Tuesday, March 8, 2011
After 6 hours of pure frustration I have to put Lifeline away for good – while I’m doing it, I also lament that we haven’t had that many voice controlled games over the years.
I’ve wanted to play Lifeline since I first heard about it sometime in 2004, but the need to buy a USB microphone separately put me off (the US release didn’t come boxed with one). What excited me was that it sounded exactly like a game I’d conceived in my mind when first reading about Pikachu Genki Dechu in N64 magazine, sometime in the late 1990s. It was a great magazine, and they were speculating on the future of voice recognition games, joking that it could be a problem if someone snuck up behind you and said “Kill self” or “Drop all weapons”. Reading these lines I envisioned a game set aboard a space station, with marines and aliens, and you commanding the marines through voice alone, while monitoring them via the station’s camera systems, and using the computer to open and close doors (a bit like the film Sliver perhaps?). I envisioned a complex system where you could order a man to stand by a door as you opened it, thereby sacrificing him for the rest of the platoon – hell, I spent months day-dreaming about how awesome this game would be.
Ironically, the future of voice recognition would indeed feature such a game, and just like N64 magazine predicted, the main character would do the wrong things.
Lifeline cost me $15 delivered to Europe, and the Mic cost me 5 Euro from a local seller. About $20 total. It’s almost entirely controlled through voice recognition, claiming to recognise 5000 words and 100,000 phrases, and while it’s certainly interesting, it is also complete garbage. I’d read Metacritic and forums before hand, to get an idea of what was in store, and nothing could prepare me for how fundamentally broken the voice recognition is. Some on forums have said the voice recognition is not as bad as critics make out, others actually claim it’s fairly good and they were able to complete it in around 10 hours.
Perhaps. But if you’re British, or a non-native English speaker who speaks with any kind of accent, the game is not only unable to recognise most common words, but it will continuously misunderstand what you’re saying and do entirely the wrong thing. I don’t even have a thick accent, and my enunciation is usually regarded as excellent. Unfortunately the US release of Lifeline hates my UK voice (or maybe it just hates everyone).
An easy example is the word bathroom. I say it similar to the word bar or car or far, but in order to get the game to recognise me I need to pronounce it more like bat, snack or Jack. This would be fine, except the main character Rio will often misunderstand words as being “leave the room”, which she promptly does, often too quickly to stop her, forcing you to sit through several seconds of loading as you exit, turn around, unlock the door to go back in, and then wait for the room you’ve just left to reload.
Even that would be fine, but the worst offender is that the word RELOAD, 19 out of 20 times, was misheard as RECOVER, resulting in Rio wasting a health pack. And they’re in short supply. In fact she often mistook the words left, right, dodge, shoot, fire, evade, move, front, number and target to be RECOVER. I cannot even begin to describe the frustration of fighting a battle and having to reload the game afterwards because Rio wasted three health packs in a row – despite not having took any damage at all. The game doesn’t seem to recognise that she’s in good health and just went and used them anyway (or maybe she had a small bit of health missing, I dunno, but on one occasion I ended up wasting 5 packs!).
Eventually I stopped caring and just carried on, running out of packs soon after the Night Vision section. And let me tell you about that - it was even worse than the previous problems. Rio downloads night vision software into the cameras, then 10 minutes later she ends up in a darkened room and, brainless harlot that she is, doesn’t remember she just got you some night vision software. She asks if you can see her. Say yes and if the game recognises this (about one in three attempts based on the 50+ times I did this section), Rio then gives you a quiz to prove it. She’ll lift either her left or right hand, both hands, or neither. Unfortunately the game NEVER recognised when I said "both", at which point she accuses me of lying and leaves the room. Forcing me to listen to her speech outside, re-enter and listen to another speech (about 30 seconds total). The quiz is random, so eventually I got lucky with two lefts and one right, and she finally believed me. AARRRGGHHH!!!
