Kinect, a Week Later: Great Technology, Disappointing Games

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Microsoft


After nearly two years of hype, on the Kinect Xbox 360 add-on debuted last week, with a unique combination of cameras, infrared sensors, and microphones to listen to voice commands and track you and your friends' every move. It wowed me enough upon its launch, and after a week of play, that basic thrill hasn't changed. When its games make the most of my arms, feet, hops, and dodges, I'm still smitten.

But my most intense Kinect-related movement has come from swapping games. A new control scheme like a touch-screen or a Wii remote is only half of the equation, because what good's a new input without software to match?

There's a game-of-the-year experience here unlike any other. But to get it from Kinect, you'll need to buy six games minimum, to mix and match them and create the ultimate hodge-podge game. A little soccer here, some aerobics there, along with a speedy drive, some pet-related antics, and an occasional obstacle course... they all add up. By themselves, each disc falls flat.

Except for one. Dance Central, from the makers of Rock Band, currently sits on my "best of 2010" pedestal. I've tried other dance games before, from the arrow-pad hops of Dance Dance Revolution to the over-simplified arm-waves of Just Dance, and none have ever sat right.

Dance Central, by contrast, senses your dance moves in three-dimensional space. Really, it senses 'em. All of 'em. You cannot fake Kinect out with arm-waves from the couch, nor with half-assed motions. Those knees have to go all the way down. Your arms need to jut out. And when you perform a jazz square, your four steps need to not only match the beat, but also cross in front and behind, with matching arm motions, just so.

Ohmygoshthatissoooooooocool.

This basic revolution in control comes with a welcome diversity of songs, ranging from hip-hop to pop to club bangers, and each comes complete with an appropriate set of moves. "Funky Town" has the dorkiest, simplest moves, while Benny Benassi's "Satisfaction" makes you flat-out work it, and this range bears out well when playing with a large group.

Developers Harmonix could've added more songs, or more modes, and the inevitable Dance Central 2 will have both. But the experience here so far hasn't bored me yet. Not even close.

That brings us to Kinect's problem: its disparity between Dance Central and Every Other Game On Kinect. Nothing else comes close.

You'll find Kinect Adventures free inside every Kinect, like temporary tattoos in a Cracker Jack box. As such, the game comes off a little thin, but it's not ashamed to simply prove to new owners that, yes, this Kinect thing works.

It accomplishes the task via five arcadey games, each lasting about two minutes per round. Smack a ball at targets in 3D space; guide a raft down a river by leaning and jumping; plug leaks in an aquarium using your hands and feet; dodge oncoming obstacles while riding a mine cart. (The fifth game, which sees you floating awkwardly in a spaceship, is best left ignored.)

The mini-games' two-minute lengths are a form of mercy, as even the simplest ones require a good amount of swatting, kicking, hopping, side-stepping, and all-out flailing for the highest score. Microsoft doesn't want anybody getting the wrong idea here; Kinect takes hydration, stretching, and stamina.

As such, I'm okay with the game being relatively thin. It's not an epic quest, but a quick-burst series of games that I turn to again and again for "I want to act like a hooligan for seven minutes" sessions. And I don't mind the exertion. Really, I like the ways Kinect Adventures uses my full body to play around without blatantly copying the Wii.

Its "free" cost might afford Kinect Adventures some slack; the other disappointments aren't so lucky. Kinect Sports is at its best when using your full body. Its soccer mode, in particular, does a great job of sensing steps, blocks, and kick angles, and the track and field series of games proved a pleasant surprise. But much of Kinect Sports just plain stinks, from its wonky boxing to its over-simplified table-tennis. In the latter, Kinect over-compensates for not picking up precise hand movements, and the result made matches against friends last for 25 minutes. We couldn't miss a shot. Our matches devolved into brutal endurance trials.

Kinect Joy Ride would be a forgettable racing game on a normal controller, because its race tracks are snoozers, and its "battle" and "stunt" options pale compared to the legendary Mario Kart series. The only challenge comes from pretending to hold a steering wheel in mid-air to direct your race car. When it works, it's fun to turn arms and lean into high-speed drifts, but when holding your arms in mid-air, it's easy to get them out of position--or tire them out from being held out upright.

Kinectimals, the lineup's sleeper stand-out, has plenty of charm. It's disguised as a pet game, in which you adopt a jungle kitten and interact by petting, feeding, and throwing toys at it. But this is really a mini-game collection, in which you knock down obstacles, perform tricks, and drive RC cars, among other games, to progress around an exotic island and discover new animals and locations. It's gorgeous, and its bubbly narrator is endearing, so you're looking at a perfect game to play along with young kids. But those mini-games get a little repetitive, and sometimes, they simply don't work. Don't get me started on how hard it was to toss a rubber chicken the right direction.

Rounding out the so-so selection is Your Shape: Fitness Evolved, the system's best workout game at launch. It projects your body onto the screen next to your trainer, so when you're asked to do a lunge or a twist, you don't have to guess whether your motion is on point; thar she blows, next to the "proper" motion from a virtual trainer. (Again, geez, that is so cool.) Unlike the popular Wii Fit or EA Active series, though, these exercises are chained together without the option to separate them into customized routines. This particularly stinks in yoga modes, which throw 5- to 10-minute chains of yoga poses on the screen with no options to pause and learn particular poses. Fitness novices deserve better.

You might've caught a commonality there: Each game just needs a little more. More modes; more options; more intensity. If you're sitting on over $400 and are willing to swap from game to game to milk a few minutes of fun out of each, or a single dance game does the trick, then, by golly, the combined experience is a blast. The soreness and the rearranged living room both pay off, particularly when you fill a Kinected room with friends.

Otherwise, your Kinect experience, as of now, will suffer thanks to Microsoft's compromise: to expend all its energy fine-tuning the technology, rather than the games that require it.

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Sam Machkovech is a freelance arts and tech writer based in Seattle, WA. More

Sam Machkovech is a freelance arts and tech writer based in Seattle. He began his career in high school as a nationally syndicated video games critic at the Dallas Morning News, eventually taking up the mantle of music section editor at Dallas weekly paper the Dallas Observer. His writing has since appeared in Seattle weekly The Stranger, in-flight magazine American Way, now-defunct music magazine HARP, gaming blog The Escapist, and Dallas business monthly Dallas CEO. He currently serves as a games and tech columnist for Seattle web site PubliCola.net, as well as a volunteer tutor at the all-ages writing advocacy group 826 Seattle.
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