In the motion control wars, Kinect made some pretty big promises. The Kinect requires no handheld (or any) controller on your person. It uses cameras, sensors and software to track a player’s motion and then translates that into on-screen movement. You were supposed to be able to play games without the need for physical controllers – your body would control the action. You could move your hands and feet – even your shoulders and booty – to play games. The Kinect went on sale yesterday and it was time to put those claims to the test.
Setup of the device is pretty easy. Unbox the Kinect and plug it into the specially shaped port on the back of your console above the ethernet port. If you have an older 360, you will have to use the included adapter to hook into your USB port.
The Kinect should be mounted between two and six feet off the ground. I had better luck with it positioned higher, but my kids had better recognition when it was set low. The device has a big base – about 2 x 3 inches and is covered with a grippy texture. Mine can sit stably on top of my television, but with newer, thinner TVs, this might be a problem. Fortunately, Microsoft and third parties will soon be selling television and floor mounts for the Kinect.
Next, comes the room prep. The recommended play space is six feet from the Kinect for a single player and 8 feet if two are playing. For most people, this will require moving tables, couches and chairs, as it did for me. After trying a number of setups, we found that the camera recognized us best when we were seven to nine feet from the Kinect, which pushed us almost to our back wall.
During the setup, I enabled chat with my XBox friends through the Kinect’s built-in microphone. From my end, the audio was pretty good but on a couple tests, the people on the other end said they couldn’t hear me as well as normal. The built-in microphone can also be used for simple voice commands like accessing menus and starting games and that did work pretty well.
We spent some time with three games: Kinect Adventures, which was bundled with the Kinect, Joy Ride and MotionSports. Both Adventures and Joy Ride are games from Microsoft Game Studios. MotionSports is put out by Ubisoft.
Adventures is the Kinect’s entry into overall party games. It’s a collection of five games that are actually pretty fun. All involve a lot of total body movement and give you a flavor of what the Kinect is capable of – asking the user to jump, slide, punch and really move. We spent a lot of time with this game and one of the great aspects is that it automatically recognizes when a second player jumps into a new game. Of the three games we played, it was easily the best at recognizing input. We really enjoyed it.
Joy Ride is a steering-only game. Accelerating and braking are all taken care of by the game. You can create (and deploy) boost and perform stunts, but that’s all the control you get. There are several game modes, and the stunt games are some of the most fun, simply because of the ridiculous amount of air you can achieve. It’s very cartoony and we enjoyed it, but we had some problems with the camera recognizing my kids on this game.
Ubisoft’s MotionSports looked very promising with six realistic looking sports: boxing, football, hang gliding, soccer, horseback riding and skiing. We ended up playing it the least and we were ready to throw the disk out the window because the camera seemed to do its worst job recognizing actions during some of these mini-games. Although, the skiing felt more true to actual skiing than any game I’ve ever played; slight leans into the edges meant real turns. That part was quite fun and really punctuates how much potential there is here. But then I played the soccer penalty kick mini-game and had trouble hitting anything – and I’ve played soccer pretty much my entire life. This one’s a mixed bag.
Recognition was a more-than-intermittent and an annoying problem for all of us. I was regularly waving my hands, trying to get the system to recognize me. It was more common if I had to step out of the camera’s field for a moment, the process of being reacquired can take 10-20 seconds, which really slowed down game play. I tried the various means of calibration and various setups, but had no good luck with any particular one. I would say that the system does a lot better with one player than it does with two.
Our experience with the Kinect was both surprising and disappointing. Surprising in that it recognizes a wide variety of gestures and movements on several planes. When you think about the Kinect in terms of what the future may hold, it’s very exciting. But it’s disappointing in that controls feel a lot like the Wii, — very vague in its input – and this is represented in the types of games that are offered. Most of the games require controls with big gestures. This gives me pause that the Kinect will be used soon for more serious, Call of Duty type of games that require finer, definitive movements. Still, your inner geek will rejoice at the thrill of waving your hand through the air and things flying across the screen. It’s so very Jedi.
The biggest problem we had was with camera recognition. A football mini-game required us to jump. On many tries, I jumped, my son jumped and both of our avatars ended up tripping over the obstacle. I’d pull back on my imaginary steering wheel to create boost and nothing would happen. I’d try again and again and end up running into a wall because I couldn’t get the camera to recognize my input or would be slow to react. Rinse, repeat. What’s more, my kids consistently had problems with being too close. Because of the nature of the games, they kept moving forward and the camera wouldn’t recognize their input.
All of that said, it has brief moments of brilliance and promises to be improved in the future. I anticipate developers will do a better job of interpreting the device and the possibilities for the Kinect seem pretty endless if it gets better at reading input. But for now there are a lot of flaws that makes it a pretty frustrating gaming experience.
When it was all said and done, one of my kids walked away in anger (and saying things that would normally get him in trouble) because – over and over – the camera wouldn’t recognize him. One of my daughters ended up in tears because she couldn’t make the horse in the Ubisoft game move, even though she was doing everything right. (We turned everything off at that point. No game is worth that kind of reaction.) But that sums up our experience with the Kinect pretty well. It looks like a lot of fun and when it works as advertised, it really, really is. But in between are far too many moments of concentrated frustration.
Who knows? Maybe a few weeks down the road, we’ll have adapted to the device and our experience will be better. But the best equipment is the type that integrates itself seamlessly into your life. Kinect, while appealing because it asks you to do nothing besides move your body, is, unfortunately, far away from seamless. It asks you to rearrange your living room and then ignores you.
Note: I would have liked to have presented this review to you yesterday, on launch day, but Wednesday night my XBox shut down with the dreaded red ring of death. I’m now on my sixth XBox. But this new one is shiny and black and hopefully all of those years and years of technical problems are behind us. And, at the least, it gave me an opportunity to talk to my kids about ownership of hardware (and software) as we broke the security sticker and tore the old XBox apart.