"Punch to start" it says, so I throw a mean left hook. The screen shatters into a thousand pieces, which fall to the ground to reveal the main menu screen. My brain registers a twinge of satisfaction, and I make a mental note to say something pleasant about it in my review: it was quite fun punching the screen to start the game. With that out the way, I can move on to the rest of this autopsy of Fighters Uncaged - the worst example of Kinect technology I've had the misfortune of experiencing.
The tutorial takes an eternity to complete, insisting on explaining each and every move in the game before forcing you to repeat it three times. Even against an enemy that doesn't fight back the game is finicky, with punches translating to kicks and kicks often translating to nothing at all. It's at times like this you become aware how annoying it can be playing without a control pad - there's nothing to throw at the wall in a fit of rage. There's a painful lag accompanying each action too, meaning what you're doing in real life isn't even loosely in time with what's happening on screen. This is less apparent in the tutorial than the game itself, but with problems like this surfacing so early on, you know you're in for a bumpy ride.
But let's not get ahead of ourselves; we haven't even got in the car yet. Just when you think the tutorial might have finally finished (a longer-than-usual loading screen is responsible for false hope), you're forced into a sparring match to make sure you've been paying attention during each lesson. I very nearly stopped playing at this point, happy to bash out a review based what felt like eighteen hours worth of play (it was probably about half an hour, in normal-person time), but I persevered. After winning the sparring match, I breathed a sigh of relief - but quickly tried to re-inhale after realising I had to fight another one. Even a second win isn't enough to progress, and by the end of the third sparring match I was at the end of my tether.
Snapping out of the catatonic state of boredom the tutorial had left me in, the game proper eventually begins. There are no cutscenes, introductions or explanations about who the hell you are; you're just taken to a screen where you can select your first fight. After a bit of research since playing the game, I've learnt that you play as a chap called Simon, whose father has been taken hostage by a crime lord of some description. By infiltrating the underground fight scene he's associated with, Simon hopes to win the tournament and rescue his father. None of this is so much as mentioned in the game itself, however, so it's only natural to assume that Simon simply enjoys picking fights with random thugs.
The menu screen presents a selection of six fighters, with puzzling street names such as "Rider", "Mover" and - best of all - "Rat Face". The character roster covers pretty much every social stereotype going, with everyone from bikers and rockers lining up to get their arses kicked. It turns out the opposite happens more often than not; Fighters Uncaged is hard - not because it requires high levels of skill or physical aptitude, but because the game is both unresponsive and badly designed.
Combat itself is the primary cause of trouble. It's like a convoluted version of rock-paper-scissors, and feels just as dependant on blind luck. Depending on your distance from the enemy, a certain type of attack will be most effective. At short range you'll want to use elbows and uppercuts, mid-range you'll want straight punches, and it's all about kicks at long range. That's the theory anyway. 90 per cent of the time your enemy is able to avoid or block the attack, and the other 10 per cent Simon just stands there like a lemon, refusing to acknowledge the command.
While we're on the subject of Simon, it's worth taking a second to mention the fact that he's a complete prat. He has all the charisma of a wet towel, brought to life by a voice actor who seems to change dialects on a whim. One of his witty winning quotes is, "Your reputation is like you: in shreds," which stuck in my mind as being particularly dire. It's not just Simon, though. The dialogue in general is horrendous - and not in that it's-so-bad-it's-funny kind of way either. In addition to aching limbs from my violent brawling with the air in front of the TV, I also had to put up with a sore face - the direct result of constant cringing.
Back to the combat. An element of strategy is derived from knowing when an enemy is about to launch an attack and reacting quickly enough to dodge it. In the real world this is a case of leaning back, but the game seems to get this confused with head-butting pretty much all the time. Successful dodges leave your enemy open to a counter, which is the only sure-fire way of landing a blow without missing. Attacks that can't be dodged can often be blocked, but many opponents use moves that are simply impossible to avoid.
The only way I found to get anywhere in the game was to relentlessly exploit an enemy's weak spot. This might be a leg or an arm, or in the case of some enemies, their head. By repeatedly assaulting this area you can affect their ability to dodge or block, which can be quite helpful in the long run. Perhaps the only redeeming feature in the game (aside from being able to punch the screen to start the game) is shouting at the TV to launch a special attack. It's pretty rubbish in comparison to the spectacles on display in something like Street Fighter IV, but there's a certain satisfaction that comes with unleashing a special move with your voice.
Even when you do win a fight, however, it may not help you reach the next league of the tournament. Fighters Uncaged employs the strangest progression mechanic I think I've ever seen in a game. A gauge at the top of the screen needs to be filled with 360 rank points in order to reach League 2 and unlock the next batch of enemies - there are 12 to scrap with eventually - but this is much easier said than done. In order to get rank points you need to defeat an opponent with a decent score. This is achieved through successful counters, exploiting weak spots and stringing together combos, amongst other things. If you fail to beat the target score for each opponent, however, you won't get any rank points at all, regardless of whether you win. In order to get to get a serious score you need to finish off an enemy quickly whilst keeping the majority of your health bar intact. Regardless of how well you can do this, you'll be fighting the same six opponents over and over again for quite some time.
I reviewed The Fight: Lights Out a little while back, which could probably be described as the PlayStation Move equivalent of Fighters Uncaged. It's not a great game by any stretch of the imagination, but it's certainly a more thought out and comprehensive experience. It had training features, mini-games, character customisation, calorie counting and betting features. Don't expect any of that here. The only variety in Fighter's Uncaged is in the enemy you choose to exchange blows with. To add insult to injury, there's no multiplayer mode either, a rare omission indeed for the genre. Even a bad fighting game offers a small portion of enjoyment with a second player, but no such experience is on offer here.
Fighters Uncaged is a game that is not only technically impaired, but also one that is plagued with bizarre design choices and lacklustre visuals. It was probably churned out fairly quickly in order to coincide with the Kinect launch, but that doesn't stop the game from being a complete train wreck. As one of very few core games currently available for Kinect, this is the kind of tripe that will give the new technology a bad name. It's still early days though, and titles like Kinect Sports and Dance Central are proof that the platform has the potential to win over the core audience. Let's just pretend Fighters Uncaged never happened, and look to the future.