After E3 2009, Project Natal was the talk of Game Town. Microsoft's attempt to accommodate the casual gamer was all set to take motion controlling to a new level, and the core audience were equally as impressed by the innovative applications of the technology as the casual. Fast forward a year to E3 2010, and we finally have a formal name, Kinect, and a £129.99 price tag. A bevy of new games have also been announced, each met with a unanimous groan from the once hopeful industry. Taking the brunt of the spite was Kinect Sports. As I rocked up to Microsoft's Christmas Showcase to try out the game, I couldn't have been less excited.
Given that Kinect is launching this November, the event placed a heavy focus on the new technology. A large room in the Saatchi Gallery in London was dedicated to controller-free gaming, and alongside Kinect Adventures and Joyride, Kinect Sports was one of several playable games on offer. After patiently waiting for other unhealthily-enthusiastic journalists to have their go, I begrudgingly had mine. The thought of waving my arms about like a loon really wasn't appealing to me, especially without a controller in my hand to justify it all. I forced a smile as I stepped in front of the camera.
The first game I tried my hand at was bowling. Extending my right arm out in front of me, I was able to pick up a ball from the ball return. My on-screen avatar followed my action faithfully, and as I passed the ball to my other hand, I tried my best to assume a suitable 'bowler' pose. From here, it's just a case of doing what comes naturally. You pull your arm backwards in an arc, and using the force of gravity (which is diminished somewhat considering you're not actually holding a 15-pound ball) swing in the desired direction. It's responsive enough, but I'm not sure how well the game would handle it if I tried to apply spin to the ball, or curl it into the pins with a sideways motion (which Wii Sports does a surprisingly good job of).
After a string of pathetic throws (I'm useless at bowling in real life, so it was encouraging to see the game reflect my skill level) I decided to try something a bit more energetic. The second of the two sports on offer was a 100m hurdles race. I was self consciousness enough throwing an imaginary bowling ball into thin air, so running on the spot and jumping every few seconds was met with the same hesitance. It was weird; I could increase my physical running speed (albeit on the spot) with little change to my speed in the game, but putting more effort into pumping my arms would be met with a considerable speed boost. The hurdles change from yellow to green to indicate when to jump, but you need to pre-empt this slightly to save yourself from running head first into the damn thing.
Despite failing to capture an appropriate sense of speed, the Kinect camera did an admirable job at tracking body movements on the whole. Approaching the finish line, you could lean forward to give yourself that edge over the competition, and once finished, your avatar would mimic your celebrations. I had an embarrassingly good time throwing my arms up in the air (I had won, so it was justified), and watching my avatar copy my every move like a silicon puppet. To the game's credit, it was very good looking. The visuals are crisp and clean, and there's lots happening on screen to keep your eyes happy while everybody makes fools out of themselves. The bowling alley has a crowd of avatar-supporters, who whoop and cheer and thrust big foam hands into the air every time you get a strike. Needless to say, it looks a lot better than Wii Sports.
But is it better than Wii Sports? The pair will inevitably find themselves the subject of endless comparisons. Whilst it's nice to have rid of all the waggling, tactile feedback is gone too. The motion tracking is certainly clever, but it's no way near as responsive as I would have expected. That said, it performed a lot better than the horrendous Joyride, and is a much better example of the technology. Maybe I'm being overly harsh, the technology is still in its infancy after all, but Kinect Sports has done little to soothe my worries. I did only try two sports, however - perhaps volleyball, soccer and boxing will have me feeling differently.
Kinect Sports will launch for Xbox 360 with Kinect itself in November 2010