Sunday, November 02, 2008

Can You Hear Me Now?

When I heard about ‘Tom Clancy’s Endwar’ for the 360, my attitude could best be described as one of ‘cautious optimism’.

Endwar is a real time strategy game, but rather than following the usual console RTS approach of trying to fit all those menus and commands onto a single controller, Endwar does things a little differently by allowing you to control the game with your voice. You press a single button on the control pad, say your commands, release the button and the game reacts.

To be honest, I had no idea if this would be a giant leap forward in gaming or an unmitigated disaster.

You see, my experience with voice recognition hasn’t been great. I’ve tried three or four different speech recognition programs on the PC, and despite hours and hours put into ‘training’, they’ve only ever been about 70% accurate.

So, on the one hand I was drooling at the idea of issuing voice commands, thinking of the level or realism and immersion it would offer…but on the other I was imagining screaming into the microphone:


In an RTS, 80 or 90 percent accuracy isn’t enough. You need 100% accuracy…otherwise your main attack force heads in the wrong direction and your entire army gets slaughtered.

Anyway, today I downloaded the demo from Xbox Live and have to say I’m impressed…and I mean really impressed.

‘Training’ the game to recognize your voice takes less than a minute. All you do is talk for a few seconds so it can adjust the gain on your microphone, then read four or five commands off the screen. Then, you’re good to go.

The first time I played through the demo (thanks mostly to an unclear tutorial), I was talking like a robot as I issued commands:

“Unit…three…attack…hostile…four. Unit… One…Move to…Bravo.”

It was 100% accurate, but having to leave long spaces between words wasn’t my idea of immersion... unless I was supposed to be playing the part of a battlefield commander with a severe speech impediment. Luckily, a tip popped up during a loading screen that said the game would have an easier time if you speak in complete, natural sentences. I gave it a try, and it wasn’t lying.

Speaking naturally (in my English accent, btw) the game responded quickly with 100% accuracy.

It was absolutely awesome. No pointing and clicking, no trying to remember hundreds of button combinations or going through menu after menu. If you want your tanks to attack a particular target, you just tell them to.

I’m hoping that the full game works just as well as the demo and the idea of voice control spreads to other games.

Voice commands in a game like Endwar isn’t only the perfect solution to a user-interface nightmare…it adds a level of realism and immersion that you can’t get with a controller or even a keyboard and mouse. What can be more natural and make you feel more like a real military commander than simply radioing orders to your troops?

Also, there are some games that are just screaming for voice control.

For example. Voice Recognition and Star Trek go together like peanut butter and jelly. There isn’t a trekkie alive today who hasn’t dreamt about playing a trek game where you verbally issue orders to your bridge crew. And how many times have to played a tactical squad based shooter and wished you could just tell your team-mates what to do instead of going through five or six button presses and having to take your crosshairs off the bad guys to point them where you want to go?

It also adds the possibility of whole new genres. Imagine a Splinter Cell type of game, only instead of playing the Sam Fisher role…you’re guiding him and warning him of dangers over the radio as you keep an eye on things from hacked security cameras.

…and did I mention Star Trek? Maybe it’s time for Bridge Commander 2.

Anyway, I want to close today by passing on a little tip from blogger friend OzzyC.

Any 2.5mm headset (such as a cellphone hands-free kit) will work with your 360.

I was at my local CVS a few days ago and managed to get an awesome 2.5mm boom-mic headset for eight bucks. It works perfectly and has amazing sound quality. Considering the cheapest ‘official’ wired headset you can get for the 360 is still around thirty bucks….you’d be stupid to not buy a generic one for much cheaper.

That is all.

1 comment:

OzzyC said...

Glad the advice helped.

I'd also like to toss in my review that the Mad Catz headset sucks; I'm not wild about the sound quality, but the main reason I don't like it is because it fits poorly.

One thing that Microsoft got absolutely right is having the mute button way down by the controller.