Tuesday, 15 June 2010

E3 2010: Microsoft Keynote impressions. Part 2: Kinect

For the sake of length this article has been broken into two parts, for a look at the rest of the keynote check out part 1

After the Halo trailer its was time for some hands on time with Kinect. Ron Forbes was demonstrating how we will be able to use the new technology with the existing dashboard; to log onto his account all he had to do was wave, within about a second he was logged in, a second wave bought up a simplified version of the 360 menu. The new 'Kinect Hub' menu allows everything to be selected by moving your hand around, if you pause over an item for a few seconds it will open that item, so far so EyeToy, things get more impressive though with the introduction of the voice controls, to enter a command he first said "Xbox" this bought up the command phrases for the applications, he then said "Zune" and was taken into the Zune menu, it all happened very quickly and didn't seem to have any noticeable lag. He then started up a movie, using his hands again he showed off how easy it is to fast forward and rewind with simple hand gestures, as well as some precision tuning. We also got to see some simple voice command examples such as "Xbox, pause" and "Xbox, play" both of which had the results you'd expect from those commands, again without any noticeable lag, he then demonstrated using voice commands to switch to music and used similar controls there as well. 

We were then treated to a demonstration of Video Kinect, this was always going to be the hardest part to sell of all the features and I was surprised how much time they dedicated to it, the video quality was very good, and there were a few neat touches such as being able to see the weather information for the area the other person was in and the ability to being up videos to watch together. The coolest feature was the use of Kinects motorised base for head tracking, when the person moves out of shot the camera follows them, it was very cool to watch, and was the highlight of a segment that otherwise screamed 'webcam chat'.

This was followed by what can only be described as mixed news depending on what country you're from, if you're from the States rejoice because you'll be getting ESPN for free if you have Xbox Live Gold, if you live anywhere else in the world I'd hold back on that excitement because this is looking like Netflix all over again. Anyway, for those who will be getting it the ESPN option looks fantastic, access to 3500 sporting events, either on demand or live and most of which will be in HD. Again Kinect offers voice control and includes some clever features such as being able to call out who you are rooting for and have it logged against all the other people who are watching live, as well as being able to participate in some trivia quizzes or even request a replay! All ESPN.com features will be available when watching a game as well.

Kudo Tsunoda walks on stage, and he wasn't wearing sunglasses! Only kidding, of course he was wearing sunglasses... He explained that he would be our anchor for the Kinect section of the keynote, and then left the stage, leaving in his place a little girl. She called for her pet tiger cub who excitedly bounded onto the screen, the entire segment was absolutely adorable. She demonstrated how she could tickle it, or make it do tricks, then in a cruel twist she hid from the poor animal, at which point he pressed his paws against the screen and looked around for her, whining, the girl jumped back out and the little tiger cub got really excited. I realise how silly this all sounds but it was a really cute demonstration of the Kinect's tech, towards the end of the demonstration she giggled "go and get your jump rope" she didn't say it in standard voice command style as everyone else had previously, and yet the tiger came back with a jump rope clenched between it's teeth. Its worth pointing out the the graphics were really good, the realistic but cartoony faced tiger was fantastic, this looks like a toy you're going to buy for yourself but pretend it's for your daughter, trust me. After a further play with the tiger it was time for the heart warming scene to come to an end, Kudo returned to the stage and explained that the game is called Kinectimals and will feature 40 pets and 30 different activities.

Next up we got to see Kinect Sports and Joyride, the observant among you may remember that Joyride was announced last year as a free title for XBLA, no idea if it will still be free but it's Kinect only now. Kinect Sports had a rather cool feature where you could hype up the crowd on the title screen, there's absolutely no purpose to it at all, but being able to initiate Mexican waves and get a stadium going wild just by lifting your arms is something that most gamers secretly aspire to I'd imagine. The actual game mode they demonstrated was the 200mtr hurdles, and basically involved running on the spot and jumping when your avitar reached the hurdles. The graphics looked fairly good again, and it it's always nice to see support for the Avatars, but it is really just a minigame compilation much like that other motion controlled sports game with 'Sports' in the title. The other sports included in the final release are Bowling, Boxing, Table Tennis, Volley Ball and Javelin.
Joyride made similar use of Avatars and simplistic gameplay, steering is handled by holding your hands in front of yourself as if holding a fake steering wheel, you have to push your hands forward to boost and move your hips to drift, it is possible to do tricks by posing when your car is in the air. It didn't look very good as far as graphics are concerned and the way Kinect had been implemented looked lazy, these two were by far the least inspiring of the Kinect titles.
The next title that was presented, Kinect Adventures!, just managed to avoid being dropped into the uninspiring category by having a couple of cool features. Again the game centres around mini games, and essentially involved jumping on the spot in a variety of different game locations, the most impressive feature was the way the game instantly split into splitscreen mode when another player jumped into the play area, it also took pictures during gameplay and presented them in the way a rollercoaster does at the end of the ride, but this is something EyeToy games have been doing for years now. 

