Every new piece of technology needs a tech demo to accompany it and Kinect Sports is very much the tech demo for Kinect. However, there’s no written rule that says tech demos can’t be fun. As we’ve seen with Wii Sports and Sports Champions, sports compilations make an excellent gateway drug for motion gaming and Kinect Sports is no different.
The setup is what you’d expect; a loosely stitched together compilation of sports-themed minigames that use Kinect in a very simple and easy-to-use fashion. There’s bowling, boxing, soccer, track & field, table tennis and beach volleyball to be enjoyed, each with competitive and co-operative modes for both online and offline multiplayer.
Most of the games are very easy to play, and there’s a charm in that simplicity. Little explanation is needed for newcomers because the design is so intuitive. There’s no complex system of meters or gauges, just a virtual representation of a sport and an avatar for the player to act through.
Of course, the most important thing for a tech demo is that it works and Kinect Sports absolutely does. Perhaps it’s the additional time Rare had to work on the game as a first-party developer, but Kinect Sports seems to understand player motion better than most Kinect launch titles.
For the most part characters respond reasonably close to parity with the player’s movement. The game does spaz out from time to time when there’s a lot of motion behind the player or the player hides a limb behind their back. These are likely problems inherent to the system itself, but for a majority of the time players are tracked with great detail and accuracy.
Of the games included on the disc table tennis is by far a stand-out. Offering both split-screen and Xbox Live multiplayer the experience is both competitive and relaxing at the same time. It lacks the hard-edged intensity a first-person shooter generally delivers, but at the same time offers a level of competition uncharacteristic of casual games. Though it’s only a single mini-game within a compilation, table tennis could easily become the Kinect experience of choice for traditional hardcore gamers who are willing to give it a shot.
Soccer also offers a fair amount of fun for the competition minded, but more importantly highlights some very clever game design. Rather than have players running on the spot to cross a field or performing some strange hand gesture to change players the game is soccer boiled down to the simplest of moments. Instead of trying to emulate the real thing Kinect Sports lets players experience the mental battle of getting the ball past an opponent who’s blocking your way. This takes all the fluff out of what could have been a bloated experience and gets down to what matters, which ultimately makes it more fun.
Both bowling and boxing are almost exact clones of their Wii Sports brothers but without the charm of being your first motion-game. Bowling works as you’d expect, tossing your hand forward launches the ball, but it’s just not fun because we’ve been here before.
Boxing on the other hand is completely broken and Xbox Live is full of unstoppable jerks who abuse Kinect’s tracking ability by rolling their arms in front of their chest like they were doing the hustle. For some reason the system just can’t track it properly and instead of looking like an aging white guy dancing the game sends a volley of lightning fast punches to your face. There’s ways to abuse any system for sure, but it’s impossible to expect any online community to ignore it because that’s just what they do.
Finally, track and field is apt but not too fun. It’s one of the more involved Kinect Sports experiences, requiring players to sprint and jump in place, but it never feels satisfying because there’s no depth to the gameplay. All of the five track and field events are based on just moving faster than your opponent, which ultimately comes down to how Kinect views you. When you fail it feels like it’s the system’s fault and when you succeed it feels disingenuous.
There are also additional mini-games related to each event that can be enjoyed via a sub-menu. More challenging than the main events games like two-paddle table tennis or the goal keeper soccer challenge make for a fun diversion once you’ve tired of the core games.
Unfortunately there’s no real campaign progression or even a purposeful leveling system (one exists, but it does nothing), so without playing by yourself can feel kind of pointless. With people to play with either in real life or on Xbox Live these events come to life, but on your own it lacks satisfaction.
Visually the game is incredibly simple. Featuring the Xbox Live Avatars as player characters offers some fun customization options, but matching environments to their rudimentary art style lends to a duller game. They’re functional and never distract but the arenas in Kinect Sports never dazzle either.
Navigation is also rather standardized, borrowing the dashboards familiar but inefficient hover and wait model. Moving your cursor over a button and waiting for the 2 second timer to register it makes sense for a gesture interface but it never feels better than if you had used a controller.
Kinect Sports is one of those games that early adopters really do need to pick up. It highlights the highs and lows of Kinect game design incredibly well. When it works it’s fun and immersive and the experience is great, but when it falters you really feel the limitations of the system.
As more games come out Kinect Sports will become more and more irrelevant, but for now it’s one of the better experiences for Kinect. Both the table tennis and soccer games are really enjoyable and easily make the game worth playing if you’re interested in motion-gaming. Though, there’s nothing here that will transform you if you’re ardently against getting off the couch.