We've been ragging on Kinect quite a bit recently, deploring the industry's infatuation with motion-control, but in the wake of Brendan's hands-on preview of Playstation Move we figured it was about time we checked out what Microsoft was offering and so Jon and I trekked on over to Covent Garden and booked ourselves a session in the Kinect Galleries to test it out for ourselves. It's worth noting that anyone can get in to have a go either by rocking up to Russell Street and hoping for the best (unwise) or by booking a slot or two online over on the Kinect Facebook page.
All of the promotional staff on hand there were very friendly, very welcoming and eager to answer any questions, offering free refreshments as we were shown into the mock-lounge. It's worth noting that this fake living area, clearly designed to allow members of the public to 'picture' themselves playing Kinect in the comfort of their own home (although minus the empty bottles and pizza box detritus), was hardly set up like a 'normal' lounge. The sofas were all to one side, none of the chairs faced the TV and you could have swung an entire cattery in there.
Good thing too.
First thing we noticed? You're going to need to stand back. Microsoft laughed off the six metre space warnings but there's a ring of truth to them. Numerous times over the course of our hands-on session we simply got too close for comfort, the camera couldn't pick us up and we'd be encouraged to step back. Kinect is something that will see furniture get moved, entire rooms constructed around the apparatus to simply provide enough room for the more energetic games.
Which brings us nicely along to Kinect Adventures. Stepping into view of the camera, the way it picks up players is actually pretty impressive. Walk away and your avatar will disappear, but if another person steps back into the zone they can continue immediately. This sort of drop-in play seems simple but it's effective implementation instantly opens up the possibility of seamless party play.
Kinect Adventures pans out much like the best interactive theme park ride you've never been on, or at least that seems to be the idea. To begin with, Jon and I threw ourselves into the rafting minigame, working in tandem to navigate the rocks and the rapids, leaning from side to side to steer and leaping in the air to jump. As with all of the minigames in Adventures, we were tasked with collecting as many token coins as possible, leading to a number of star jumps, flailing limbs and the odd minor body slam. I kicked Jon by accident, he almost hit me in the face, I nearly stacked it through a wall...it was quite a lot of fun.
Before any of that, however, we spent a good minute or so just dancing around within our raft, marvelling at the body recognition, which proved surprisingly accurate. It's not quite 1:1 and there was a fractional amount of lag, but for these large movements it wasn't really an issue. Or so we thought.
That changed slightly with the next game: an obstacle course on-rails that looked like it had been plucked straight from Takeshi's Castle and frankly could have done with an awful voiceover from Craig Charles. Sidestepping, ducking, jumping and occasionally waving about like a loon to snaffle up as many coins as possible was the order of the day here, with the time between actions growing slimmer as the course progressed. It made for some energetic and frantic entertainment, but here a slightly larger issue revealed itself. Much like the Wiimote, if you try and do different things too quickly the sensor becomes confused and sluggish, like a hungover sloth trying to bar-tend on a Friday night.
As Jon will testify when it came some of the later games, it was a little disturbing to note that this seems to be a development issue more than anything else. Kinect is capable of picking up subtle movement, but that can vary supremely with different titles (oh just wait until we get to Kinect Sports). It didn't really break the experience at all, by and large Adventures proved to use the new hardware pretty well, but there were a few moments when our avatars found themselves battered and seeing stars.
The last minigame we got to mess around with was the ball thumping target-based thrashfest that we've been seeing since Kinect made its debut appearance. We managed to clear the screen of targets every time, but it was a little fiddly and sometimes the hardware didn't want to co-operate. Part of this, much like the Wii when it came out, is down to acclimatisation - getting used to the possibilities and limitations of the hardware in question. This, again like the Wii, sets Kinect up for slight disappointment. Although fun initially, I personally never felt totally in control, with the arm gestures proving to be slightly imprecise, with any lag leading to sensor overload if you started doing the can-can or immediately tried following up a swat of the arm with a kick of the boot.
Adventures has all of the right ideas and it's shaping up to be a solid release title, but the lack of responsiveness worries us slightly. Let's face it, Kinect has never been marketed as a device for hardcore games (something that I actually feel is a very good thing). I don't want to see motion control shoehorned into everything just for the sake of it. I'm not looking for twitch mechanics suitable for FPS play and Microsoft has never given us the suggestion that will ever happen, and with good reason. But the basics need to be right and I'm not sure that they are just yet. Worse still, I'm not sure if it's a hardware issue, a software issue (both are still in development)...or, worryingly, both.
It's genuinely fun, though, and we left with enormous grins on our faces but the space required and the little niggling latency issues make me wonder if that fun won't soon lead to frustration in a number of cases. In terms of bringing people together and helping them shed their inhibitions by leaping around like maniacs, Microsoft will certainly succeed. How long it will last, though, is a different matter entirely.