Of all sports, American football would figure to be the most natural fit for voice command support in a video game, if for no other reason than play doesn't begin until the quarterback orders the centre, usually by voice, to snap the ball. Say "hike," and Madden NFL 13 will, in fact, hike. You can see and hear it for yourself in the game's demo, released Tuesday, thanks to a new suite of voice recognition features for Xbox 360's Kinect.
"Hike," is, unfortunately, one of about four things the demo does reliably the first time and every time. Although admirably deep in the means to change runners' and receivers' routes, flip plays and direct defensive backs' coverage, using Kinect in Madden means not only knowing what to say, but also knowing in what order to say it. And the need for just enough of a pause between commands leaves the feeling that you're speaking your way through menu options, which longtime Madden gamers will already know by muscle memory on the controller, and newcomers wouldn't be familiar with anyway.
This places the feature in the unfortunate position where it doesn't really help gamers and — how many times have we said this about Kinect support in any game — functions more like a novelty, even if it is one sensibly integrated into a simulation sports title.
That said, I think Madden's actual voice recognition is working better than the complaints you may have heard over social media or on other sites. Simple, one-stage commands like "hike," "time out" or "no huddle," were recognised every time I said them. The frustration you're hearing from some trying out the Madden demo comes, I think, from the need to leave enough of a pause between multi-part commands. The first few times I played the demo, I was screaming "O-line left! O-line left!" to no effect. When you're really yelling, the command will register on the screen in red (as opposed to green). What that means, though, I'm not sure.
The in-game list of Kinect commands runs 13 pages deep and even includes things like "Let's go," which I assume fires up the crowd on defence (and "Quiet down," its opposite on offence.) There's just no way to memorize it all. Madden's Kinect support does conform to the device's overall design value of "if you can see it, you can say it," but often this leaves you speaking a word just to bring up a menu that you could key much easier with a button press.
On offence, the demo runs the clock down to 10 seconds before each snap, which is in no way time enough to discover what Kinect commands can do for you — and you will never be able to audible to a completely different formation without taking a delay-of-game penalty unless you have memorized its playbook name and call for it as you approach the line. (The constantly recurring gameplay hints also obstruct your use of Kinect in the demo.)
On defence, you're at the mercy of the computer or the opponent's decision to snap the ball, which leaves time to adjust maybe one player or package on the field. You can lengthen the pre-snap time in the Madden NFL 13 demo if you'd like, but you'll have to do it from the settings menu once you've started the game. I recommend at least 20 seconds.
Ordering around individual players would seem to be the area where Kinect commands would be most useful., especially as the game will recognise players' last names. But as neat as it was to say "Cruz" or "Jacobs" or "Bennett," to hot-route them, telling my tight end to block instead of run his receiving route required me to specify "block left" or "block right." (Not just, "block.") I'd only know this if I read the online manual. Blocking commands do not come up on the hot route menu when you say a player's name.
For defenders, yes, you can tell a cornerback who is assigned zone coverage to instead cover a specific receiver man-to-man by saying "cover" and the target's last name. But you have to cycle over to the player you want (using the B button, or B plus the stick), which doesn't leave much, if any time for you to make another adjustment in your defence before the ball is snapped. You're better off telling the linebackers to do whatever and just taking control of the defensive back yourself to break him from his assignment.
You may speak these commands at a normal volume in your normal voice but your cadence has to allow some time for them to be understood. For example, saying "O-line aggressive," a single sentence, did not tell my line to block aggressively. "O-line. Aggressive." did. With the old strategy pad commands I could set that assignment in a fraction of the time. To efficiently use Kinect commands, I had to call "audible" as my team was approaching the line of scrimmage, just to save time in case I wanted to switch to a play-action pass or a deep pass. Problem is, calling "audible" brings up, of course, the audible menu, which obscures part of the field, and your ability to read the coverage.
Perhaps the most useful voice command to me was "no huddle" and "spike," key presses I forget in the heat of the moment. That's about it. Otherwise, I feel like I'm mentally consulting a travel dictionary while trying to order a coffee in Italian. It's ironic that this game's audio now includes some quarterbacks' actual voices — such as Eli Manning's on the New York Giants. He pours out a stream of cosmetic jargon as I hesitantly say and repeat "Bradshaw, block and release," both of us screaming our heads off to little real effect in the game.