This is without question the most frustrating game I’ve played in my life. Before typing this sentence I tried to think of others, but no matter the game, whether it’s Demon’s Souls, Alien 3 on the NES, or any of the crap produced by Idea Factory, all of these are games where perseverance, practice and FAQs can help. Even knowing the correct answer can’t help in Lifeline because the interface is broken. It’s not just broken, it is utterly fucking fucked. I’d have had more success if screaming in the Mic resulted in a random dice throw, because then I’d at least have had a chance of getting it correct through sheer mathematical chance.
In desperation I started putting on a fake Texan accent, and would you believe it, I started to have marginally more success. Surely any game which forces you to adopt a (slightly offensive?) racial stereotype is beyond redemption. My apologies go out to Texans everywhere. Unsurprisingly both EDGE and GamesTM, British magazines, gave it a score of 4. I haven’t read the reviews, but my guess is that whoever covered the game had the same problems as me. I think they're being generous with 4.
I finally decided to quit this shit after reaching the airduct section, which is even worse than the darkness quiz. You need to guide Rio along Red, Blue and Green footpaths with gaps in them. She’s supposed to jump from one to another, but get it wrong and she falls off, forcing a restart. Well the game absolutely refused to recognise me saying GREEN, no matter what accent I did. The same for walk – I had to say it more waaaaggghhhhrrrrk before she’d recognise it, and then only sporadically. A full 30 minutes later and I had screamed myself hoarse and came close to snapping the headset.
Never had a game induced such rage in me. I wonder if I'd have had more luck with the Japanese release - I'm told my Tokyo accent is flawless when speaking.
Playing the game is similar to a text adventure, except instead of typing “get rope” or whatever, you speak it. Except when the game misunderstands you, it suddenly feels like playing a Japanese text adventure with Japanese text parser. You know the word for get, but you’re not entirely sure how to type rope, leading to hours of frustration. Now imagine you need to fight fast-paced battles. Speech recognition worked with games like Hey You Pikachu and Seaman, because you don’t always expect your pets to understand you. And when Seaman swims off annoyed you’re less likely to think the game didn’t recognise you and it’s probably just him being grumpy (check out the link for a satirical diary I wrote for NTSC-uk). Lifeline on the other hand expects precision and speed, but the technology here simply can’t handle it.
And yet... I don’t want to hate it. Voice recognition is one of the coolest things possible, and it’s a shame that we’ve had scant few games using it over the years. Lifeline needed more time in testing, or at least a British localisation. Instead of obsessing over HD and motion controls, I’d much rather see improved voice recognition. At least Microsoft seems to be doing this with Kinect now, but I’ve not seen much regarding it – and Sony outright abandoned it when cancelling Eyedentify.
And what other games have we had? Hey you Pikachu and Seaman were both reasonable pet simulators, but not exactly complex simulations. NUDE on the Xbox apparently supported voice recognition, but that’s Japanese only and is basically a pet simulator with a robot girl. A whole bunch of DS games which use the Mic don’t count, since in my experience just blowing air on it will work. What about Odama - wasn’t that just tapping a drum? I’ve not played the SOCOM games so can’t comment. The newest I know of is Endwar, but have you played that? It's absolutely crap, and even if the recognition was perfect I wouldn’t waste time on such dreck.
Otherwise what else have we had? Not much!
Giantbomb has two lists on the subject, with some overlap:
Games like Lifeline
Voice Command Games
Looking at those lists it appears to me that it’s mostly the Japanese who’ve experimented with this, and certainly Konami’s Lifeline was the most ambitious. This is a mistake, since what we need is a Western company, either British or American, to build a voice-recognition game from the ground up. And I don’t some rubbish from Molyneux about having a kid, or a strategy title, I want to command troops in outer space goddamnit.
Lifeline probably deserves a full-blown HG101 article, for it's uniqueness, but I'm not the one to do it - as another critic said, it only induces rage instead of happiness.
The funniest bit in Lifeline was in the sickbay when Rio asks you what kind of things you’d find in there. I said SCALPEL, but she misheard it as BARIUM, at which point she went really squirmy, expressing a major dislike for the procedure, which made me laugh pretty hard. Clearly she’s a girl who believes it’s better out than in!