In a quiet room, far removed from the hustle and glitz of Las Vegas, EA and BioWare were at CES to show off Mass Effect 3’s new Kinect voice integration. It was a technology that was first unveiled at E3, but seeing it in a quiet room with a chance to experience it first hand was a different experience—and a good one.
Utilizing the Kinect for dedicated gamers has always been a challenge. The integration typically comes off feeling like little more than a gimmick. Sure, it’s swell that you can turn the imaginary wheel with your hands in Forza 4, but it is something that will be, at best, a brief amusement before you go back to a standard controller or a wheel for better control. It just doesn’t offer anything to the core gameplay experience. The voice commands in Mass Effect 3 do.
If you know the Mass Effect series, then you are already familiar with the squad mechanics. You have your primary character of Shepard, and two other characters that you can change between missions. Typically your allies operate on their own, either attacking up close or from a distance as the character’s personality dictates, but you can also command them to use their special attacks. Each time you open the command wheel to issue a command you also freeze the game, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing and sometimes the freeze can be helpful. After a while though it hurts the pacing of the combat and becomes a distraction.
There is always the ability to map certain commands to the D-pad, but that is still limited two just two pre-selected ally abilities, and commands to send them where you are looking. With the Kinect though, it not only makes the existing options easier, it creates new ones.
Each of the characters in the party—including Shepard him/herself—can now accept voice commands. If you are in a combat situation, you can tell your allies to “move,” and they will head to wherever your reticule is pointing. You can then command them to use any of their special abilities by simply saying their name and then the action, and they will use it wherever you are pointed.
The voice commands also work on Shepard. You can switch weapons, change ammo and use your own special moves simply by speaking them aloud. The voice commands can also be used to interact with the environment and do things like open doors, as well as speaking the line of dialog you wish to choose in branching conversations.
This might all seem like a minor thing, but if you use it often it changes the entire nature of the game. In the past Mass Effect games the use of the squad was important, but not really vital. With a few exceptions you could outfit your allies, then just play the game as a third-person shooter. With the Kinect, you can order allies to flank, hit enemies with multiple complimentary attacks, and truly turn it into a team based game. Using the proper team tactics, you can utterly decimate waves of enemies and extra tough bad guys with ease.
All of this was technically possible before, but the nature of the interface and the game itself made it unlikely that most would continually want to pause their game to set up commands in order to defeat enemies that you could mostly just defeat with the AI helping you anyway.
While playing the demo, it really was an interesting use of the Kinect technology that worked well, and perhaps more importantly, was something new and fresh. Other games have tried voice commands before with mixed success. The SOCOM games on PS2 are a good example, as they were based around you ordering teammates to do things via the headset (although it didn’t work as often as it did, leading to some hilariously stupid moments where your stealth missions suddenly turned into “oh God we’re all going to die” moments after one member mistook the command “go left” for “run screaming into a building throwing grenades”). With the Kinect, the voice commands are useful, but thankfully not vital.
For the most part the Kinect’s speaker is capable of doing an incredible job of differentiating between background noise (including noise and voices coming from the TV), and your actual speaking voice. When it can’t, it simply doesn’t work, which is far preferable to having it incorrectly do things on its own. And if it does stop working, you aren’t out anything–you can quickly and easily revert to playing Mass Effect 3 just as you would have in the past.
The Kinect will currently recognize commands in English (with America, British, and Australian accents), French, Italian, and German.
The Kinect integration is entirely optional, and while it definitely adds a layer to the squad-based commands, the game doesn’t lose anything by not having it. The integration won’t make or break the game, nor will it be an excuse in and of itself to rush out and buy a Kinect. But for those that own a Kinect, and those that are planning on buying Mass Effect 3 on March 6, this is the way to play it.