When the Ubisoft logo appeared on screen I felt a faint twinge of excitement that we might have gotten to actually see a 'proper' kinect game, the excitement faded away instantly when the trailer began and it became clear we were looking at some kind of fitness game. The actual title of the project is called Your Shape: Fitness Evolved, and despite my initial reservations it actually ended up looking really impressive. The games demonstrator was Felicia Williams, Ubisoft's international brand manager, when she stood in front of Kinect she was rendered as a 3d orange model stood in a room filled with brightly coloured exercise balls, she was able to interact with these and kicked a few away to demonstrate this. The system then began to do a comprehensive scan of her, this was cool, but also kind creepy, there was something very Terminator about the way it showed a skeleton under her skin and the started reeling off statistics about her body. She explained that this scan was so that the system could remember her, base routines around her body shape, and so that it could customise the menus specifically for her, sure enough all of the menu items were placed within her reach, its a small feature but it was very intuitive. The first real activity had a virtual instructor next to her on-screen orange model, it was simply a case of doing the same movements as the instructor, just like a workout video, unlike a workout video the game provided feedback such as 'you need to lift your knee higher' to make sure she was actually doing the exercise right. Next up was a block breaking combat game, this placed a grid in front of the player and it was a simple case of kicking or punching the blocks away, it looked really responsive and fairly fun to do. The final part of the demonstration revolved around yoga, in the same way as before the game advised on how to adjust her pose to best match that of the instructor, it was possible during this to see the estimation of where the game thought her bones and joints were, it did look very accurate. 

Next up the Harmonix logo flashed up on screen and we were treated to a girl playing their new game Dance Central, it looked a lot like the Wii game Just Dance, but with a lot more potential. The girl's dancing was incredible, but it was hard to tell if the character on screen was replicating her movements or doing some pre-canned animations, regardless the game did look a lot of fun but also very daunting to someone like me who has no type of dancing talent at all. Harmonix CEO Alex Rigopulos then walked out on stage and explained that Dance Central is the natural progression from dance mat games of the past, he's probably right and I can see this being a massive hit with the Just Dance style crowd, he then ran through a few of the artists who will feature in the game; Lady Gaga, The Beastie Boys, No Doubut and Mia, a lot of the songs in game will feature the dance moves featured in their music videos, hopefully that means we'll be re-creating the Sabotage video in the near future from the comfort of our own homes. The character models look like they have been lifted out of the Rock Band, the HUD features a boom box that fills with stars and displays the score multiplier  as well as a rotating wheel on the right hand side of the screen that shows the current and upcoming dance moves, it is in essence a dancing version of Rock Band. Finally my fears of humiliation in the world of bedroom dancing (take from that expression what you will) were laid to rest when another member of Harmonix demonstrated the 'break it down' mode which takes every dance move and in a method similar to Your Shape advises you on how to change your posture to achieve each step.

There will be 15 titles available for Kinect when it launches November 4, all but 2 of which look like they are going to be sports / fitness games. This was the most disappointing aspect of Kinect, the technology looks very solid, but there aren't any release titles to excite core gamers, in fact a couple of the titles that were up on screen looked like standard Wii shovelware, hopefully there will be some innovative must have titles soon after release.

Things started to look up when the Star Wars theme started to play, and I can happily admit that I was getting pretty excited about what was going to follow. My excitement was burned away ina  few seconds by some awful pre-rendered on rails footage of a Jedi swinging a lightsaber that seemed to be just tapping stormtroopers on the head causing them ragdoll into little piles. There wasn't any indication of how the the game will control, but judging by the over the top nature of the animations its fairly safe to asume we'll thrusting our arms forward to use force powers and swinging them to use the lightsaber/ wiffle ball bat. The trailer concluded with Darth Vader stepping out of an imperial transport and swinging for the protagonist, hopefully everything on display was just a quick pre-rendered mock up of how the final mechanics will work.

After the Star Wars trailer two members of Turn 10 come on stage to show off what again looked like a tech demo for Forza Kinect (no actual title was given). The driving was far more solid than that seen in Joyride, and was handled in the same way with outstretched arms on the steering wheel, in a rather impressive touch when the person playing turned his head the head of the in game driver turned as well thanks to the head tracking technology. The graphics were undeniably up the the usual Forza quality, although the gameplay was a very simple matter of passing as many cars as possible, it was a good demo of how the tech might work in an actual racing game, hopefully this will be a part of Forza 4 and not a stand alone game. They then cut to a Ferrari sat in the middle of a desert, again Kinect's head tracking features were being used to allow the user to look around the car, when he leaned in the camera leaned in for a closer view, when he crouched down the camera couched down and by holding his hand over a feature of the car he was able to bring up a little cutscene that gave details of that feature such as the angles of the headlights... which looked a lot better than it sounds! The best moment of this section if the demo was when the he walked round to the side of the car, reached out and opened the door and then was able to get into the car to look around the interior. The rendering inside was fantastic, and the head tracking did allow for a lot of interaction and exploration of the vehicle, the demo ended when he started the engine, but it did look unlikely you'd be able to actually start driving the car once you were inside.

That bought the Kinect presentation to a close. As I mentioned earlier the technology looks utterly fantastic, it's a really exciting device and has the potential to make a big impact on the way games are played. Unfortunately it wasn't put to very good use at all, there seems to be a lot of focus on ditching the controller and playing catch-up with the Wii, hopefully some developers will realise that features such as voice recognition and headtracking would really compliment a lot of existing genres. Imagine an RPG that was able to read expressions and react to voice commands or a first person shooter with head tracking, throw in some 3D glasses and there is massive potential for something amazing to be done with this technology. As soon as we possibly can we will be getting some hands on time with Kinect and we'll let you know our impressions.

If you haven't already done so, don't forget to check out part 1 of the Microsoft Conference for a look at some of the core gaming experiences coming out soon. We will be covering the EA, Nintendo and Sony conferences as well, so keep checking back for more E3 news throughout the week.

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