Game shows! Huh! What are they good for? …Playing around with exciting new games technology, apparently. In this case, Microsoft’s 360 gadget Kinect, which easily wins this year’s ‘hardest name to accurately remember’ award, having taken three attempts to type correctly and being mispronounced all weekend by my fellow attendees. But, then, silly names come with the territroy. Eh, Nintendo? Kinect is Microsoft taking a long, hard look at the future of gaming and, to paraphrase Doc Brown, saying: where we’re going, we don’t need controllers. Which is an interesting step on, conceptually, from the Wii, going beyond the removal of those fiddly buttons and sticks that put off the older generations and just straight-up waving goodbye to everything. What looks to be less of an interesting step forward is the games. On the show floor, you had:–The One That’s Definitely Not Wii Sports (Kinect Sports, which seems to be the only thing Rare are working on at the moment, oddly)–The Proof-of-Concept Minigames One (Kinect Adventures)–The Honest Guv It’s Not Mario Kart Racing One (Kinect Joyride)-…and a dancing game. It’s hardly inspirational, revolutionary stuff. Worse, there seemed to be a fundamental misunderstanding of what makes the Kinect attractive. I didn’t get to play Kinect Sports, but watching two people limply play table tennis it was pretty easy to see that removing the remotes from, let’s be frank, Wii Tennis doesn’t make it feel more natural. Having that weight in your hand helped people buy into the Wii experience. Meanwhile, the two Avatars (Mii-a-like cartoony representations of the player) flopped reluctantly along. It was, I suspect, an impressive use of the technology but it just served to reinforce the artificiality of the situation. The dancing game (Dance Central, to be specific, as according to Wikipedia it’s one of three dance games launching with the Kinect) suffered from the opposite problem. With one dancer representing both people busting moves in front of the camera, there didn’t seem to be any visual representation of what either player was doing, or not doing. But, perhaps I’m being unfair. I didn’t get to play either of these games myself. So let’s move on to what I did get my hands on. Um. Not that, err, there was anything to put your hands on… First: Kinect Joy Ride. It failed to play to any of the ‘no controller’ idea’s strengths, a problem inherent in the Kinect racing genre. Having no physical object to grab meant that when your steering went wrong, you had no indication of why. Were you grabbing this imaginary wheel in the wrong place? Had you steered too far in one direction? Was it that little sidestep you took ten seconds ago? No idea. I won the race, but didn’t come away feeling like I’d mastered anything. Which leaves Kinect Adventures. Stepping forward as the Kinect’s answer to Wii Play – which showed what could potentially be done with the technology in a series of (not very fun) minigames – it was surprisingly the best indication that this might all actually be worthwhile. To return to the eternal question of what makes the Kinect interesting, what its strengths are: it is as a gadget. That’s how it’s being sold, advertised in shop windows as Christmas’ hottest gadget. It exists as something to be filed alongside the iPads and 3D TVs of the world. The appeal is the idea of playing with sci-fi tech. The Minority Report feeling of flipping through menus floating in the air in front of you. So my first instinct was to play with it, see how it worked, and try to break it. Adventures offered the best chance to do that, with minigames focused on bending your body in the style of that BBC-adopted Japanese gameshow where people have to jump through Tetris-block shaped holes. This meant being able to test the admittedly quite impressive tech – what happens if I lift my leg? Ooh! Now what if? Ahh! – which wasn’t on show in any of the other games. The minigames themselves weren’t that brilliant but the novelty of testing the limits of something new can make up for that, as many early Wii games can attest. And so hilarity ensued: watching friends jump in the air and nearly batter a poor stranger over the head in the process. Some guy who decided to see if he could make his Avatar shoot a Nazi salute. Nearly falling over myself… That is what the Kinect needs to be. It remains to be seen whether the developers are actually going to realise that. (Likenesses of Mssrs David Inkpen and Geoff Maillard, esquire, used without any permission whatsoever. Sorry, guys.)
