Kinect Sports Rivals serves as a showcase of just how far Microsoft's new motion sensor has come since its first iteration, but will it convince you to down-joypad? Dave Cook plays the final code and shares his thoughts.
”What Microsoft really needs in Rare's game is a show-stopping proposition that convinces consumers that the Xbox One's higher RRP - bolstered largely due to Kinect's inclusion in the box - has been worth it.”
I was never that fond of the first Kinect peripheral. After a few weeks of cooing over the novelty of Dance Central and laughing as my colleagues dropped themselves into movies using Yoostar 2, the concept grew stale. The device was swiftly relegated to the cupboard, never to see the light of day again. It just wasn't for me.
Last February, Microsoft revealed it had shifted some 24 million 'Gen-1' Kinect sensors since the product launched in North America on November 4, 2010. That's not a small number, but I'm keen to see how many of those devices were actually used regularly, or merely acquired as part of an Xbox 360 bundle. Either way, all Xbox One consoles are now bundled with a Kinect device, so it's clear that Microsoft isn't taking the concept lightly this time round.
Enter Kinect Sports Rivals, the first in-house game that functions using the device alone. What Microsoft really needs in Rare's game is a show-stopping proposition that convinces consumers that the Xbox One's higher RRP - bolstered largely due to Kinect's inclusion in the box - has been worth it. After playing the game for some five hours, I'm still not entirely convinced it's something I'll return to often.
The first thing you see after booting up the game is Rare's character creation system, which scans in your face at multiple angles as well as your body shape to produce an avatar. It's a simple process that involves tilting your head to match HUD cues and standing still while Kinect's in-built camera works its magic. I was pleasantly surprised with my result, beard and all:
It was also really kind about my physique. GOTY 10/10
So that was all very impressive, and will definitely serve as something of a show-piece the next time I have friends over. However, I had a problem with my living room which, while quite long, has my TV set-up sitting at an angle in one corner. Kinect kept on asking me to step back a bit further to be scanned in, but I could only retreat about a metre before I backed into my couch.
After some table movement and TV-swivelling I was able to give myself more space to play, but you can already see how this might be a problem for some. I was impressed with the camera's perception however, as Kinect never once grumbled about low lighting or any of that bollocks from the Xbox 360 days. This is my one and only technical complaint throughout this entire appraisal, so that's certainly a step up from the first Kinect Sports. Bravo Microsoft.
The peripheral itself, on the other hand, proved to be a bit cumbersome. I don't know about you, but I felt that having to perch Microsoft's weighted sensor 'brick' on my thin, flatscreen television without it toppling off was quite the precarious balancing act. I was honestly worried that all my flailing and jumping around like a tit was going to see Kinect fall off at any moment, before it went smashing into my screen.
I usually have Kinect sitting below my display and that's fine for voice commands and Twitch broadcasts, but at such a close distance it had trouble seeing my whole body when playing some events. I had to stabilise it often, and in the case of the soccer events, move it entirely so the camera could pick up my feet. Issues like these make Kinect feel like more trouble than it should be, but I appreciate that your front room will be different.
Now that the Kinect-babble is out of the way, let's move on to the gameplay itself.
”Shooting is by far my favourite event, largely because it fills the gap left behind by the absence of light gun games in today’s market, and because it’s good at keeping you on your toes.”
Kinect Sports Rivals is comprised of six event types: Tennis, Shooting, Wake Racing, Rock Climbing, Soccer, and Bowling. The idea is that your rookie athlete must compete across each sport to earn fans and rank up through several divisions, defeating Rivals and earning new rewards along the way. There's a limp story mode that sees your superstar passed around warring teams like a pack of smokes in a maximum security jail, while encountering some daft stereotypical characters. The Japanese gamer geek lad, for example, is essentially a copy of Matt Miller from Saints Row. Still not funny, either.
But largely it's all inoffensive, fun stuff with a pop and dance soundtrack that families will no doubt enjoy battering into at the weekends. For the best part it works, and there were only a few instances that irked me, such as being unable to serve in tennis about ten times in a row for reasons unknown, and finding it hard to apply spin to my bowling ball. In both cases all I had to do was move my device a little to frame my body up better and it started working again.
Shooting is by far my favourite event, largely because it fills the gap left behind by the absence of light gun games in today's market, and because it's good at keeping you on your toes. It sees opposing players standing on either side of a large screen, shooting at targets before wave timers expire, while dodging points-sapping skull targets, and in some cases, blasting targets in numerical order. It's all about speed and accuracy as you point to shoot. It works fine.
There's also a turret below the screen that powers up over time. The first person to shoot its switch will activate the device and send a volley of blasts back at their opponent, draining their score. If you're on the receiving end, you have to lean left and right to avoid the incoming shots, while still trying to shoot targets in the distance. It's a clever juggling act that requires a deal of multi-tasking. I like it.
