I went into Kinect Sports fully prepared to hate it. Even as I was playing, I was making mental notes of technical slip-ups, unnecessary faffing about in menu screens, and peculiar design choices. But during the heat of a ferocious Track and Field competition with VideoGamer.com's Emily Gera, all of this got lost in a cloudy haze of excitement. As I watched the video replay at the end of the event (which I lost, I am loathe to admit), the analytical part of my brain switched back on, and I was left staring at a video of me jumping, laughing, running on the spot, laughing some more, shouting taunts, throwing imaginary javelins, and pumping clenched fists into the air. The proof was right there on the screen, there was no denying it: I had a bloody good time.
It was inevitable that a sports compendium would find its way into the Kinect launch line up. There are two of them, in fact - with Ubisoft also having a pop at the genre with Motion Sports. Despite core gamers looking down their noses at these mini-game compilations, they're the perfect test bed for new motion technologies, as the Wii proved all too well back in 2006. Microsoft and Rare's foray into the genre is a much more sophisticated affair than Nintendo's, however. You don't need a controller, the graphics are all shiny and high def, there's multiplayer play - both local and over Xbox LIVE, and your avatars even have limbs!
Unfortunately this has lead to some animation issues. Often you'll see your avatar's arm bent at an impossible angle, like he's just walked out of a car crash or something. There are remnants of the classic "have you ever wondered what the bottom of an avatar's foot looks like?" embarrassment every now and again, but the game on the whole is technically sound. Bringing an arm across your body after throwing a bowling ball will indeed put spin on it. Throwing a javelin at a 65 degree angle is more effective than throwing it at a 45 degree angle. Sprinting on the spot will get you to the finish line quicker than jogging on the spot. I used to refuse to play Wii Sports at social gatherings with friends; it made my blood boil to lose at a game that required so little skill. I'm happy to report that this isn't a problem concerning Kinect Sports - at least not to the same degree.
There are six sports on the disc: bowling, football, boxing, ping pong, volleyball and track and field (which itself contains five events). As with Wii Sports, some are good, some are bad and some you'll want to avoid at all costs. In Kinect Sport's case, the no-go sport is Football.
The 'beautiful game' is split into two halves; attack and defence. Attacking is a simple case of swinging your foot at an imaginary ball and hoping it evades the goalie's hands. I played on the same team as Emily, the pair of us joining forces to take on the AI opposition. The game refused to acknowledge who was in control of the ball, however, so we'd both kick when the ball arrived at our avatars' feet. There was constant bickering about who scored 'that amazing goal', and the whole thing quickly descended into madness. Defence involves blocking a pass or attack by sidestepping into the path of a trajectory line drawn on the pitch. This turns out to be dull and depressingly easy, with roughly 90 per cent of interceptions being successful.
The whole thing felt incredibly static, lacking the fluid nature of the real sport. Rare has spoken about their difficulties in bringing movement and navigation into the game, but ditching it altogether was not an appropriate solution. The game as a whole would have benefited if Football was swapped out for a sport that actually works with the Kinect technology; Leaving it in there does Kinect Sports no favours.
The other five activities are better. Bowling is much like it is on the Wii, except without the Wii-mote. There's no B button to release to let go of the ball, so the game automatically releases it when Kinect detects a swing with enough momentum. Arrows on the alley will glow depending on your alignment, allowing you to prepare your aim before sending the ball down the lane. Boxing is much better than the Wii version, too, with options to move about the ring, strafe left and right, block high, block low and throw punch. Rare decided to ditch the stamina bar that many boxing games use, knowing full well that the player's own stamina is just as useful a resource. Boxing is by far the most physically demanding event in the game.
Volleyball and Ping-Pong are fairly similar, requiring good hand to ball co-ordination and precise timing. The game makes use of a 'if it turns green, do it' mechanic, which is applied via icons to smashing volley balls, jumping over hurdles and throwing discuses, amongst other things. Due to a slight lag, however, you need to execute the required actions just before the object in question changes colour. This, as you might expect, is quite frustrating, but pre-empting the switch quickly becomes part of the game.
Track and Field was perhaps my favourite of the six sports, entering players into a pentathlon of hurdles, sprint, javelin, discus throw and long jump. Your points in each mode build up cumulatively, meaning consistency across all five events is crucial if you're gunning for gold. During my time with the game I set world records in no less than three disciplines - and I felt a great urge to repeat the two where I didn't. This will be what keeps players coming back - the rivalry between friends and families in who can throw the furthest javelin or run 100m in the quickest time.
Whenever you set a new record, ace a serve or nail a strike, licensed music will fill the air as your avatar jumps and woops and thrusts his fists into the air. Of course in the real world you're likely to be celebrating in a similar manner, and unbeknownst to you, Kinect will be filming the whole thing. At the end of an event, a video of these celebrations and other pivotal moments from the competition will be shown. This is where a large percentage of the fun from Kinect Sports is derived from: laughing at yourself acting like a prat in front of the TV. The game goes one step further than that though, giving you the opportunity to share this footage with the world. You can upload video highlights from within the game to the Kinect Share website, where it can then be downloaded and distributed as you wish.
As with many of the launch games available, Kinect Sports could have done with a little more refining prior to release. The football is shoddy, avatars glitch out and every now and again and the responsiveness of the game is occasionally brought into question - but none of this stops the experience being enjoyable. To conclude then, the answer to a question that has been on everybody's lips: is Kinect Sports better than Wii Sports?
Without a doubt.