Gears of War 3The one thing the first Gears of War realised – the one thing that raised it above all the ridiculous musclebound-homoerotic-dripping-sweat macho cliches it so loved – was that it is just as exciting to be shot at as it is to shoot. Within six months, every shooting game had a cover system. By the second game, it felt less special, and so overblown spectacle and setpieces became the order of the day. Gears of War 3 was showing off its new Beast mode. Beast is an inversion of the old Horde mode, probably Gears of War 2‘s greatest contribution to the genre. It flips the core idea, placing a team of Locust baddie-monsters against wave after wave of wily humans. And so Gear’s precious vulnerability is replaced: at least in the version I played, the ‘one death and you’re out’ mechanic is gone. The key thing, however, is the unlockable tree of characters. The longer you play, it opens up the option to play as a whole host of ridiculous monsters, from the mace-wielding Behemoth fella to the virtually indestructable Sonic-by-way-of-Predator Kantus. To call Beast mode asymmetrical is a powerful understatement. You are the destructive force tearing Gears’ world apart. Having sacrificed the one thing Gears has always done right, Beast Mode really needs to capture the just as rare sensation of being genuinely all-powerful. Which, sadly, it doesn’t quite manage. Nevertheless, and annoyingly counter to my argument, it was compelling. It aims for somewhere between all-powerful and battered-down – embodied in the way humans can hem the big all-powerful guys in with laser traps – and instead concentrates on being a tight, sharp game. There’s clearly room for sharpened strategic playstyles there, for large amounts of variety within the same play session. I accept, grudgingly, that letting me stomp on puny humans might imbalance the game. But just where is the tension? Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood. You know those party games, where one person can kill everyone else by winking? Or the one where people have to try and guess who the secret killer is, doing the dirty while they’ve all got their eyes closed? Mafia or Werewolf or, relevantly, Assassin? It’s looking to be the year where people realise that would translate beautifully to videogames, and Brotherhood is the big-budget example. You’ve got one target, dressed in one of seven strikingly identifiable costumes. Your job, obviously, is to assassinate them. But those seven costumes populate the world hundreds of times over. The key is picking out exactly which one is your target and not just an AI clone. Meanwhile, you are someone else’s target, and they’re trying to do the exact same thing as you. And so the game becomes trying to pick people off, while remaining invisible to your pursuer. Do you try to force someone’s hand into revealing themselves, and risk giving yourself away? Do you concentrate on being the perfect AI and wait for the inevitable mistakes to happen around you? Or, do you clamber up the nearest trellis and pelt it across the rooftops? As previously mentioned, Brotherhood is the blockbuster iteration of the idea. That means turning up the thrills, adding gadgets and fast-paced chases to the simple beauty of the parlour game at its heart. It’s just a little bit too easy to not play by the game’s rules. During my numerous play-sessions, some people chose not to play along, and played the admittedly fine action game instead. The game’s unique joy walks, by defintion, a razor’s edge. Bring that to Xbox Live’s infamous idiot-mentality, and you’re looking at a beautiful system inevitably broken. On the other hand, us boring patient thinker types have got SpyParty coming. And it is thrilling to realise you’ve just screwed up and throw caution to the wind. Giving up the pretence and just legging it over the aforementioned, beautifully-modelled rooftops. Slamming a door in a pursuers’ face and knowing you’ve lost them. For now, at least. One of the odd things, meeting games before they’re quite ready, is playing backseat designer. Oh, if only they tweaked this, or took away that… The conversation on the way home, the next morning, was about just how Brotherhood could be improved. It needs to be smaller. It needs to drop the radar. It needs to penalise mis-kills, of innocents or non-target players. It needs to be one-death-and-you’re-out. So here we have two games that aim for an interesting extreme. In my head, I see them existing as a perfect caricature of an idea. Gears of War 3‘s Beast Mode living up to its name, throwing your foolish concepts of ‘fairness’ and ‘balance’ out of the window and laughing deeply, handing you the reins to an out-of-control overpowered war machine destroying all that lays before it.Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood multiplayer living up to its name: drawing a tense mano-y-mano duel out of a crowded plaza, forcing you to eye up the three richly dressed merchants as you finger the whetted knife and wondering, exactly which one is the man you’ve been paid to kill, narrowing it down to two, to one, squeezing your eyes tight as you squeeze the trigger and — red, everywhere red, what happened? As your model ragdoll flops to the floor, you see the blade pulled from your ribs, the smile on the face of the pursuer you forgot all about. …Instead, they aim to be good games. Balance and tightness over big stupid innovation. And no doubt, they will be. They’ll be well-received, get 8s and 9s in all the right places, sell beautifully. But maybe we’ll look at it, this healthy beautiful success, and remember – for one unjustifiably bitter moment – what it should have been.