I haven’t had many “Oh, I get it!” moments with Kinect, but a handful of consistent experiences are coming together to sell it as the ultimate social gaming platform. The low barrier to entry, like the no-hidden costs associated with buying extra controllers (and then having to deal with the casual people being unfamiliar with them) is helping the Kinect make sense to one such as myself who initially dismissed it as an annoying attempt to capture a slice of that Wii market.
Season Two is, of course, a follow up to the obligatory inaugural sports title for the Kinect, creatively called Kinect Sports, and it brings with it six new sports to compete in, against friends or the Xbox. Tennis, darts, baseball, football, golf, and skiing are the events, and are all presented as live TV events, rather than the ‘in the stadium’ theme of the previous game. The format remains mostly unchanged, the game still plays back a video of you looking like The Star Wars Kid after a match, and clips of popular music play at certain joyful moments, it’s appropriately energetic but doesn’t break the mould set by its predecessor, so I’ll break down the actual sports included.
Leaving court tennis out of the first Kinect Sports may have been a deliberate move to avoid the criticism that it was blatantly copying Wii Sports (it already had boxing and bowling), but that might be selling it short, given that the table tennis that was in there was surprisingly solid. This full court rendition does the same thing as Wii Sports, where the movement to chase the ball is all handled for you. Some footwork is required though, as playing a power stroke requires the player to step in. Unlike Wii Sports, KS:S2 can tell the difference between a forehand and a backhand, so positioning your feet does require some concentration in order to consistently slam it with power shots until your opponent will crack and either give up the point in an unforced error, or give you a smash opportunity. A nice touch is that on some dubious line calls can be challenged by raising your hand. I don’t think that the Kinect sensor recognises when you forcibly throw your imaginary racquet into the ground and scream “YOU CAN’T BE SERIOUS!!” – but it doesn’t hurt, either (pro tip, tell your guests that they have to behave like that to contest a point, hilarious for all!)
As a game for a party environment, darts hits the spot. Even players that don’t understand the scoring system (some people think that the bulls-eye is where to aim) can be quickly brought up to speed and up to four people can participate in the jump-in-jump-out style of play true to the sport, and all the shit-talking that you’d associate with a game appropriate for playing at a bar. Aiming is as simple as holding your hand up, moving around crosshairs that respond much the same as the hand icon used in basic Kinect interactions, but a little bit of the hand drawing back will cause the crosshairs to lock into place, and a perfectly straight throw will land it on target. For my money, the winning technique was just the throw without locking the crosshairs like this, and a the people I was playing with had a lot of trouble getting a straight shot, so actually seemed worse off for locking it into place. It’s good though, the Kinect sensor has enough fidelity to track enough wavering to make it an actual challenge to score highly, and it has a nice heartbeat effect to add the pressure when you’re going for a checkout throw.
As the real sport represents a somehow more boring version of cricket, I didn’t expect to enjoy this one very much. It might have been the fact that I was able to hit two home runs at my first two times up at bat, but I feel like it made a good impression. After my girlfriend found that pitching a straight fastball was a disastrous idea, a variety of curve and slow balls started to come, making it tougher to time the swing. After a straight forward runaway inning of miming a batsman and then waving my hands in the air in celebration dances for the players trotting in to the home plate, we changed up. Then disaster struck. Kinect refused to recognise my girlfriend when she turned to the right, to adopt her right handed batting stance. After plenty of frustration, and a few forced left-handed sessions she managed to wiggle and shake enough for the Kinect to grudgingly accept her as right handed. It was weird, and I couldn’t help but wonder what the bottom of her avatar’s shoe looked like. The pitching is a mime job much like the batting, and when the hit comes to a fielder, you can reach with your glove to cover an onscreen icon to make the catch. All in all it’s effective and more exciting than the real thing.
From all six games, this is arguably the most distilled, or rather, watered-down from the real life counterpart. The entirety of the play is from the offense perspective, so simultaneous multiplayer is coop only, and whenever the CPU has its turn on offense, a simple yardage count comes up to show the progress, which you have no influence over. What you will get to play is mostly a passing game, from the perspective of the quarterback, taking the ball from the snap and basically deciding from three options who to pass it to. Even knowing those options is made easier by the three icons that appear and turn green when the receiver is open. Once the catch is successful, you’ll possess that player in their running bid for the end zone. There’s some fancy footwork you can play on to evade tackles, but the game doesn’t do a good job of communicating exactly what you should do and when. Being American football, there’s a library of plays to call upon, but when the defensive part is completely hidden behind the veil, it’s hard to give strategy much consideration.
Again, the Wii Sports comparison is hard to ignore, and it might even have an advantage over this new contender as the lack of actually holding anything for golf has never felt more pronounced. Kinect does gain some ground with the functionality of things like putting your hand up to your forehead to create a visor in order to look down the course to the hole, and holding out your hand to take another club, as if your virtual caddy is just off screen. Aiming up the shot isn’t quite as intuitive, as to angle the shot you have to actually physically move horizontally in front of the sensor, instead of turning. It also seems a little dubious about detecting how much power is in a shot, but I don’t have a drive like Tiger Woods, so it might be unrealistic to hope that I’d exceed the games expectations of where I’d hit it. It’s a fun addition, but it’s something of an odd fit amongst the other, more energetic and quickly played games.
Lastly, skiing is a simple downhill slalom race. Extra speed is gained by tucking in, and turning is managed by leaning from side to side. There are some jumps too, to make things interesting (and the videos at the end amusing.) That’s really about as complicated as it gets, and it works well. There are multiple courses, but they all blend in to one long white curvy track really.
The Bottom Line
It’s not easy to say whether Kinect Sports Season 2 is better than the original, but it’s easy to say it’s about as good at worst. It follows the trend of being more prolific with voice integration, and while it doesn’t add a huge amount, it doesn’t detract from the experience. It’s a fun package and the games are different enough that fans of the first should find it worth picking up. There’s also a host of modified version of the games to fiddle around with, and while it doesn’t support live mutliplayer over Xbox Live, it does have a challenge system to allow you to assert your dominance over your friends list. Kinect may have put me off by going after the more casual market, but it’s bringing me back in with some surprisingly well constructed packages.