Kinect is finally here. Better still, it really works (click here for a review of the hardware).
But how are the games?
After spending a week with seven of its highest profile launch titles (a few hours with a different one each night, more or less) it's clear that certain kinds of games are better suited for this new type of control than others. Dancing and sports games tend to be a lot of fun, while racing games, well, not so much.
There's no single game that makes Kinect a must-own add-on for the masses, but there are enough good ones to make it worth some strong consideration when weighing your motion control gaming options this holiday.
This rump-wiggler from Harmonix-the same studio behind the Rock Band franchise-is the best and most impressive Kinect game I've tried, and I don't even like most of its hip hop, dancehall, and classic funk tracks (artists include the likes of Lady Gaga, Snoop Dogg, Salt 'N' Pepa, and Kool & The Gang).
Each song begins with players learning multiple dance moves individually and in small batches, repeating the actions of a dancer on screen several times to prove they have it "locked." The Kinect sensor functions very well in this capacity, tracking all of the players' appendages and providing feedback on those that aren't doing what they're supposed to be doing by making parts of the dancer's body glow red.
Once you've finished practicing you can choose to either perform the dance by following a carousel of flashcards that prepares players for each new move as it approaches or have a dance-off with another player, each one taking turns in short bursts. Medley challenges come up every four or five songs to test whether you can remember everything you've taken in.
I've only learned moves for about 10 songs so far-and on the easiest of three difficulties (they take a lot of time to master)-but I'm anxious to dive back in for more. It's a great workout, and I feel like I'm learning something that I may be able to put to use one day...you know, if I actually danced in public.
(Keep watch for our full review of Dance Central, coming soon.)
This is the game that comes in the box with the Kinect sensor, and you can tell that Microsoft Game Studios put a lot of time into it. It looks great, is finely tuned, and puts Kinect to clever use.
It's basically a collection of random activities held together by the idea that the player is going on a wild adventure. Some of the things you'll find yourself doing: plugging leaks in a submerged room with your hands and feet; using your entire body to block and hit balls bouncing down a long glass hall with an aim to knock over blocks at its end; jumping, ducking, and dodging a series of rapidly approaching bars as you glide along a moving sidewalk while simultaneously trying to reach out and grab adventure pins; and shuffling around a raft to try to steer it down some rapids, again, jumping and throwing out your arms to reach for pins.
It's strength is in its accessibility. Everything is highly intuitive. Just do what you would do if you were in the situation presented before you onscreen. It also helps that it supports two players playing simultaneously, and that the guided adventures on which players find themselves force us to regularly try new activities rather than getting stuck in a rut.
As with all of the games here, I've not spent enough time with Kinect Adventures to know how long it will take to grow tired of it. However, regardless of its longevity I suspect many families will keep it around as a game they can use to introduce Kinect to visiting friends.
This game from famed developer Rare is essentially Microsoft's answer to Nintendo's Wii Sports and Sony's Sports Champions, and it feels fittingly familiar. It's made up of six activities-table tennis, beach volleyball, bowling, soccer, boxing, and track and field (which is broken into sprinting, hurdles, long jump, discus, and javelin)-and most of them are about what you'd expect. Run in place to sprint, take a step forward and swing your arm to bowl, keep your hands up to block and then throw punches in boxing. You get the idea.
The Kinect sensor performs fairly well for most of these games, though lag becomes apparent table tennis, which actually instructs the player to swing in advance of the ball's arrival. Also, you'll need to make grand sweeps left and right with your arm while bowling in order to add spin since Kinect can't hone in on something as subtle as a twist of one's wrist.
My favourite event was track and field, if only because for the first time in a track game I actually felt as though my physical performance was being rated rather than some clever controller technique. I'd like to see a much deeper track and field game for Kinect in the future.
Note that I'm deducting half a point from Kinect Sports' score simply because about a gajillion similar games already exist for the Wii. Other than the Kinect sensor, which forces players into a lot more lower body movement, nothing feels particularly new. One expects a little more from the studio that gave us Donkey Kong Country, GoldenEye, and Conker's Bad Fur Day.
Kinect Joy Ride
One of my least favourite Kinect launch games, I simply haven't been able to grow comfortable with Kinect Joy Ride in the three or so hours I've spent with this relatively simple kart racer.
The idea is simple enough: Make like you're holding a steering wheel and turn it in order to turn the car. Lean a little if you want to initiate a drift for a faster turn. Problem is, I couldn't get a feel for timing. If I didn't drift I'd slide out wide, and if I did drift I'd come in too sharply.
It doesn't help that players have no control over braking or speed. The game says it will control these variables for the player, but after messing up turn after turn I began to pine for manual control.
However, kudos go to developer Big Park for fleshing out the game with more than just typical races. Some events will have players trying to boost their way to faster times down mostly straight raceways by repeatedly pulling back the steering wheel and pushing it forward, while others are set in massive half pipes that encourage players to collect floating cherries and perform tricks (by leaning back and forth and from side to side while in the air). I enjoyed these events more, mostly because precision steering wasn't much of a factor.
