Kinect is one of the most interesting and ambiguous stories of the current console generation. Dismissed by critics and hardcore gamers as a gimmick, it nevertheless went on to sell over 10m units, mostly on its promise of evolving the whole motion control concept and freeing players entirely from the tyranny of the controller. But despite success stories like Dance Central and Kinectimals, owner frustration soon began to overshadow those rosy sales figures. Repeated criticisms that the sensor hardware wasn't accurate enough, and that games were tiring, repetitive and frustrating, led to a huge drop in developer take up. The concept seemed doomed.
But then, of course, came Microsoft's infamous Xbox One announcement event, where execs made it very clear that Kinect 2.0 was an essential element of the next-gen proposal. Announced in the midst of paranoia over NSA snooping, consumers were repulsed by the idea of a HAL-like eye in the corner of their living room, watching and listening, and reporting everything to lord knows who. Of course, Microsoft has since reneged on the whole 'always on' aspect and has assured gamers that it won't be recording what they get up to in their living rooms and sending it all to the government. But still, people are freaked out by it.
And none of those assurances answer some of the fundamental objections players have to the Kinect proposition: namely, many of the games are crap and no one wants to leap around their living rooms to navigate a menu. Sure, Kinect 2.0 solves one of the major technical difficulties: the need for masses of space in front of the TV (the new 1,080p camera with wider lens can cope with more people, and those people can be closer to the telly), but what of the games? What of the implementation and functionality of the technology? Why should we even care?
Rare, the veteran UK studio responsible for hits like Perfect Dark and Banjo Kazooie, helped test the Kinect proposition, as well as developing key early title Kinect Sports. The studio is certain things will be different with Kinect 2.0. Its own Xbox One title, Kinect Sports Rivals, features six events designed to make use of the new camera's much more accurate motion sensing capabilities. At Gamescom, I played the new wave race and rock climbing additions and definitely found them more responsive, and more varied.
Not only does this make for a more satisfying experience, it also means you're not exhausted within 10 minutes. While the original Kinect was marketed very much as a sort of glorified fitness instructor – possibly a response to the success of Wii Fit – the new one is just, well, an alternative input device. "You don't need to make big movements," assures creative dorector, Simon Woodroffe. "It's all very refined and subtle and responsive. It's not about high-energy competition, it's about skill".
But for Woodroffe and his team, this isn't the only feature that's really going to change things. "When we started making games for Kinect there was a big focus on always using the hardware," he says. "But now it's in the box, we can use it when it makes sense and not when it doesn't."
A key example of this is in navigating the game's front-end. Rather than using a menu screen, the user-interface is a living, interactive depiction of the Kinect Sports island, where users can see all the events, who is playing them, and the best scores of their friends. It's neat, but the best part is, you can just explore the whole thing with a controller. You don't need to stand there and making swiping gestures like some deranged military despot.
"It just makes sense," says Woodroffe. "People want to sit down with a controller and tweak their appearance, change the outfit – you can do it via gesture, but we're not going to force it, it's fine to use the controller. That's quite a big step forward, policy-wise. It's definitely a good thing. We'll drop motion controls where it makes sense."
Indeed, in the game itself, it seems players can opt to use the Xbox One controller instead of movement for most inputs. The challenge for the team this time has been ensuring that Kinect remains a truly useful interface – the one most players will naturally prefer. "We test all of the games with a controller and if we can't do just as well with motion controls, we're not happy," assures Woodroffe.
And this is an important point really. Kinect 2.0 can only really work as a platform if two things happen. First, now it's in the box, Microsoft needs more developers to experiment with using the technology in subtle ways that augment traditional genres. Some gamers really enjoyed using the voice function in Mass Effect 3 to issue commands and select conversation options – more of this sort of thing needs to happen.
The killer app may well be a first-person shooter that can track head movements allowing you to literally look round walls or peep over cover objects; it may be a survival horror game that implements the Kinect's heart monitoring capabilities to see how scared you are. We can already see some of this happening – D4, the latest title from cult developer Hidetaka 'Swery' Suehiro is an action adventure that allows players to interact with the screen, and with other characters, using gestures. Call of Duty: Ghosts is using the tech for voice commands, Dead Rising allows you to shout at zombies to distract them. Meanwhile, EA Dice is considering head tracking for Battlefield 4, and Titanfall will support the hardware in some way, but Respawn won't say how just yet.
"It would be nice if other developers see some of the things we're doing with it and start thinking, 'how can we use that to augment are core titles?'" says Woodroffe. "I think it's a big differentiator for Xbox One and it can really enhance the experience."
The other thing Kinect 2.0 needs is some fresh ideas. The original Kinect games did little to move things beyond what was already on Wii, and to justify the higher price tag that this equipment has forced upon Xbox One, we'll need to see studios really thinking about what physical interaction means in the game space. It's going to be difficult to win around the sceptics – those core gamers for whom Kinect totally failed to deliver on its vision, and who see its embedded status on Xbox One as a huge and sinister imposition. They have a point – but if studios start to do interesting things, who knows?
The Rare staff are, Woodroffe is happy to concede, committed and enthusiastic advocates of the technology. "We're all about new experiences, we're a very technical studio," he says. "The teams are brilliant at making creative things out of technology. We want to find things that no one has ever done before and make a game out of it. We should be inventing new genres, new ways to play – Kinect gives us new opportunities to do that."
Sign up for the Guardian Today
Our editors' picks for the day's top news and commentary delivered to your inbox each morning.
Sign up for the daily email
Source: Tablet Android