Kinect: Adentures, Sports and Joy Ride
Christmas came early last week, as Microsoft held their annual 'Xmas' showcase in London's stunning Saatchi Gallery. Organised to highlight the company's Chrimbo line-up, it was a tech nerd's dream of gadgets, mobiles, operating systems and peripherals. But among the stacks of sexy gizmos one particular Microsoft product took centre stage; Kinect.
Dominating an entire room of its own, the Kinect section of the venue was a dizzying whirl of flailing limbs and hopping, skipping, giggling journos. With Kinect: Adventures, Kinect: Sports and Kinect: Joy Ride, all the first-party launch titles were present and playable, the only exception being the MS/Frontier cuddle-em-up, Kinectimals. We left our inhibitions at the door and joined the madness.
Despite the widespread grins on everybody's faces, it was with a certain amount of scepticism that we approached the demo area. Earlier in the day Dance Central had managed to scupper some of our initial reservations, but it had also raised a few questions of its own. Harmonix's Kinect debut brilliantly obscures the technology's limitations, but issues are still noticeable. With that in mind we were keen to see how Adventures, Sports and Joy Ride stacked up.
Before we get stuck in, it's worth stating the importance of these games. First-party launch titles typically set the scene for their entire platform. Designed largely to show off the capabilities of the hardware, these games should set the benchmark for all that follows. If they get it right, in the way Wii Sports did, they can fuel an entire generation's worth of sales. However, if they get it wrong, it may leave Kinect facing an uphill battle.
Rather worryingly, despite some fun moments, our time with the games left us with a number of concerns.
The pick of the titles was the mini-game collection, Kinect: Adventures. Teaming up with a second player we threw ourselves straight into white-water rafting game, navigating the rapids with a comically uncoordinated verve. Making your way down river, the idea is to lean in unison to steer between slalom gates, crouch and jump to launch off ramps, and collect as many gold coins as possible. Teamwork is essential, something we failed miserably at. But we did have a laugh trying.
Next up was a mine cart obstacle course. Jumping to split-screen and pitting you against your playing partner, it ups the complexity a little by adding a number of new inputs. Instead of just steering and jumping, here you must sidestep, duck and leap over obstacles as you hurtle along the track. Hopping adds a touch of risk/reward tension too, by speeding you up immeasurably yet also increasing your chances of crashing into the speed-sapping, foam-padded bars.
Unfortunately however, it's when moving at this breakneck pace that Kinect gets somewhat flustered. Input too many movements too quickly and the motion sensor struggles. More than once, as we switched swiftly and gracefully (*cough*) between hopping, ducking and jumping, it left our poor old avatar a tangled, confused mess. Unless your movements are pronounced and deliberate, it would seem that the motion tech isn't quite up to scratch. Or at least this particular implementation of it.
This was made even more obvious by Adventures' ball game. Familiar to all those who have followed Kinect since it was unveiled at E3 2009, this mini-game sees you kicking and swiping at a series of incoming balls. It's fast-paced stuff and you'll often find yourself flapping around frantically to keep up. And that's what creates problems. At times it would seem that everything is happening too fast for Kinect. Why Microsoft would create an experience that knowingly highlights the motion-sensor's deficiencies is baffling.
It is worth noting here that we're not talking about massive lag, just a touch of unresponsiveness. Fine in most situations, but not quite good enough when the heat is on. A worrying sign for developers hoping to provide games for the core crowd.
Despite this, however, Adventures did offer some fun. After all, the mere act of jumping around like an idiot with friends is exactly the kind of experience Kinect was designed to offer. It's not technically perfect by any means, but it contains enough to keep casual users happy.
Next up was Kinect: Sports, another mini-game selection. Of these, 100m hurdles is basically a Kinect and avatar-enabled version of that dusty old classic, Track & Field. The only difference being that button-mashing is replaced by jogging on the spot, while jumping is merely a matter of waiting for the hurdle to flash green, your cue to leap into the air. Now we adore Track & Field, but in 2010, even with motion-sensing, it's a slight offering. Aside from the lure of beating your friend's times, we can't forsee much replay value.
The other Sports mini-game we tried, Bowling, is much better. However, it also reveals Kinect's lack of sensory depth. Because it can only detect broad movements your swing is tracked wonderfully, but there is no way to signal the release of the ball. Instead the game does it automatically, effectively eliminating an important skill-based element.
Similarly, your control over the ball is limited. Where Wii Sports successfully apes the wrist twist needed to curve the ball down the lane, Kinect: Sports has to do it differently, by sensing how far you draw your arm across your body on the follow-through. It's a nifty solution to the problem, but not how the real sport works. Consequently, Kinect bowling looks to be noticeably inferior to its Wii counterpart.
We've saved the worst for last though. Kinect: Joy Ride is where the wheels really fall off. The person we were playing with couldn't even navigate the menus, let alone steer the car. It was a disaster. A big lad, comfortably in excess of 6 foot, perhaps he was too near the sensor. Or maybe he was just doing it wrong. Whatever it was, the game was rendered almost unplayable.
It worked for us, however. Although we're not sure if that's a good thing.
Joy Ride is, as you've probably already guessed, a driving game. Controlled by holding your arms out in front of you in a rough approximation of gripping a steering wheel, it was the least responsive of all the games we played. Indeed, the handling was probably the worst we've ever experienced in a game. Slow and sluggish, it leaves you drifting listlessly around the track.
There are a couple of other controls available to mix things up a bit. Physically leaning into corners results in a power-slide, while pulling your hands close to your chest and then thrusting them out gives you a burst of speed. Yet it's not enough to rescue Joy Ride from the scrap yard. Massively disappointing.
Reflecting on our experiences with the first-party Kinect line-up, it's possible that we evaluated the demos according to the wrong criteria. Notions of responsiveness, depth and gameplay innovation don't really have a place here. For our entire gaming lives videogames have been about translating the tiniest thumb flicks and button presses into grand gestures. We've grown up honing our pixel-perfect, twitch responses. Tiny movements and minuscule fractions of time, these are our currency.
But this first batch of Kinect titles has different aims. Adventures, Sports and Joy Ride are about big, pronounced movements, roughly translated into on-screen action. They are about bringing people together and encouraging them to shed their inhibitions, laughing with friends as you mime a variety of silly actions. In this regard the novelty of full-body motion control - particularly in Kinect Adventures - looks like it might work. The smiles in the room were testament to that. Worryingly, however, thanks to some debilitating problems, the novelty could soon wear off.