Are games better with Kinect?

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I’m thinking about getting a Kinect. Can’t say the temptation’s hit me before now, but I have felt a bit sedentary lately. An exercise sim that gets me off the couch and makes me pop a sweat carries a certain appeal, and that’s part of Kinect’s problem. I don’t need or want a gaming peripheral in order to play games. Certainly, few developers have stepped up to convince me otherwise.

Worse, when someone does apply Kinect to a serious game, the response tilts towards ridicule. Bethesda’s plan to patch in Kinect support for The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim inspired comedy, not excitement. It didn’t matter how well vocal commands might work…players treated the very idea like a joke.

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim shouting
New Kinect dragon shout: "WORK ALREADY, MOTHERF***ER!"

And like a lot of Kinect support, it’s strictly optional. The hardcore, Kinect-mandatory game is a rare animal indeed. Microsoft promised upwards of 10 such titles at last year’s Electronic Entertainment Expo. Nearly a year later, their estimate missed by about seven games. But as we gear up for E3 2012, it looks like Microsoft plans to double down on that old promise.

So, given the weak-ass selection of Kinect games and half-assed attempts to port an outlier feature or two over to your dusty sensor bar, it’s fair to ask a simple question: Are games actually better with Kinect?


Maybe, if you want to throw casual and party games back into the mix. I'm told Fruit Ninja Kinect gets the job done, if not quite to the level of the cheaper handheld version.

Try to position a Kinect game as something that might appeal to, say, Halo players, and you enter far murkier territory. Only a few even make the attempt — Diabolical Pitch, The Gunstringer, Raving Rabbids: Alive and Kicking — with middling success at best. I can personally vouch for Child of Eden, despite my arms nearly falling off midway through, and that seems like the template other core games intend to follow.

Child of Eden
So beautiful! Shoot it!

Put another way, rail shooters seem to be the popular solution. The upcoming Crimson Dragon and Fable: The Journey (though Fable creator Peter Molynuex claims otherwise) cast you as the doorgunner while your character runs around on autopilot.

Still, that's better than the simplistic movement in something like Star Wars Kinect or the shoddy controls behind Fighters Uncaged, a fighting game that pretty much abandons the school of thought that says fighting games need tight controls to work. Hopefully developer Crytek (Crysis) won't repeat those mistakes with its ancient Roman brawler, Ryse. At least their spelling remains consistent.

Fighters Uncaged in particular demonstrates where Kinect controls go wrong on a hardcore level, and I'm not just talking poor response time. Uncaged only responded to a strict move set which, amazingly enough, didn't include my instinctive response to a right cross to the face: putting my arm up to block that incoming fist. It wanted me to control the game using its movements, not mine. That's fine if I'm holding a controller, but if I'm the controller, I make those decisions.

Fighters Uncaged
Number of Kinect owners who can actually pull off this move: None.

Thus far, outside of rail shooting, nobody's cracked instinctive, hyper-responsive Kinect controls that translate into fun, injurty-and-embarassment-free gameplay. The really successful Kinect games get you to buy into acting silly with the kids, dancing up a storm, or burning some calories. And while the ability to explode your weapon schematic in Ghost Recon: Future Soldier and fiddle with each individual part via Kinect looks cool, it’s hardly intrinsic to capping terrorist scum any more than verbally calling out orders to your Mass Effect 3 team.

That leaves us with a fairly narrow category of games that are, in fact, better with Kinect. But here's an idea guaranteed to help: Stop building games that use Kinect and start creating games specifically around Kinect.

Child of Eden has its flaws, but it never strays into things your body won't do or things Kinect does badly. Last year's E3 demo of Fable: The Journey followed suit, using easy hand gestures to weave in-game spells. I'm curious to see how deep that physical vocabulary might go, and to what extent players decide what magic to pull out and use in a given situation. That makes sense to me, and something I'd take even further. Maybe I'll have to include a verbal component to pull off a really complex summoning, or trace runes in the air to magically unlock puzzles.

Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor
So, we went to war against armored mechs, and nobody brought a rocker launcher?

Of course, the big litmus test will be Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor. The franchise that famously included a $200 super-controller downshifts to zero physical interface this time around. That said, you'll still press all those buttons, pop in and out of hatches, bring down your periscope for long-distance action and (hopefully) shout at your gunner to fire while occasionally slapping panicked crewmates back into line. Nobody doubts Steel Battalion represents the hardest of the core, and its wide Kinect-based moveset suggests its legendary complexity stays intact. Now we just need to see if developer From Software makes it fun as well.

Because to justify the peripheral itself, or even its inclusion in future console generations, using Kinect must be more fun with than a traditional controller allows. That's what "better with Kinect" means. Anyone playing inside its casual-game comfort zone can win that argument right now, but the rest remains a theory…a solid theory that has yet to be fully tested, much less proven.

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