Platforms: Xbox One
Publishers: Microsoft Studios
Kinect Sports actually proved to be a pretty solid launch title for the original incarnation of the motion control peripheral. Once you understood the limitations of the hardware -- something that could be said of Wii Sports' debut as well -- the game became an absolute blast, and a party staple to be enjoyed with friends and family. No, it wasn't perfect, but it was a lot better than most of the drivel that came out for the Xbox 360's Kinect camera.
Fast forward to late-2013, and Rare have some unfinished business with Kinect, and now, with the improved motion sensor in Kinect 2.0, can they finally deliver the motion control experience we all hoped for several years ago?
The answer, actually, might just be yes. A muck-about with Kinect Sports Rivals: Preseason -- the free Wave Race-esque download that'll be launching alongside the Xbox One in a matter of days -- not only shows off the impressive subtleties of movement that the new Kinect camera picks up on, but it presents the whole thing in a slightly more visually impressive manner, even if everything is still incredibly bright, wholesome, and, dare I say it, saccharine. Then again, we've been complaining about the drudgery of greys and browns in gaming for years, so I'm going to shut my face on that one.
Let's get down to brass tacks. You'll be able to beam a virtual version of yourself into the game via Kinect, which is both pretty awesome and also slightly sinister at the same time, before leaping into a game that looks like a mashup of the best casual racers that the N64 ever had to offer. But with delightful graphical fidelity in glorious HD.
Stick Wave Race 64, Diddy Kong Racing, and a dash of Mario Kart in a blender, toss in a Kinect sensor, and this is what you might end up with. Maybe.
The fundamentals of jet-skiing are simple: extend both arms as if you were holding onto the handlebars, and clench your fists to accelerate. Pulling back on one arm allows you to steer, and you can lean into corners, as you might were you actually racing these machines, to make tighter turns. Stamp your foot or shout Boost! and you'll trigger a nice little speed injection, the bar for which can be bolstered by throwing your arms into the air after you hit a jump, or leaning to the front or back when you take off to do somersaults. When the sea gets particularly choppy, and it will, you can perform tricks off of the wave crests if you're feeling brave enough.
But what's most noticeable about this game is how easy it is to do all of this whilst sat down with another person in close proximity as you might on a two-man couch. You don't have to thrust your arms out and make enormous, slow movements that feel like you're trying to steer a whale through treacle. On the contrary, this Preseason minigame felt incredibly responsive, too much so for my muscle memory to deal with. Having become used to making allowances for motion-control titles, to have one here exhibiting subtlety in capture and nuanced controls kind of took me out of my comfort zone. Essentially, we're so used to motion-control titles being crap it's quite a novelty to see lag-free 1-1 control delivered this well.
You could have T-Rex arms, and you'd still be able to control this. Unfortunately we didn't get video evidence of me role-playing a T-Rex playing Kinect Sports (sadly the memory card maxed out), but when our Xbox One arrives and we put it through its paces, you can be sure that'll happen.
I want to gush about the game's water, too. I want to use words like "dynamic" and talk about "detailed variable physical properties". It's crisp and inviting, the way cartoon hamburgers always look delicious. It changes from lap to lap as well, becoming shallower in the bay and revealing sandbars to be avoided, whilst out at the mouth the waves swell and become choppier, occasionally hiding hazard such as floating mines and obstacles that can stop you in your tracks. This can be used to your advantage, of course, as tricking off of larger waves will fill your boost bar, and turning into an undulation at the right moment might see you fly over a cheekily-placed mine by a smattering of centimetres. But you have to resist the urge to over-exaggerate your movements and panic.
The downside? There's only one course to race through, and it's not enormously inspired. There are a few larger obstacles such as a derelict tanker that you can go through or around, but other than that the level design for the single course is pretty basic. It's best to think of Preseason as a free taster demo for the larger game coming in Spring 2014, although there will be leaderboards as well as time-sensitive challenges that'll allow you unlock things such as vehicles and suits to be used in the full game when it releases. You'll only be able to get these items at the designated times, so if you want that Santa suit, you'd better stay vigilant come December.
It's clear there's still work to be done in order to get the full game out for early next year, but I love the fact that Rare are delivering this at launch day: it's a nice simple little demo to get players used to the capabilities of the new Kinect sensor, to cultivate early competition among players, and to give fans a little taste of things to come. As we saw with Wii Sports when it first emerged, sometimes a simple hook is all you need. It's free and it has leaderboards; time for community challenges methinks.