Kinect Star Wars, perhaps the most significant game yet made for Microsoft's motion- and sound-sensing bar, is only weeks away.
It's been in development since Kinect still had the code name Project Natal. In hopes of renewing some of the awareness and excitement that may have diminished since it was first revealed, Microsoft and LucasArts invited journalists from around the world to come take one last look at the game before it hits shelves...at George Lucas' Skywalker Ranch just outside San Francisco.
I'll just get this out of the way: My visit to Skywalker Ranch sent the needle on my disappointment meter into the red. After spending ten minutes in a sound studio with a couple of engineers who worked on the game's audio effects, I had a gander at some cows grazing a hill, got a look at a barren pond bearing the name "Lake Ewok," and saw, from a distance, the farmhouse in which George Lucas makes his office (see sidebar gallery). Skywalker Ranch may be a place where alien worlds are brought to life, but it seemed very of-this-Earth during my quick tour. There weren't even any wookies or smugglers in the employee cantina (not that I saw anything worth smuggling out).
It wasn't until we headed back to LucasArts' studio in downtown San Francisco that my fellow nerdy scribes and I actually got a good look at the game. It was my first time playing Kinect Star Wars, and the experience left me merely lukewarm.
The great obstacle faced by developers who make action games controlled purely by body movement is that people acquainted with traditional games (all of us) are used to having complete control. Analogue gamepads have conditioned us to expect the power to move left, right, forward, and back with precision, and to be able to carry out a wide variety of actions on command.
So far, Kinect developers haven't been able to figure out how to offer that kind of freedom. Many Kinect games have either slow and awkward interfaces or place players on set paths where they simply react to enemies and obstacles that appear in front of them – what's known in the biz as an "on-rails" adventure.
After showing a preview of his upcoming Kinect-controlled Fable: The Journey at E3 last summer, well-known game designer Peter Molyneux was confronted by journalists who criticized the RPG for placing significant constraints on player movement. Mr. Molyneux denied his game was an on-rails experience, but in an interview and demo he was unable to fully describe how players would be able to use their bodies for movement. His frustration was evident. (It's worth noting Mr. Molyneux recently left Microsoft and Lionhead, the studio behind the Fable games, to start up his own small development house.)
Back to Kinect Star Wars. LucasArts' game received criticism similar to that suffered Fable: The Journey when it was shown at E3 last June. So I went in expecting an experience that would see me simply swinging at Sith as they jumped in front of the camera. I was surprised to discover that wasn't the case. At least not entirely.
The primary mode is a series of missions that cast the player as a Jedi who engages in a number of battles set between the end of Episode I and middle of Episode III.
This part of the game isn't exactly set on rails, but it offers relatively little range in movement. You can leap ahead by jumping up in the air or dash forward by taking a quick, powerful step toward the screen and raising your arm in the air. There's no free-look, no way to move backwards. It may become more comfortable with time, but I wasn't able to fully come to grips with navigation during the 20 minutes or so I spent playing at the preview event.
The lightsabre combat, however, is pretty fun. The one-to-one blade control is just as you'd imagine, with cauterized burn-marks on enemies providing evidence of the angle of each of your strokes. I particularly enjoyed making figure-eight movements with my sabre to stylishly deflect blaster fire.
Using my left hand to wield the Force – you can capture, lift, and throw enemies across the screen – was another satisfying realization of a childhood fantasy. I think I may have enjoyed it even more than the swordplay.
One thing I didn't expect was how tired I'd become. I've played a lot of Kinect games, but all the jumping and swinging in Kinect Star Wars really took a lot out of me. Perhaps the kids at which the game is largely targeted will have more endurance than I.
The LucasArts rep I spoke with said they realized fatigue might be an issue, so they broke combat sequences into bite-sized segments, with little narrative sequences scattered here and there to give us time to recuperate. It's a smart strategy; I don't think I'd want to go a full mission without a few breaks.
There's much more to the game than just the Jedi Path, but little of what I saw captured my interest.
A pod-racing game that takes players to circuits throughout the galaxy seemed simplistic. I moved my arms to steer, but it seemed my pod often guided itself, save on tight, hairpin bends. Little creatures that tear apart your engines sometimes need to be knocked away by making a throwing motion, but that, too, was quick and easy. I won both races I entered – and by large margins. Hopefully the racing becomes more challenging as this mode progresses.
Oddly, I found another mode called Rancor Rampage suffers the opposite problem: It's too convoluted. It puts players in the husk of a towering beast like that found under Jabba's palace (the one with a taste for Gammorean guards) and offers the freest movement found in the game. It demands a wide range of gestures. I crouched over and repeatedly scooped at the ground – rather like a galloping ape – to run, shuffled and turned to bear left and right, slapped my hands together and threw them down to attack, and reached out to grab victims before making a throwing motion to hurl them across the screen. I felt clumsy and graceless. Given the creature's size and lumbering nature, a lack of finesse and precision probably ought to be expected, but it just didn't feel right.
Interestingly, one of my fellow reporters said this was his favourite part of the game. I'll need to give it more of a chance before rendering a final verdict, but I don't think running around as a rancor will hold any longterm appeal for me.
A fourth mode was on display – a dancing game featuring Star Wars characters dancing to contemporary Earth music, if you can imagine – but neither I nor most of my peers seemed to have the courage to try it. However, I did catch a glimpse from across the room of a stormtrooper doing an enthusiastic jig.
On the long plane ride home from San Francisco, when I wasn't dwelling on my fizzled dream of accidentally bumping into George Lucas, my mind kept returning to a troublesome question: Am I just closed-minded? With few exceptions (last year's The Gunstringer and Child of Eden), body-controlled gaming hasn't really excited me. Is it just because I've spent 30 years playing games with a controller? Am I too old to open myself to a new way to interface with games? Should I try to consider Kinect games a completely different kind of entertainment, surrender all expectations, and go into each new game open and willing to have fun in a brand new way?
I don't know. What I do know is that I feel like I have to spend the next couple of weeks on my exercise bike just to prepare for Kinect Star Wars' release on April 3rd.