November 03, 2010
Considering that Wii Sports captured the nation’s heart many years ago and sold around a kazillion copies, it’s no surprise that with Microsoft’s supposed piece of ground-breaking technology, Kinect, that one of their launch titles would be something similar. With Rare the current kings of Avatars and a long way away from their traditional core gaming roots, who better than to pick up the mantle? Oi, don’t say Nintendo... you cheeky swine. The answer was meant to be Rare.
As the name suggests, Kinect Sports is a collection of sports games – the creative juices were really flowing that day – that looks to fully utilise the power of Microsoft’s heavily marketed device. It’s a game that’s so similar to Wii Sports in many facets, but despite wanting to hate it for not really trying anything particularly new, you can’t help but become drawn in by its charm. Yes, it may offer experiences that aren’t available on other platforms or devices, but that doesn’t necessarily make them any better. In fact, the whole package comes across as a collection of hits and misses.
In all there are 6 main disciplines to tackle from the off: table tennis, bowling, “soccer” (Dear Rare, I thought you were British), beach volleyball, boxing and track & field, which are broken down further into 5 additional events: 100m sprint, hurdles, discus, javelin and long jump; all of which - aside from maybe bowling - can be extremely strenuous, but more importantly, a lot of fun. It’s probably a good job at certain intervals that Kinect reminds you to take a rest if you’re becoming tired, because it can be easy to get carried away. That said, I’ve never been mocked by a device before, so I’ll take that as a portentous sign of the impending Skynet Wars.
The major sticking point I’d have to say from the off is how far you actually have to be from the device for it to be functioning properly. When you boot up the game, you’re prompted with a purple rectangle on the floor indicating the optimum distance to position yourself, which incidentally is around 2.5 metres . Yes, I got the metre ruler out to check. However, despite that, I found that a distance of 2 metres from the device was more than adequate and rarely prompted that I was too close to the screen. Still, 2 metres for a lot of people is going to be a major drawback.
After cleaning the area of objects – which incidentally has to be pretty bloody massive if you want to play 2 players – and waving through the menus selecting my Xbox 360 Avatar, we were finally into the action. There is something so backwards though about holding your hand for 3 seconds or so to select an on-screen option – considering it’s usually just a button click. It’s a missed opportunity in not taking full advantage of Kinect’s voice-control capabilities, which on the whole are rather excellent.
Possibly the most strenuous and taxing mode of all in Kinect Sports is table tennis. Like all of the other modes on offer, table tennis has 4 difficulty levels that are meant to cater for all types of player, from casual to the more core gamer. The mechanics are as simple as picking up a paddle by reaching left or right depending on which hand you wish to use, and then timing the ball's return over the net. Roll your wrist over the shot and it’ll add a touch of top-spin, while conversely rolling it under the shot adds back-spin. It quickly becomes apparent that with the relatively high-speed of table tennis, that Kinect perhaps doesn’t cope as well as you'd like it to, with there being a touch of latency on your strokes meaning you have to swing early. This is perhaps more noticeable on the higher difficulties where speed, your reactions and table positioning are more crucial than ever. It’s hard to get a sense of control about where you’re aiming the ball to as well, with you sometimes being dragged into long, arduous rallies because it’s slightly too tricky to aim shots into corners and such. Eventually though, keep plucking away and the game will gift you a chance to slam that ball home for the point.
The bowling suffers from the same control issues that the table tennis does and unlike Wii Sports’ impressive bowling mode, you’ll rarely feel in control in Kinect Sports. The mechanics here are as simple as reaching for a ball off the rack to your side, swinging your arm back and then swinging it forward. Whether ball control is just about practice is debatable, as I spent quite a bit of time attempting to replicate the same arm speed, direction, starting position and angle, with the outcome being very varied. For the family though, this is great, but if you’re going to get competitive with a few friends – like I did with my flatmates and Wii Sports at uni – it may come down to more luck than judgement.
Kinect Sports’ “soccer” is actually a mode that really caught me off-guard, and that's maybe because it doesn’t rely so much on the accuracy and responsiveness of the device and so is probably Kinect Sports’ best offering. Taking turns to defend and attack – depending on what you do with the ball – you can take part in a 5-a-side match, where you’ll look to block passes, save shots, ping passes to teammates and ripple the back of the net. The game actually runs on a series of 1-on-1 encounters, where the defender looks to block while the attacker looks to choose a side to go to get the ball past the opponent. After a few passes up the field, it’s time to test the keeper and have a crack on goal. It's simple, but ultimately very fun stuff. The highlight of this mode though is easily the corners, which allow you to time a sweet volley or header to put your side on the scoresheet.
