Traditionally, Microsoft takes the pole position at E3. They're first in, they set the bar, and everybody else slides under or leaps over. That's usually an enviable position to take, but they've got to bring the thunder to keep momentum through the entire week. Whether you think this year's press briefing nailed one out of the park depends entirely on how invested you are in Kinect. And how much you like cute child actors narrating their own fist bump.
The prettier weapon of mass destruction.
The big message this year? Everything's Kinected. Whether or not it really needs to be.
Throwing Kinect integration into nearly every game marks an interesting strategy for a peripheral that's enjoyed some success but hasn't won universal adoption. The real trick lies in the application, and that's still proving a little shaky.
Look no further than two little words: "Lightsaber…on!" Star Wars Kinect's demo looked largely embarrassing, with wild Wiimote swinging translating into bland gameplay. Seriously? I can't twirl my lightsaber around? I just swing it like an epileptic playing tennis?
So now that Ubisoft's committed to supporting Kinect in every Tom Clancy-branded game going forward, I fear for Sam Fisher. Mass Effect 3 at least takes advantage of two central game conceits: communication and squad control. Instead of selecting dialogue-tree options, you read them aloud…though, it would be far more impressive to simply say what you're thinking ("screw you!") to choose the appropriate response — "we'll do this my way." Alas, we don't live in the 22nd century yet, so no chance of that.
Still, calling out squad commands ("Garrus, move up! Concussive blast!"), while intuitive, can fall into silly Kinect behavior, and doing so didn't excite me nearly as much as Shepard's new melee holo-blade. Or seeing Mordin again. Or contemplating how voice command could play into your many shipboard romances.
Stop! In the name of love!
On the other hand, Ghost Recon: Future Soldier impressed with its Gunsmith mode, which lets you break down your weaponry into its component parts and customize them with a wave of your hand. They aren't just gun-shaped boxes anymore, but real devices with internal parts. Way too granular for most players, but simply saying "optimize for long-range combat" works for me. Hell, that'll work for anyone.
That's when Kinect works best…when you move like you're conducting a symphony and speak like you're directing a movie. Kinect Fun Labs threw out a lot of features promised by the original release trailer two years ago, and drawing around in front and behind captured people/objects in 3D simply rocks, but that needs to translate into a real gaming experience.
So far, Kinect support seems to mean either one or two little things in a standard-controller game, or else a cartoony casual/kids game. Fine, if that's the target (like Tim Shafer's kid-crack Sesame Street title). For my time, I'd like to see a game that fully integrates Kinect…like Child of Eden, which pulled a no-show this year.
Those full gaming experiences happened elsewhere. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 showed off a nice set piece, where enemy subs sunk in New York Harbor. Gears of War 3 looks a lot like Gears of War. Microsoft confirmed a remastered Halo: Combat Evolved (they didn't confirm that the Library wouldn't still suck).
Crystal Dynamic's Tomb Raider reboot pleasantly surprised me with its raw brutality. This isn't sassy, spelunking Lara Croft…this is cold, scared, desperate Lara Croft pulling out a human bone that impaled her and fighting assailants off rather than just fighting them. It's dark, gritty, new…and the final shot of her reaching an island surface to find a shipwreck graveyard held a lot of promise. Keep an eye on this one.
Unfortunately, with such a heavy emphasis on Kinect-enabled gaming, even fun moments like those felt a little isolated.
Use Kinect to pull his finger.
Maybe it's not surprising that the expected announcement of a Diamond membership level on Xbox Live didn't happen…though, the content a Diamond level will likely include, live television streaming, did. That might've been a misstep on Microsoft's part, given Live's major bump in popularity in the wake of the PlayStation Network's recent hacking woes. Even a $100/year price tag would feel cheap compared to most cable bills. Add in Netflix, ESPN, even Hulu, and you could practically hear (and enjoy) Comcast/Xfinity's anguished screams.
But if anything keeps that all-important momentum, it'll be that brief Halo 4 teaser, building right on Halo 3's post-credit tease. We'll have to wait and see if 343 Industries brings it, but with Frank O'Connor holding down that fort…yeah, I'll stay excited. At least, until they announce its Kinect support.
Which they will. Microsoft clearly sees Kinect as an integral part of the Xbox 360 now, to the point I suspect they'll discontinue selling one without the other at some point in the near future. That's the direction they're moving in. Now they just need to make it an interesting, integrated direction. Because even with a huge piece of geek candy like the Master Chief's return, Microsoft left the door wide open for Sony and Nintendo to walk through.
And if Kinect doesn't matter to you, that door takes up the entire wall.