I'm just not sold on Kinect as an interface for driving cars. Still, I've yet to experience it in a more realistic racer. We'll likely have that opportunity when Microsoft and Turn 10 Studios roll out the next iteration of the Xbox exclusive Forza franchise in 2011.
Your Shape: Fitness Evolved
Not a game so much as a physical training program, Your Shape: Fitness Evolved is best compared to titles like Wii Fit and EA Sports Active. It allows players to set up personal training programs for themselves designed to burn calories, build muscles, and create tone.
I had only one night with this one prior to deadline, so I can't speak to its long-term appeal or efficacy. What I can say is this: After spending 90 minutes with it I was ready to collapse.
You begin by taking a fitness test and setting general goals, such as being able to climb stairs without becoming winded, improving appearance, or reducing stress. You can then further refine what you want out of the game by selecting whether to do things like tone muscle after giving birth or focus on cardio workouts.
Then you launch into the actual exercises. I began with some pretty basic lunges and squats, but there are loads of activities here, ranging from Tai Chi to cardio boxing as well as routines developed with the help of experts from popular fitness magazines. Personally, I preferred the small selection of fitness mini-games Ubisoft included, which had me punching blocks floating around my avatar and holding a virtual board in both hands to collect shapes falling from the ceiling.
Unlike most other console trainers, this feels much more natural; you need not step on or hold anything (though some exercises suggest you add hand weights); just repeat what you see onscreen. It's almost like a workout video, save that it's interactive and the Kinect sensor measures, evaluates, and tracks everything you do. I've invested significant time in Wii Fit, and I think I prefer the freedom of movement allowed by Your Shape a little more.
However, there are couple of things you'll want to consider before buying.
First, this game required me to stand further back from my TV than any other Kinect title I tried. You'll need clear space stretching back about four metres from the camera.
Second, the lag between my movement in the real world and that of my avatar was plainly noticeable. During rhythm based exercises I needed to focus on my trainer rather than myself in order to keep rhythm.
These quibbles aside, fit-minded folks ought to be able to put Your Shape to some good, healthy use.
This animal simulation game is far and away my five-year-old daughter's favourite (she liked Dance Central a lot, too, but we ushered her out of the room when she began enthusiastically repeating the lyrics to some of that game's booty anthems).
The goal here is to interact with the cute and playful jungle cat cubs that inhabit a remote desert isle. The game begins with players befriending one, verbally naming it, and reaching out toward the screen to pet it. Then you can start teaching it tricks. It will copy pretty much everything you do, from spinning around in a circle to lying on the floor and playing dead.
It's worth adding that these cubs are unforgivably adorable. You can catch them playing by themselves and occasionally sneezing.They'll even run up to the TV screen to lick it. If more endearing virtual felines exist, I haven't seen them.
As the game goes on players earn toys that they can use with their cats, like a Frisbee and a remote control car. These objects are also used in little mini-games that have players doing things like throwing balls to knock over totems or race around a track. My daughter's favourite plaything was a special piece of glass that she could look through to find sparkles indicating hidden treasures, which her cat would dig up.
The only issue we encountered was that she had trouble leaping high enough for the game to register her jumps, possibly because her head peaks just a little over a metre off the floor to begin with. However, thanks to Kinect's seamless player swapping I was able to step into the play area and help her out.
There's not a lot here for teens or grown-ups, but if you pick up Kinect and have early grade school kids in the house, it's pretty much a must.
Sonic Free Riders
No other Kinect game has given me as much grief as Sonic Free Riders. Granted, I only spent a few hours with it, but I had a week of experience with other Kinect games under my belt. It shouldn't have been hard for me to get a feel for something as simple as leaning forward and back to steer a hover board.
Obvously, this is another racing game. Stepping into the shoes of the Blue Blur (or one of his pals), players make like they're on a snowboard and lean left and right to steer their way through obstacle-laiden courses. You can lean forward to go faster, turn your board sideways to brake, and jump to pull tricks. Other actions include holding out your arms to grab rings as they pass by, making a throwing motion to toss an explosive football-like device, and making windmill motions with your arms to swim if you land in water.
But I couldn't get past the steering. Turns were nightmarish. I'd lean and my avatar would do nothing. I'd lean a little more and suddenly he'd make a sharp swerve into a wall. Subtle, gentle changes in direction were simply beyond me.
Tricking was problematic as well. In fact, I was unable to pass one of the trick tutorial lessons. All I needed to do was jump and spin in the air. I'm certain I pulled it off flawlessly multiple times, but Sonic never once copied my actions. I finally gave up after about a dozen tries (the final of which ended with me nearly twisting my ankle) and simply launched into the main game.
There were a few times when everything seemed to click, like when I was flying down an icy course littered with giant bones that had sharp corners that doubled as half pipes. I managed to hit all of these ramps perfectly while blasting away barriers located between them by throwing my arms forward. It felt good. And for a moment I had an idea of what the game should have been like. But this glimpse didn't outweigh my frustrations.
I can't say for certain whether it was a problem with Kinect or the game. However, I tried retuning the sensor twice and it made no difference. And since games like Dance Central were able to accurately and reliably pick up much subtler moves than a lean or a spinning jump, I think I'm going to place the blame on the game. I'll come back and update this section if my experience changes in future sessions.