I was once like you — a jaded Kinect owner, tired of novelty games, dance-a-thons, and throwaway experiences. Someone who believed in the promise of Kinect’s technology to augment a gaming experience without making the “you are the controller” motto a binding and crippling requirement. I also feared the worst when BioWare announced its plans to integrate Kinect into Mass Effect 3 (which was close to the same time the game was slapped with a delay), cynical that it would be shoehorned in to meet a necessary marketing bullet point. But after spending some time with the most recent build, and experiencing the voice-enabled combat and exploration features hands-on, I’m pleased to report that not only have those doubts been 100% decimated, but I came away pleasantly surprised.
The press event took place last week at the Four Seasons hotel in Las Vegas, an intimate setting where BioWare Edmonton’s Aaryn Flynn (read our separate interview with him here) took us through a brief demonstration of gameplay, with extra combat commands issued entirely by voice control. Then, each member of the press ducked away into a private room to experience the demo personally.
What I played was similar to a demonstration shown at E3 2011, but this time with full Kinect voice integration (and noticeably sharper graphics). I dropped into the continuation of the Genophage storyline, as Shepard, James and Liara are on a mission to protect a fertile Krogan female from Cerberus agents.
According to the EA rep we spoke with, BioWare’s intent with their Kinect support is to provide a less obtrusive experience, integrated into Mass Effect 3 in such a way that it becomes a natural extension of gameplay, rather than you flailing around like an idiot or yelling stupidly at your television. Their reasoning is that people naturally talk to video games anyway (no, it won’t recognize that kind of language!), and the Kinect voice control is a way to incorporate that.
COMMANDING YOUR SQUAD
On the controller side, the major differences you’ll see is that holding the “B” button now unleashes your heavy melee attack with Shepard’s Omniblade. You can also roll during combat by tapping the “A” button. So how exactly does the Kinect side of things work? Wherever your reticule is pointing is where your voice command will be directed. A simple example: wherever you’re looking, you can say “James, Move” or “Liara, Move” and they’ll relocate instantly. A more complex example would be during combat. If you have an enemy targeted (indicated by a subtle orange box around it), you can give power commands like “James, Carnage” and “Liara, Singularity.”
In our playthrough, Shepard was specced as a Soldier, and James is a soldier as well. So what happens when you want to toss a frag grenade? Controlling Shepard via voice is done by simply uttering the command. So “frag grenade” or “assault rifle” will control Shepard, while “James, frag grenade” or “James, assault rifle” will instruct James to act.
BioWare has seemingly gone to great lengths to keep the combat flowing without the need for game-pausing menus. You can even utter the phrase “quick save” to save your progress. Shepard can switch weapons or ammunition types (incendiary, cryo, etc), use class abilities like Adrenaline Rush, and even carry out a dozen exploration commands (activate, salvage, warn, examine, support, etc) all with the sound of your voice.
SO DOES IT WORK?
A small blue microphone icon will appear in the top left of your screen indicating that the command was accepted, and of course you’ll see near-instant visual feedback from most commands. An orange icon means that background noise is interfering with voice recognition, or that the command wasn’t understood. The commands can be issued in your normal speaking voice, with only the tiniest pause between them, and over-enunciating isn’t necessary. Even with audible commands coming from a demo room adjacent to ours, the Kinect had no problem understanding 99% of the voice commands I issued, or that our PR spokesperson spoke. We even saw a journalist with a thick Irish accent using the speech commands without any errors. This could lend itself to some spontaneous “hands-off” co-op participation with a friend on the couch, helping you out of a jam in case the proverbial cat gets your tongue. Perhaps most importantly, the response time is realistic and snappy.
The biggest hurdle players will have in using voice commands with Mass Effect 3 is knowledge of the commands themselves. Certain ones, like movement and switching weapons, became second nature within mere minutes, but more complicated combinations (like Liara’s Singularity coupled with James’ Carnage) will take practice and an inherent understanding of your supporting companions’ class abilities. That said, I’m confident that once players come to grips with the dozens of voice commands available, this will be the preferred method of playing Mass Effect 3 (really!), simply because it works exactly as advertised, feels natural, and adds a thrilling layer to combat, while serving to give you a seamless experience, not interrupted by constant menu-driven commands.
BioWare did not have the voice-driven dialogue options on display, but they will be available with the demo that hits the public on February 14th. It’s not a feature I’m drawn to, and most will probably prefer to use the controller for conversations. But in terms of Mass Effect 3‘s voice support elsewhere, BioWare has delivered on the promise of Kinect, to such an extent that its implementation here could significantly drive new Kinect purchases.
If you’ll allow me a bold statement: The Kinect integration is so well-executed that despite having a beefy new graphics card on my PC, the Xbox 360 version is now my preferred platform to experience Mass Effect 3, despite playing the first two installments on PC.
[Editor's Note: VGW traveled to and attended this event at our own expense.]