With Thursday’s launch of Kinect, Microsoft hopes to change the way Xbox 360 owners play games, watch TV and socialize online. The 3D-camera-based interface with voice input is designed to let us play video games without having to hold a controller, and it’s clear from the marketing push behind it that Microsoft is gunning hard for the millions of families who’ve made the Wii a massive hit for Nintendo.
At a recent Kinect preview event in San Francisco, I got to get my hands on try several of the games that will launch alongside Kinect ($150). I came away impressed with the technology, but also eager to experiment in my own home to see how it held up over hours of play time, both standing and sitting.
Obviously, an event with media in attendance is going to feature Kinect and software running under optimal conditions, and play time was brief, meaning I could only sample a bit of each title. Nonetheless, a few quick impressions of what I saw and played follow.
The couple of times I’ve seen Kinect in the wild, “Dance Central” (rated T, $50) has been the title with the most people crowded around it. Made by Harmonix, the folks behind the “Rock Band” games, “Dance Central” is “Dance Dance Revolution” without the floor mat. Instead of stomping on directional arrows to the beat of the music like you would in “DDR,” you’re trying to copy on-screen moves while Kinect’s camera captures and evaluates your performance.
I tried getting down to Kool & The Gang’s “Jungle Boogie” and managed just one star, mainly because I’m a horrible dancer who tends to dance even worse when other people are watching. But, based on what I saw on-screen, Kinect effectively tracked my movements and rendered them on-screen. In other words, I “earned” that lonely star. Other folks I saw dancing fared much better than I did.
Though “Dance Central” looks like a lot of fun and is a genius idea, it’s hard not to think the game wasted an opportunity. Most of the songs on its track list aren’t tunes I’d dance to on a regular basis. (“Brick House?” Seriously?) It’d have been cool if Microsoft, who’s publishing the game, insisted it include the feature from its karaoke game “Lips” that lets users import their own music to the game. I’d love a chance to get down to “Around the World,” “Pump up the Volume” or “Myth Takes.”
Thanks to a late lull in the action, I got to try most of the minigames in “Kinect Sports” (rated E10+, $50) because there wasn’t anyone lined up behind me waiting for a turn near the end of the night.
As you’d expect from the name, “Kinect Sports” aims at being Microsoft’s “Wii Sports” or “Sports Champions.” Strangely, though, it’s not the game packed in with Kinect. (That’s “Kinect Adventures,” below.) The sports title features six different events in which you can compete.
The most interesting of the bunch was soccer, as it’s a game you play primarily with your feet. That skill doesn’t translate well to wand-based control schemes like those found on the Wii or PlayStation Move. Unfortunately the soccer game is quite basic, as you’ll advance the ball up and down the field by kicking to nearly stationary players. Each time you pass the ball, you’ll take over the recipient of your pass. But you can’t run. Your objective is simply to pass the ball in one of two or three directions while the computer tries to stop you. Once the ball reaches the last player, you can try a shot on goal.
It’s a decent minigame, particularly against human competition, but players expecting a more robust experience will have to hold out longer. Maybe at some point we’ll get a co-op soccer game in which one gamer uses a traditional controller to move players around the pitch, while another is responsible for kicking and heading the ball with Kinect.
The other games I tried — volleyball, boxing, bowling and table tennis — all controlled fine, but I found myself perplexed by the inclusion of bowling and table tennis. In real life when you play these sports, you’re holding something in your hand. But given that Kinect’s whole premise is that you hold nothing at all, I felt less immersed in these sports than I did while playing them on the Wii and PlayStation 3. I found myself wondering whether my hand represented the paddle in table tennis, or if Kinect merely inserts into my hand a paddle that extends my reach several inches. It’s an issue I never thought about while playing Wii, probably because I was holding something while I played.
This disconnect is something players will overcome quickly, but playing a paddle or racket sport while holding nothing in my hand made me feel a bit like Microsoft was encouraging me to be a mime. I found myself wondering why “table tennis” wasn’t “handball,” a seemingly more logical choice.
Furthering the whole mime vibe was “Kinect Joy Ride” (rated E, $50), a kart racer in which players hold their arms out and turn an imaginary wheel to steer. You can lean around corners to give your turns a little extra “oomph” and pulling the steering wheel toward you and then pushing it forward unleashes a rechargeable speed boost. Though the Marcel Marceau factor and “driving” while standing up felt a bit weird, the controls were easy to get used to, and I smoked the competition. My poor wife, playing alongside me, came in fifth out of five. I only ran one race, so it’s hard to say how “Joy Ride” holds up against strong competition on other consoles, such as “Mario Kart Wii” and “ModNation Racers.”
Most people who buy Kinect will get “Kinect Adventures” (rated E) as a pack-in game. We got to try out a couple of different, co-op minigames. In the first, we guided a raft through a cartoony whitewater rapids course. If we jumped, the raft would jump, and we could lean from side to side to steer it as we tried to navigate the course by running over boost pads and ramps and collecting coins. (This 1980s-style gameplay was repeated throughout a few too many launch titles on display, such as “Kinect Joy Ride” and Sega’s “Sonic Free Riders,” rated E, $50).
The other minigame we tried, pictured above, had the two of us working together to plug leaks that kept springing in our underwater glass box. Though the idea of being trapped with your spouse in a leaky glass box on the ocean floor sounds quite stressful, we had a good time. There’s sort of light, Twister-style action at work as you reach around to plug each new leak. As with “Joy Ride” and some of the “Kinect Sports” stuff, it was impossible not to want to reach for the white face paint while trapped inside an imaginary glass box.
The lone disappointment during my brief playtime was “Kinectimals,” a game that dashed my high hopes a bit when I finally got to play it. “Kinectimals” is an “EyePet”-style pet simulation from Rare, the folks who made the vastly underrated “Viva Piñata.”
Just like “Viva Piñata” and its sort-of sequel, “”Viva Piñata: Trouble in Paradise,” “Kinectimals'” color-rich palette and playful big cats look as good as anything else you’ll find on the 360. It was a shame, then, that the one minigame I got to spend the most time with had me hunting for sparkly bits with an imaginary magnifying glass, then “digging” with my hands when my Kinectimal went bounding over to the buried treasure. I was a bit confused as to why, one moment, I was controlling an off-screen human being while the next I was assuming control of my pet and digging in the dirt. Maybe things will become a bit more clear when I finally get my hands on “Kinectimals.”
It’s true the treasure-hunting minigame is but a small part of “Kinectimals.” I’m a big fan of Rare’s underappreciated Xbox 360 games thus far, so I’m not ready to write it off just yet.
The last game I tried was Ubisoft’s “Your Shape: Fitness Evolved” (rated E, $50), a workout game. In a lot of ways, “Your Shape” could be Kinect’s killer app. Workout videos tend to be fairly tedious, but the interactive nature of similar games allows them to easily track your time spent exercising, physical progress and calories burned.
Games like “Your Shape” don’t really demo well at press events because no one comes dressed for a workout, but I’m looking forward to putting some time in with both “Your Shape” and Electronic Arts’ “Active Sports 2,” which launches in a few weeks and features extensive online community features your workout buddies can use to guilt you into getting the exercise you need.