Video Review: The Microsoft Kinect for Xbox 360

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Oh, Microsoft. You just can’t seem to help but be the last one to every party you attend. You launched the Kin just as messenger phones began to die, then you launched Windows Phone 7 when the smartphone wars were so far underway that most folks had already declared an allegiance.

And now you’ve got your motion gaming platform, the Kinect, hitting the shelves years after the Nintendo Wii and months after the Playstation Move. I’ve spent the last week living with a Kinect in my life. How does it fare? Find out after the jump.

Short Version:

The Kinect isn’t bad. Not at all. It also, however, is not great.. yet. Of the six launch titles I tested, there’s only one that I’d whole-heartedly recommend and proves to me that the platform might be worthwhile. A few of the others are worthwhile rentals — and unlike the PS3 Move’s “KungFu Rider”, none of them made me want to throw the whole thing into a fire.

Oh — and if one of your primary interests in the Kinect is using it to navigate through the 360 interface, you’ll want to hold off. Kinect support on the dashboard is currently pretty slow, and pretty clunky.

Long Version

As they do with just about any company we’ve ever written about ever, a few of our commenters make it a daily routine to claim we’ve got some sort of collective anti-Microsoft bias here. As someone who has burned thousands more hours with the 360 than he has with any other recent console and who’s been more excited about the Kinect than any of the other motion platforms, I can probably say that’s a bunch of nonsense.

With that said, I would not recommend the Kinect — not to everyone, anyway, and not just yet. Like every motion system that came before it, the Kinect launches on the wrong side of a steep battle. Microsoft has to convince buyers that it’s more than just a dust-gathering gimmick; more importantly, they’ve got to convince developers — not just to make games for it, mind you, but to make games that use the Kinect as a means of blowing minds.

How It Works:

Each motion system has its own approach for getting the job done. The Wii blasts out a pair of infrared lights, which are picked up and tracked by a camera in the Wii remote. The Move takes the opposite route, placing a camera below the TV which tracks a glowing orb on the end of the player’s controller.

The Kinect is perhaps the most radical, foregoing controllers entirely. Instead, the Kinect sits below your TV, blasting a massive number of itty-bitty invisible (and yes, Mom, totally harmless) infrared dots into your living room. Two cameras built right into the unit track those dots to build a 3D map of sorts — throw in a depth sensor, multi-array microphone, and a pinch of Sci-Fi voodoo, and you’ve got a device capable of voice recognition, face recognition, and tracking motion in 3D. With the Kinect, as Microsoft puts it, “you are the controller.”

User Interface — Turns out, I’m not the best controller:

I’m a geek. I’ve got no shame in admitting that. I was perhaps more interested in seeing how the Kinect allowed the user to navigate the interface sans controller than I was interested in its gaming aspect. Alas, this is the thing I walked away most disappointed by.

Ever since Minority Report came along, the idea of waving your hands about to control an interface has been firmly implanted on every geek’s wishlist (right above a ride on Marty McFly’s hoverboard and below a one-week vacation on the TARDIS.) The Kinect is the first thing to really take a stab at it.. and, well, it’s not so great.

You see, we’re quite accustomed to two types of interface interaction methods: pointers (like mice), or touch (like the iPhone). The Kinect’s system exists on a level somewhere between the two — your hand is the “mouse”, and the air in front of you is the “touchscreen”. And yet, it comes without the strengths of either. Gone is the precision of a mouse on a desk, and, without any actual clicking going on, gone is the speed of a touchscreen.

Interacting with the 360′s UI through the Kinect is, at best, a bit clunky. After the Kinect does a 10-second-or-so bootup dance, you wave at it to get its attention. Oh, you’re sitting? Sorry, it’s probably not going to see you waving if you’re sitting. So then you stand up and wave, and out slides the Kinect menu. You find the thing you want, and hold your hand in the air over its relative location for around 2 and a half seconds. If your hand slips off — which it often will — the timer restarts. So now you’re standing, and you’re waving, and you’re waiting, and you’re thinking to yourself, “Damn. I probably should’ve just used the controller for this.” (Especially given that the controller is likely nearby, as you probably used the controller to turn the console on. You can’t turn it on or off via the Kinect, after all. Oh, it’s not nearby? Well, you’re standing anyway, might as well go grab it.)

