrases after all - but even then it seems a strange choice; you say something, and then Shepard repeats it in a more elaborate fashion. It's like living in a weird echo-chamber, and I can honestly say I wasn't a huge fan.
In the end it's all about the combat. The way Kinect is used to streamline squad command in Mass Effect 3 is pretty damn awesome. If you can get over that uncanny feeling of being conscious you might look a little bit crazy talking to your Xbox, it's a very valid way to play the game and to make combat more fluid.
Bioware made the smart decision by keeping the controller in your hands, because if Kinect fails you can fall back on the original controls. Kinect is a companion here, not a choice - and it works better for it.
You'll have to judge if it's worth picking up a Kinect for yourself based on your own situation, but if you've been looking for a hardcore reason to own a Kinect past the family and group stuff you can already do, Mass Effect 3's voice commands are a fairly decent excuse.
Next up for RPG fans will be Fable: The Journey, which sees Lionhead's Xbox-exclusive RPG series get rid of the controller entirely. Hopefully that makes as sensible use of the device as Mass Effect does.