Kinect launched a little over a year ago. I'll bet you can't name very many games for it, and if you can, they probably fall in one of two or three categories: sports/exercise and dance, and they're prooooobably not exactly AAA titles.
And not for lack of trying, but Microsoft's had little success convincing "core gamers", fearful of having their hard-fought controllers ripped out of their hands forever, that Kinect can make their games more fun too. Mostly because they've had no software to prove it.
That's about to change with Mass Effect 3. It's one of the most anticipated games of the year. It's as "core" as a game can get — a complex action RPG from beloved powerhouse developer Bioware (you know, the guys who just dropped The Old Republic on the world). And it's a Kinect title. If you've been wondering how Kinect might change the way we play video games — from Dance Central to Halo — Mass Effect 3 might provide a taste.
Mass Effect 3's Kinect integration is drop-dead simple. It's simply voice. And it's really simple. You shout commands to your squad mates — "James! Frag grenade!" — and they follow your orders. You can instantly switch to whatever weapon you want or activate whichever skill you want to pull out of your bag of tricks. Or you can just open a door. No menus, no buttons, no pausing the game play. Fluid, simple and, most importantly, natural. Kinect with Mass Effect 3, while optional, doesn't feel like a bolted-on gimmick. It feels right. James, move your arse and kill that guy. It feels like it's always been there, even though Bioware's Aaryn Flynn told me they didn't start thinking about voice commands until they started thinking about Kinect how to use it with Mass Effect 3 in a meaningful way.
I'm talking a lot about feelings. Let's talk function. The genius of Mass Effect 3's voice commands is that they both radically simplify the game's controls while simultaneously allowing more complex gameplay action than ever before. Example: I hadn't played Mass Effect in a while, and I forgot how to use the radial menu very smoothly. But it didn't matter. I knew how to tell my party members to drop some stasis skills on the arsehole shooting at me, and how to instantly switch. It's Microsoft's natural user interface holy grail. On the flip side, you suddenly have dozens and dozens of commands at your fingertips, instantly — far more choices than there are buttons on a controller. (One of them that's sorely missing? Reload. But Flynn says they might add in new voice commands, depending on feedback.)
A somewhat major change in gameplay thanks to the Kinect is that the start-stop-queue-and-attack turn-based rhythm of the old Mass Effect is obliterated by the stream of constant, real-time commands coming out of your mouth. The game — and you and your party — never stop moving. It's more immersive not just because you're yelling at your party members, but simply because you never have to break the cinematic game play to jump into an abstract menu to switch guns or tell a party member what to do next. Of course, there's that immersive storytelling element too — you're able to talk to every character, speaking the dialogue instead of silently reading it, even though I didn't get a chance to mess with that part of the game.
Overall, in the time I got play Mass Effect 3, the voice controls were fairly spot on, perfectly translating the vibrations from my vocal cords into the appropriate onscreen chaos around 95 per cent of the time. Accurate enough that I never felt frustrated, even as Bioware reps were careful to emphasise it wasn't final.
For all the excitement about what Kinect brings to Mass Effect 3 gameplay-wise, what's potentially more exciting is the very real possibility that in the next year or two, we might look back at Mass Effect 3 as a watershed moment — the game that brought Kinect to gamers, that broke it out of the motion-control-gimmick ghetto. That made a Kinect-powered Halo suddenly seem like a real possibility, and for all the right reasons. I hope so, because it feels like something that's just the beginning.