Wednesday, November 24, 2010
Dance Central; or, what is Kinect for?
My review of Dance Central is up at thephoenix.com. I spent a good bit of it on the recent developments surrounding Harmonix, maybe a little too much. But, really, Dance Central is simple to explain and works as advertised, so what more needs to be said? Without having played any other Kinect titles except for Kinect Adventures, I feel comfortable saying this is the best reason to get a Kinect.
I never tried out the hardware when it was in development. My first experience with Kinect was when I bought one. After checking Best Buy for a couple of days without success, I stopped at a Toys R Us on a whim and they had several in stock.
(I haven't been to a Toys R Us in years. It's a weird, vaguely unsettling store. I remember it being like an amusement park, but it's actually just harsh lighting and metal shelves piled with crap. Plus I got bowled over by not one, but two determined moms doing some early Christmas shopping, and waited in line for several minutes before I could actually buy the damn thing from a 16-year-old sales clerk who seemed in over his head. Toys R Us sucks. Don't ever go there.)
Right, so, Kinect. It was a snap to set up: just put it in place, plug in the power supply, and attach the USB connection to the back of the Xbox. Start to finish, it took about a minute. As a former 32X owner, I appreciated this more than I should have.*
Part of the allure of Kinect is that you can control what's onscreen both with gestures and with voice, and I think it's going to take some time for developers to figure out which function works better for which applications. The Minority Report-style grabbing and pulling of menu options works quite well when you're browsing the Kinect hub. To actually select something requires you to hold your hand still in mid-air for a good second or so. It's hard to see how that's an improvement over a split-second button press.
You can also use voice command here, and it seems dicey. If other people in the room are talking, the Kinect doesn't pick up your voice. Sometimes it doesn't pick up your voice even if no one's talking. Sometimes it misinterprets what you said. And it's a slow process. You say "Xbox!" and then wait for it to acknowledge that it's now in voice command mode, at which time you can give the real command. Again, this is not actually an improvement over using a joypad.
(One place I could see voice command being a real plus: entering download codes. I was thinking about this during the ten minutes I spent trying to enter my online pass for Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit. How great would it have been to be able to just read the code aloud? Apparently that's not a feature yet, or if it is, I didn't know how to do it.)
Awhile back, I wrote a defense of the standard gamepad, in which I argued that, complicated though today's controller is, it has also evolved to do lots of things really well. Kinect does not seem to do most of the traditional controller things well. What the controller does best is translate minimal player input into maximal onscreen action. Moving the analog stick a few degrees is the difference between your character tiptoeing and sprinting. Kinect, it seems, requires big movements on your part to do something as simple as pausing your game (hold your left hand out at a specific angle for several seconds).
Kinect obviously has loads of potential. About half the time, it works so well that it feels like there's an alien intelligence in your living room. And about half the time it takes a dump. The challenge is going to be for developers to figure out how to use it. It simply will not work if they try to shoehorn motion controls onto traditional games. This is a lesson that took a year or two for studios to learn with the Wii and DS, and I expect that at this time next year we'll be looking at some games that make good use of the hardware. For now, it seems like Dance Central is it.
*I've mostly suppressed the memory at this point, but as I recall, the process for setting up the 32X involved putting metal clamps inside the Genesis's cartridge slot to hold the doors open, only the clamps were thin and tended to fall inside the slot, at which point the doors closed and they were impossible to get out. The 32X also had numerous passthrough cables, its own power supply, and I think you had to make a burnt offering each time you turned it on.