Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Giving the Xbox Kinect a Second Chance

A year back from now, I received the new Xbox Kinect as a Christmas gift with one game: 'Kinect Adventures'. Essentially this was about four or five mini games that involved small movements of the body to complete obstacles. I must admit it is very impressive how the Kinect camera is programmed to detect the player's skeletal frame and apply it to their online avatar, but the novelty of the activities on the disk soon wore off. So up until now I never really developed an interest in the Kinect technology, and saw it as a bit of a novelty to show off to relatives at family get togethers. As a format for gaming I couldn't help but pin it down as a bit of a flash in the pan trying to compete with the Nintendo Wii with its immersive controller. Nevertheless, a year down the line I thought it would be a good idea to see how the technology has come along, putting a Kinect game of any description down on my Christmas list for 2011.

What I received was a game called 'The Gunstringer.' This is a western genre game where you play the role of a puppet master, controlling a skeleton outlaw on a revenge spree to take down the people who put him underground. The idea of the game is that the events are being performed to an audience in a pantomime style production, complete with an omniscient narrator and thick red curtains. The video shows the gameplay:

Firstly, I like the idea of you playing the manipulator holding the Gunstringer's control bars (The wooden blocks that the puppet's strings hang from) as appose to the Gunstringer himself. When you take out the physical controller you find in all other consoles, in my opinion you can sometimes loose the solid feel that makes gaming so engaging. When you push an analogue stick or a press a button, you are commanding your character to perform an action. If you are required to use your whole body to control the in game character,  this physical hands on connection we have grown so accustom to is removed entirely. In the case of 'The Gunstringer', the players left hand becomes the physical controller of the character's movement. This is clever in the sense that the jump made from controller based platforms to the Kinect is not too large and unfamiliar. This barrier still exists between the player and the character, yet the player is still able to perform actions with the body to achieve actions in the game. Your left hand is used for all movement in the game such as weaving through obstacles, and jumping, by quickly raising the hand. There are also parts within each level where the Gunstringer hides behind objects, and the left hand is used to hang out of or stay in cover. Hanging out of cover enables the player to be able to shoot enemies, while staying in cover means they are safe from bullet fire. The directional movement of the left hand determines which side of the cover the Gunstringer will hang out of.

The right hand is used mainly to aim and shoot the Gunstringer's firearm. To achieve this the motion is very straight forward. You simply adjust your arm until the crosshair on the screen is dragged over an enemy. The game uses a lock on system, where the player picks out and marks his targets. Once the right hand is pulled back in a quick jolt representing the recoil of a revolver being fired, the enemies are killed in rapid succession. The player can also use this ability to intercept: flying bullets, thrown dynamite and attacking wildlife. When the Gunstringer puts away his weapon, you are required to swing your right arm to perform bare knuckle attacks. This command does often result in the Gunstringer performing fancy kicks and spins, which sometimes take away from the physical action of throwing a punch. There are also moments where the player will control two guns, one with each hand. While dual wielding, the firearms shoot rapidly and you must navigate the left and right crosshairs to takedown large waves of approaching enemies.

A few complaints: Although using the left hand as a contoller is very effective in creating this familiar gaming experience of commanding a character, having one arm suspended outwards for long periods can cause the arm to ache. Perhaps the gameplay could vary more often, moving sequences perhaps being broken up by static fist fights or other game types that could involve heavier use of the right arm. And another point, in the excitement of the gameplay, it is easy to slightly wonder from the central point of the Kinect camera, causing the player to loose sync with the character in game. There are very frustrating moments where what is at points solid control over the Gunstringer, becomes very unresponsive causing you to perform erratic movements in frustration and loose large amounts of health.

One large problem I believe the Kinect could face, is linear restrictions. Because really the player can only perform horizontal movement with their left hand in 'The Gunstringer', the character must move along a set path over the course of each level. I find it difficult to imagine how a more open map kinnect game could really be achieved, though I could be wrong. Even the more linear First person shooter platforms for the Xbox 360 allow a certain level of freedom. Perhaps the way forward for truly immersive gaming with the Kinect, is to incorporate it in games that require the use of a controller. Bioware are doing this already with 'Mass effect 3', where the player can use the voice recognition abilities of the camera to command their squad. Perhaps with the gesture recognisant abilities, players could use hand signals to command their teammates in more tactical military shooter platforms. In conclusion, there are some great capabilities with the Kinect, but I can see it as a tool to be combined with bigger platforms to add to the interactive gaming experience. When we have huge open map epics like 'Skyrim' and 'Red Dead Redemption,' it is hard to truly be engaged by arcade style linear shooters.

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