There’s also a voice-based navigation system, and it’s quite accurate — but it’s just as limited and just as slow. “Xbox. [wait] Kinect! [wait] Xbox. [wait] Play disc. [wait]“.

Microsoft’s pretty good about pushing out updates for the 360 dashboard every few months. I’m really hoping that overhauling Kinect support in the UI is pretty high on their to-do list, right after implementing a feature that allows you to send a transcript of any kid’s Xbox Live voicechat to their Mom.

Navigating interfaces in games is an entirely different topic, and one I could probably wax on for a few paragraphs. In the end, though, it all boils down to this: Microsoft seemingly didn’t set any sort of standard for how developers should build interfaces, so just about everyone did it differently. Some games have you reach forward; others have you reach to the right or left. Some have you tap and hold; others have you grab and swipe. In a world where many are still getting used to the idea of right-clicking, standards are a must.

Space Requirements:

If you’re on the fence as to whether or not your living room is big enough for the Kinect, it probably isn’t.

The Kinect requires a lot of space. A lot. Microsoft recommends at least 6 feet in front of your TV. That’s probably about right for hobbits; for anyone else, you’re really going to need at least 7 or 8 feet. I’ve got a bit over 6 feet of space between my couch and my TV, and the couch had to be pushed out of the way each time we played.

Between colleagues and friends, I know around 10 people who have Kinects. Of those, one feels like their living room is really set up for the Kinect. Take that as you will.

The Games:

There are currently somewhere around 15 games for the Kinect, and we checked out 6 of the ones that Microsoft is really pushing to sell the platform at launch.

As with my PS3 Move review, I’m not going to touch on things like plot, graphics, or sound for any of the games here. This review is intended as a look at how the Kinect itself performs, so those things would be a bit irrelevant.

Anyway, lets dive on in:

Kinect Adventures:

This is the game that comes bundled with the Kinect, which is a bit unfortunate; compared to the Wii or PS3′s bundled games (Wii Sports and Sports Champion, respectively), Kinect Adventures is just rather… shallow. The whole point of a bundle game (besides the value add, of course) is to show off just how fun your new purchase can be. Kinect Adventures mostly just feels tedious.

The Kinect does have a slight lag, and Kinect Adventures was one of the only games I tested where the gameplay suffered from it.

There are 5 mini-games here:

  • 20,000 leaks: You mend cracks in a big underwater glass cube by covering them with your hands, feet, and, erm, face (just like real life!). Fish swim up, crack the glass, and you contort your body to fit over the cracks. Rinse and repeat.
  • Rally Ball: One part breakout, one part handball. Big rubber balls fly at you down a hallway, and you smack’em back to try and smash blocks on the other end.
  • River Rush: You’re on a raft, floating down a river, attempting to collect tokens along the way by shuffling left or right. If you jump, the raft jumps (just like real life!)
  • Reflex Ridge: You’re standing on a platform as it moves along a track, ducking under, jumping over, and sliding past obstacles as they zoom past you. You can jump to speed up the platform (just like real life!). This one is pretty fun, but really highlights the Kinect’s lag. You have to be in position well before an obstacle passes you.
  • Space Pop: You’re in a zero-gravity room, trying to pop bubbles by “swimming” through the air. The whole thing feels a bit detached; swimming up is easy (too easy, perhaps — it kept shooting me into the air when I wasn’t trying), but going in any of the other directions are painfully slow.

When you perform well, you earn “Living Statues”, which are little characters for which you can record little gestures/voice tracks. They’re adorable, but the games just weren’t catchy enough to keep me coming back.

Kinect JoyRide:

The idea of being able to zoom around a racing game simply by sticking your hands out as if you’re holding a steering wheel was one of those that really sold folks on the idea of the Kinect. I’m really, really hoping that JoyRide isn’t as good as the implementation of that idea can get.

This game is, in a word, bad. Steering is really, really insensitive. To charge boost, you “pull back” the steering wheel, then jut forward — an action which works maybe half the time. I had folks over to check out the Kinect 4 or 5 times leading up this review; each time, JoyRide stayed in for all of 10 minutes. Do not buy.

