Digital Life: The war against buttons
A secret war is being waged on buttons -- and it's only getting more vicious. You will have noticed the key-free trend started by the iPhone and iPad. You might have heard of the Nintendo Wii, which famously turned its back on joysticks in favour of a motion-sensing wand.
Microsoft and Sony certainly took note, having been comprehensively outsold by the Wii because Nintendo tapped into the non-gaming public's hostility to buttons. Sony responded last month with the new motion-sensitive Move controller for PlayStation 3.
But Microsoft has bet that, for the millions still unmoved by videogames, even one button is too much. The upshot of this thinking is Kinect, the new camera attachment for the Xbox 360 console that recognises the movement of your entire body, enabling you to control games, music and movies with a wave of your hand or nod of the head.
It's not intended as a replacement for the traditional game controller that works so well for intense hardcore experiences such as Halo or FIFA. Instead, Kinect encourages new ways to play: more physical, interactive and involving. Think Wii Sports meets Tom Cruise's hand-waving in Minority Report.
So much for the theory anyway. Miraculously, the reality isn't far off. The chunky, motorised camera sits under your telly, tracking up to two players and making your digital doppelgangers perform the same moves on-screen.
In the games available so far, the possibilities are as diverse as kicking a football, dancing, stroking a pet or driving a car -- all by mimicking real-world actions.
Unlike the faithful precision of PlayStation Move, however, Kinect's motion-tracking is a little loose and prone to occasional hiccups. It's rarely enough to be troublesome but shows that button-based controllers aren't redundant yet.
Microsoft has packed several clever tricks up the camera's sleeve, such as face recognition to automatically identify who's playing, video chat online with friends and an easy way to navigate your music and movies with a swipe of your palm.
Alas, the voice-recognition function does not yet work in Ireland.
But now for Kinect's dirty little secret. All the promo photos show spacious US-style living rooms for good reason. Kinect needs at least six to eight feet of free space in front of your TV -- and many homes and apartments simply won't provide that leeway. Good luck rearranging the furniture.
For now, the camera is geared towards family-friendly (and physically tiring) games to pull in the Wii crowd. There's little sign of Kinect adding new dimensions to more conventional games.
At €150 (bundled with the simplistic mini-games of Kinect Adventures), Microsoft is asking a lot. But the Kinect experience is so radically different and fun that it demands at least an audition.
What about the games?
Bundled free with the camera and designed as more of a tutorial to Kinect's powers, this disposable series of mini-games (river rafting, obstacle course, etc) is no smash hit like Wii Sports.
But it whets the appetite for greater things thanks to features such as in-game snapshots of the players which can be uploaded online.
The one bona-fide classic in the launch line-up, DC is like Guitar Hero for the dance generation. The 30-plus tracklisting may err on the side of cool (Lady Gaga) rather than cheesy fun (what, no 'Macarena'?).
But its dancing action still manages to accommodate clodhoppers like me as well as skilled hot-steppers.
Only an underdeveloped multiplayer mode spoils the party.
Similar to the wildly popular Wii Sports, this broad collection gives you a choice of 11 mini-games from (simplistic) football to bowling to sprinting. It's exhausting but frequently hilarious in multiplayer and a good showcase for Kinect's potential.
Under the definition of "adorable" in next year's dictionary, you'll probably find Kinectimals, a pet sim with bags of charm. Like the similar EyePet on PS3, it allows you to play with and care for a tiger cub. Brush its fur, play fetch and explore an island just by moving your arms. One for the kids, obviously, but sneakily addictive for adults too.
KINECT JOY RIDE
Hold out your hands and grab an imaginary steering wheel to control this chaotic racing game. Lean your body into corners and spin around to perform stunts. Colourful and crazy, Joy Ride doesn't lack for fun but it's the one Kinect game that had most difficulty tracking players.
Indulge your inner Elton John
Rock Band 3
Sneerily dismissed as pointless play-acting by some musicians, the phenomenon of rhythm games kicked off by Guitar Hero reaches its pinnacle with Rock Band 3.
The most polished and engaging entry in the genre yet, it just might change the doubter's mind.
At a very basic level, it still features the familiar rhythm action you know and love -- music notes flow down the screen for you to follow with your plastic instruments.
But RB3 ups the ante in crucial ways to bridge the gap to "real" musicianship.
The RB series pioneered drums and vocals and now RB3 indulges your inner Elton John with a new keyboard peripheral (€70 extra).
Also available is a "pro" guitar (€150) featuring 102 buttons to mimic a real six-string.
Each instrument has acres of tutorials that can teach the basics of playing for real.
Even if you never touch these "pro" modes, Rock Band 3 remains the king of rock rhythm games.
Just Dance 2
The original inexplicably sold millions, despite being no more than a compilation music CD, with precious little game attached and insultingly inadequate motion tracking.
JD2 repeats the trick with different songs, the same broken controls, a download store and duets mode.
If the brilliant Dance Central for Kinect (reviewed left) were Michael Jackson, JD2 would be Jedward -- briefly amusing but basically a joke.
So, the Christmas No 1, then.