Similarly, the boxing, which doesn’t rely on that same pinpoint precision, is a barrel of laughs. It’s a simple make-up, that asks you either hold your hands up around your face or down by your hip to block, with you swinging your arms high and low to land those body shots and devastating face blows. For the most part, Kinect adapts and responds well to your movements, replicating the actions fairly accurately on-screen, meaning you can just wade in swinging arms or carefully block and whittle your opponent's health bar down. Be careful swinging aimlessly though, as parried punches give your opponent's next blow a power boost.
Incidentally, the beach volleyball was another mode that caught us out - probably because "How the hell can that work?" was muttered a few times before we finally went hands on with it. On the lower difficulties, the beach volleyball can be a relaxed and laid back affair, as you and your teammate look to dominate the sands. However, crank it up a notch and it suddenly gets a little hot inside - it's time to open the window I reckon! The clincher in the beach volleyball is not being able to block or lay-up in front of the net though, although that is pretty nifty, but it is in fact being able to leap 20 foot in the air in your living room as you spike your teammate's lay-up so hard into the sand that it burrows straight through to hell! It's not without its foibles though, as again like the table tennis, up the ante and the latency and lack of responsiveness really shines through.
And last... and probably least, is Kinect Sports’ track & field events, which I’m not sure are any fun at all. Okay, maybe that’s a little harsh, as the discus, javelin and long jump can offer a fair bit of enjoyment in short doses, but the 100m sprint and hurdles? As you can imagine, running on the spot isn’t exactly my idea of fun. It’s here where you’ll notice a few hiccups with Kinect and the Avatars as well. While knee deep in discus throwing action, while trying to get that extra distance on your attempt, moving the discus behind your back will ultimately bug the device out, as it’s not sure where your hand is. Also, you’ll notice that when you bend your legs to get a boost-start from the sprint or to jump in the long jump, the Avatar will have a few moments as well, with limbs flying everywhere.
If you soon get sick of competing in the various modes on your lonesome, you can always opt to head online and challenge a like-minded competitive individual. If that doesn’t take your fancy, you can invite a plethora of friends round and take part in the Party Play – which are roughly 15 minute six-round team events that look to offer short bursts of random fun.
For those of you who like their action in 1 minute intervals, you can always tackle the 10 mini-games that are included: 2 based on 5 of the 6 game modes; track & field not included. There’s plenty of fun to be had here and they carry the addictive “just-one-more-go” mantra as you try and beat your personal best. Everything you do in-game also goes towards your overall Kinect Sports rank, which seemingly does nothing... except reward you with the odd achievement here and there.
Don’t let Kinect Sports’ achievement list fool you, especially considering the rate at which the achievements pop early on. For the most part, it’s a fairly easy achievement list... well, until you reach the rank achievements and “Champion” difficulty achievements which do seem like mammoth – and even difficult(!) – tasks. Rare have exercised a little originality though, which is great to see, and for that, the British developer should be commended.
The presentation and charm throughout Kinect Sports is adorable and endearing, from being able to control your Avatar’s celebration dances, down to the mini-excerpts of popular licensed music after you’ve excelled yourself in whichever mode you delve into. And yes, it may offer plenty of fun... and even plenty of exercise if that’s something you want, but ultimately, the game suffers from a few minor hang-ups that could turn a few people off: namely the distance that you have to stand from the device, a distinct lack of control in certain modes, and the slight latency issues that become apparent on the higher difficulty levels. Kinect Sports as a launch title though is extremely promising and it does show that Kinect could very well have a future in every living room – big living rooms that is. As it stands now though, Kinect Sports is perfect for short bursts with friends and is certainly unique, but there are a few annoyances that regrettably hamper the whole experience.
With some impressive use of licensed music, crowd sound effects and even some semi-decent commentary for the events, Kinect Sports has a surprisingly decent audio package on offer.
It’s charming, but it’s all very simple. I suppose that’s the point, although the Avatar’s limbs having fits every so often could scare the kids half to death.
Other than the odd latency issues when you ramp up the intensity and the fact that it misses a certain degree of control, Kinect Sports handles surprisingly well. The menu navigation is a pain and they definitely missed a trick there by not utilising the voice control technology.
Six disciplines. Plenty of mini-games. And oodles of short-dosed fun. It’s likely to have the same longevity as Wii Sports... which means it could be back in the cupboard by the end of the month.
I get the feeling that this is going to be a bloody hard 1,000, as the CPU AI on Champion is challenging to say the least... especially in the track & field discipline. Otherwise, the list has a good spread and Rare has exercised a little creativity.
Kinect Sports, as far as launch titles on a new piece of tech go, is actually surprisingly fun. There seems to be a few growing pains, including the fact that the recommended distance between you and the devices stands at 2.5 metres, and there often feels like there's a distinct lack of accurate control. Then there's the odd issue of latency when you up the ante, although, that being said, Kinect Sports will still keep you and your family entertained for a few cold nights this winter. It’ll probably be back in the cupboard come the end of the New Year though, just like Wii Sports was, but it's a fun-loving social title if ever there was one.