Most hardcore gamers are generally skeptical of hardware many of those extraneous hardware devices, generally preferring to rely on nothing but their trusty mouse and keyboard (and maybe a particular type of mousemat). Many of such other devices have come and gone, having only a short life span due to the fact that.. well, they just weren't that useful.
Enter Microsoft GameVoice, which has only the simple aim of increasing the communication between gamers. There's a few things around that do this already, the most notable (and probably popular) being the freeware software solution Roger Wilco. The Microsoft GameVoice, on the other hand, is a combination hardware and software solution. The unit ships with a headset and a control pad, which has 8 buttons which can be used for various game-enhancing features in conjunction with the software.
The setup is fairly painless, but one thing that might have a few people complaining is the fact that you need to have MSN Messenger installed if you want to be able to use the device to chat to other people. A fairly minor thing - most people already have a Hotmail account, which is all you need to be able to use MSN - but another requirement nonetheless. The hardware interface is USB, so there's no problems there - everything just plugs in and works.
The headset itself is fairly simple - nice and light. The quality of the sound is good, and the earphones sit comfortably on your head. One thing worth mentioning is that the earphones don't block out all noise outside, which makes them good for LAN gaming as well, as you can clearly hear what other people (for example, your teammates) are saying to you.
The first feature that grabs the eye is the fact that you can configure your games to respond to voice commands. The package has simple voice recognition built in with which you can program various words to correspond to various tasks in game. One fun thing to test it with is Counter-Strike - instead of going through the dangerous task of flailing around the keyboard looking for the shortcut keys to say "Enemy Spotted", you can simply program that in and then simply speak those same words into the device and then hear them echo out amongst your teammates.
Its possible to program in all the Counter-Strike radio commands, and we had very few problems getting them working. However, we did have problems whem some ambient noise was picked up and mistakenly intepreted as voice command. This can be avoided by setting the unit to press-to-talk mode, which requires pressing of a button before a voice command is used; agile users might find this more of an appealing way to operate anyway. However, if there's excess noise in the area, you might find someone speaking in the background to be accidentally intepreted as "Sector Clear", which could lead your team to rush into a strong enemy squad - which would be bad.
Generally speaking though, the voice recognition was pretty impressive, considering its a generic voice recognition package (ie, you don't have to train it to your voice). In nominal circumstances, it would definitely make the life of the gamer much easier, especially in games where you're starting to get overwhelmed by keyboard shortcuts.
The other major feature of the package is the voice communication. This feature obviously spent a bit of time in design, as we found the entire presentation and interface for getting everything up and working to be very easy. They've implemented a great system through which you can get a public server listing (like this
) and can then simply click on the server of your choice in the browser and it will connect you straight up. Additionally, the software's own interface is simple and easy to use and involves a few simple clicks to get into a chat. The integration with MSN is very handy as well - people that use MSN as their instant messaging tool will appreciate the simplicity with which you can operate between the two pieces of software.
Different people in a chat can be assigned to different channels, thus allowing you to group of various players in seperate logical areas. There's also two simple buttons - Team and All - which allow you to communicate with the most common groups that you'd want to: your teammates, and everyone. There's some clever advanced features as well - for example, holding down the channel button, which will then read a synthesised voice listing of all the players names in that channel.
Technically, it seems to use little bandwidth; our test effort playing online Counter-Strike didn't seem to induce any noticable lag. The quality of sound is very good, providing the players all have a similar quality of connection to each other - we noticed some choppy speech as the connection quality decreased between players.
Overall - a great package. People might argue that there's freeware out there that will do the same thing, but in terms of getting a good package that can group everything together, the Microsoft GameVoice really delivers. Good software, backed by Microsoft's recent efforts to provide the best they can in the gaming arena makes this a product that is definitely worth having if you're doing any voice communication over the Internet - even more so if you're into team-based game action, where it will make the difference between your team and other teams still struggling with keyboard binds and typing text messages.
For more details, check out the comprehensive website over at http://www.gamevoice.com
. GameVoice is currently available in Australia from most software/hardware retailers for around $99.