Kinect Sports

Given that both the Wii and the PS3 Move came bundled with Sports titles, you might figure that Microsoft would follow suit. Nope — and it sort of makes sense that they didn’t.

You see, the similarity between Kinect Sports and Wii Sports/Sports Champions sort of just highlights the shortcomings of the whole no-controller thing. Without a controller’s trigger to release when you’re throwing (as with the Wii), bowling feels weiiiird. Without a controller’s gyroscope providing ridiculously accurate insight into the angle of your hand (as with the PS3 Move), table tennis is less about aiming and more about putting your hand in the right place.

Don’t get me wrong; Kinect Sports isn’t a bad game. If it had come before the Wii or the PS3′s equivalent games, it would have absolutely rocked my world. Coming so far after though, it’s just impossible not to compare — and in comparison, it falls short.

Your Shape: Fitness Evolved

It’s hard to rave about an exercise game — but as far as exercise games go, Your Shape is pretty dang good. I’d take it over the Wii Fit/balance board any day. With the Kinect providing knowledge of where all your limbs are, Your Shape is able to throw a much wider variety of exercises at you while focusing on your actual form and rhythm, rather than just yelling at you for putting half a pound more weight on one foot.

Kinectimals:

Hot damn, is this game adorable. It’s very much for a younger audience, though; the pacing is pretty slow, and there are a good number of cutscenes that can’t be skipped.

Kinectimals is, in a sense, a 2010 version (and considerably more expensive) Tomagatchi. You pick a cub (Tiger, Leopard, Panther, Cheetah, or Lion), then play mini-games with it to progress.

The quality of the Kinect implementation in Kinectimals ranges from “Wow, this is neat!” to “WAIT NO OH GOD THATS NOT WHAT IM TRYING TO DO AT ALL”, but it’s usually pretty good. Right off the bat, the game has you go nuts petting your new cub (something which, by the way, gets my dog barking like mad at the TV), and that was one of the first times I really felt immersed in a Kinect game.

Dance Central:

You might want to take a seat before reading this one.

You ready?

Dance Central is, by far, the best game on the Kinect right now.

Remember when I mentioned that I’ve had a bunch of people over to check out the Kinect? Yeah. Every single time, we ended up playing Dance Central until we were all covered in sweat and too sore to move. Giggity

As you might have assumed, Dance Central is all about … dancing. There’s no arrow stomping here though, folks — you’re actually doing some good ol’ fashion rump shaking. A list of dance moves scrolls up the right side of the screen, while a dancer on the left acts them out. You do what they do, and any limbs you’ve got in the wrong place will be highlighted in red on the dancer.

The sensor does a pretty fantastic job of gauging where your limbs are. The higher you crank the difficulty, the more sensitive it’ll be. On easy, you just need to be doing roughly the same thing as the dancer; on hard, if the dancer’s hands are right up near their shoulders, your hands damn well better be up near your shoulders.

This is one of the games where you absolutely need a ton of space — not only to keep you from tripping over something and cracking your dome, but more so because the game has you lifting your arms up in the air just about every other move. If you’re too close to the TV, the Kinect won’t be able to see your arms; if it can’t see your arms, it doesn’t think they’re up in the air. BAM, combo broken, points lost, highscore ruined.

Conclusion:

The Kinect has potential, but it’s juuuust barely showing it right now. This is the case for every gaming console/accessory ever made, though — things are always going to be rough in the beginning, if only because developers haven’t really figured things out yet.

Outside of Dance Central, none of the five other games I checked out would really lead me to suggest picking one up, unless most of the players in your house are of a younger age. If you’ve got $200 to burn and aren’t too shy to dance around your living room like a fool, however, Dance Central is a must-have. If you don’t, give it a few months to make sure they can crank out a few more worthwhile titles.

Microsoft really needs to flesh out the 360 Dashboard’s Kinect integration, as well as conjure up some sort of standard for developers to follow in their own menus.

Honestly though, at this point, Kinect is pretty much just a means for me to play Dance Central.

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