Bowling's always been a favourite event of mine, probably because I used to play Skittles in a league back when I was a kid. Anyway, the Kinect Sports Rivals version also works when trying to nail straight shots, but I still have trouble applying spin, which is engaged by turning your wrist as you release the ball. I can fluke it at times, but it never feels consistent, which is annoying when trying to pick up spares or dastardly splits.
Bowling is fairly basic, as is Tennis, which sees you swinging your racquet arm through HUD markers in time with the ball as it bounces towards you. You can also apply top spin by slicing down, top spin by slicing up or lobbing the ball by lifting your arm straight up. I couldn't get it to work multiple times in a row. I get the feeling I was still too close for Kinect to read me properly. In Soccer, I had to move the device so it could pick up my legs, feet and upper body simultaneously, which took some doing.
Soccer is a game of two halves - wahey! - in that players take turns attacking and defending. When approaching the goal you must kick the ball to other players on the pitch while avoiding scrolling defenders, or smashing through them with a powerful pass. I have to point out that Kinect Sports Rivals takes place in a virtual world, so you're not literally murdering football players by kicking balls through them.
Anyway, you only have a limited amount of time to reach the goal-mouth, and once there you can tee up a powerful strike to score. When defending, your only input is as goalie, which sees you punching or batting the ball away by lining up with a HUD marker. It's hardly skillful, but the scope for header shots adds a thin layer of engagement. I didn't really like the soccer game, so I made my guy dance lots while skinning defenders like a pro. It's fun to dance in Kinect Sports Rivals.
”None of these games are broken, and they worked as intended in most instances, despite my room’s space issues.”
Wake Racing has been Microsoft's marquee event for some time now, and it's not hard to see why. It's a bit like Wave Race, with a pack of competitors barrelling around perilous ocean circuits, bounding off waves to grab air, and weaving through checkpoint gates while avoiding mines as they go. Making a fist with your accelerator hand speeds up your ride, while leaning and swivelling your arms steers. Bowing forward or arching your body back off a big wave or ramp will pull off a stunt flip, which fills your special meter.
Every event comes with a special bar and power-ups that are tethered to your gear, which can be bought and equipped at the store using coins earned through victory. For example, the first Wake Racing skill is activated by saying 'Speed Boost' once the meter is full, resulting in an accelerated jolt. Other abilities will see you doubling your shooting score for a brief period, unleashing a guaranteed power shot in bowling and other boosters that can help give you an advantage. Kinect had no trouble picking up my rambling, so that's certainly a plus-point.
The final event is Rock Climbing, which I detested at first, but after a few attempts I realised that the process of reaching out to grab handholds, balling your hand into a fist to latch on, then pulling down to your waist to hoist your athlete is a lesson in rhythm. It does take practice, but after a little while you'll be climbing in fluid motions and if you're good enough, pulling your fellow climbers off their perches. That's actually quite brutal when you think about it.
So there you have it; all five events work fine with the exception of Tennis and Bowling's spin options, and the occasional Kinect re-alignment for Soccer. The point is that none of these games are broken, and they worked as intended in most instances, despite my room's space issues. I can't really fault it, and the inclusion of Rivals - other players pulled from your friend list and wider community - keeps things interesting. You can choose to throw down against any Rival in either a score duel, or one-on-one event like a Wake Race, before sending them your result and challenging them to better it.
This feeds into leaderboards and ensures that you always have some form of competitive challenge funnelling through the game's event options. After all of this I still found my interest waning after a few hours of play, and while that's a long time to stand up and waggle limbs like Kermit the Frog on a sugar high, I don't feel all that compelled to return. The games function well but can only offer so much depth, and while there is still a novelty to using motion to play a game in its entirety, I'd still opt for a controller every time.
Where motion works best - personally speaking - is in hybrid play, through little nuanced gestures like pushing to make Dead Rising 3 protagonist Nick Ramos shove back a gang of ravenous undead. They feel seamless and natural, which is an illusion that breaks every time I'm asked to simply move my hand through obvious HUD markers to block a shot on goal, or return a tennis serve. These moments feel like a new breed of QTE, and let down the superb fun to be had in Shooting, Wake Racing, Rock Climbing and Bowling.
You've probably guessed that motion doesn't really do it for me, so there's every chance you'll enjoy Kinect Sports Rivals. I can guarantee that kids and parents will have a blast playing this together, and those already on board with motion control methods will be surprised at how Microsoft's device has improved in its latest iteration. It works for the best part, and it'll be interesting to see where it goes from here. I'm looking at you SWERY.
Disclosure: to assist in writing this piece, Microsoft sent Dave a download code for Kinect: Sports Rivals.