If you’ve listened to Monster Cast 10, you’ll already know that I’ve been lucky enough to have owned Microsoft’s Kinect since September. As part of the Beta program, it was my job to play videogames using Kinect and report back the experiences and niggles, both hardware and software related, to the fellas at Redmond. Yeah, it’s a hard life.
This puts me in quite a unique position, as many reviewers will only have had a brief hands-on, with hardware just recently turning up for a more thorough workout (and with Kinect, workout is truly literal). I’ve had the chance to explore Kinect Sports, Joy Ride and Kinect Adventures, and whilst the initial wow factor is quite explosive, the reality slowly sinks in over time and you start to see the very real limitations that Kinect has.
Kinect as a device has interesting potential, but it has been somewhat neutered since Microsoft initially explored the concept. Gone are the high resolution cameras and the hardware chip used to do the grunt work has frittered away into software. The upshot of this is that the scope of human detection has narrowed – there is no movement detection at a finger level, indeed it’s a struggle for Kinect to decide what position your hands are in. Instead, Kinect detects certain key joints on a person such as knees, elbows and shoulders, which is impressive enough.
However, I saw at the time of the announcement of Steel Battalion people’s expectations of multi-button HUDs, replicating that massive controller in virtual reality. I can tell you now that’s never going to happen – if you thought that’s what the experienced entailed, you need to lower your expectations before you shell out £130. Buttons have to be reasonably large due to the VGA cameras on-board, and selections need some kind of scheme for confirmation, such as hovering over them for a second or two. Any thought of magically tapping in to a Minority Report augmented reality soon evaporate, the closest you get is in the Kinect Hub, where blade navigation forwards and backwards is done with a swipe of the hand. The voice navigation works reasonable well, though you will feel like a bit of a moron shouting “Xbox” when you issue a command. It is really just a bit of a novelty, as navigation using the controller is far quicker. Gesturing is perhaps a bit more intuitive to the casual crowd that Microsoft seems so desperately craving, rather than using a pad for the first time.
Setting up Kinect is a fairly straight forward process, but it was something that became a bit chore after the umpteenth dashboard update. This was mostly down to having to move the furniture out of the way in order to get it done, but more on the space requirements shortly. The setup is a two prong process, firstly to calibrate Kinect’s directional microphones and secondly to ensure Kinect can detect you physically. There is a further ability to recalibrate Kinect using the hypnotic postcard that comes in the box, something you might find worthwhile doing if you’re struggling with recognition. What it won’t mitigate however, is the space requirement.
Kinect needs space. All those carefully orchestrated demonstrations weren’t for nothing, and although Microsoft hasn’t been hiding this fact away, some people are going to be genuinely surprised at just how much room you need. From my experience, for most games this seems to be about 8ft from Kinect, which is going to be quite a squeeze in a lot of homes. Some games are more forgiving than others and the Kinect hub will mostly work with you sat down less than 6ft away – a good job really as who wants to watch a movie standing up?
Being on your feet is requisite for most Kinect titles – you are, after all, the controller. Kinect Sports is likely to have any couch potato quickly out of breath, as it forces you to run on the spot for 100 metres, box your way to freedom like crazed Kangaroo or toss that Javelin as far as you can muster on your virtual track and field. When Kinect Sports is working, it proves that Kinect as a concept has potential for growth, but there are still issues with it not being a true one-to-one experience; the games have to be designed to negate this and the inherent lag the system has. Done well and you barely notice it, nonetheless, there are some inconstancies whilst playing Table Tennis that will have you cursing when it costs points, movements, as with the Wii, need exaggeration for them to be noticed and detected every time.
Kinect Adventures, which comes with the package, is another set of mini games that are likely to wow the first time you spin up the disk. If you’ve seen any of the conferences pre-launch, you will already have witnessed some of the events Adventures contains, such as the white water rafting in “River Rush” and “Rally Ball” the 3D keepy-uppy game. The title is more of a tech demo than a proper retail release, but it does show off the “full body” movement detection that Microsoft has been trumpeting. Games like “20,000 Leaks” and “Space Pop” will have you flinging arms and legs all over the place, until you get worn out or bored, and “Reflex Ridge” will have you ducking and leaping as barriers appear to block your way whilst speeding off down a rollercoaster like track. There’s really not a lot of meat on the bones here though, it’s nice to get a freebie with the kit, but don’t expect this one to last in the longevity stakes.
Joy Ride was by far the weakest of the three titles I got to test out, if for nothing less than the amount of menu selections you have to go through before you get a chance to play a game – too many. Joy Ride can be played sitting down, though as with all Kinect titles, standing up and stepping back a bit gives better results. The concept is similar in play to any of the karting games you might have experienced before, but this time you only need to think about steering. Acceleration and braking are all controlled for you (Kinect Forza for the masses? I can’t wait) although you can boost with a quick back and forward jolting motion. The trouble is, particularly without feedback, you don’t really get any kind of feel for how well you’re getting around the corners, and as you try to turn tighter and harder, you’ll end up crossing your arms – at this point Kinect gets all confused, mixes up left and right and crashes into the nearest tree. Kinect does seem to show off its weakness far too well in the less carefully developed games.
As a concept Kinect has some scope, and it will be interesting to see what developers such as Suda, with their odd and unique design ideas, can come up with. None of this can disguise the space requirements however or the fact that certain genres are quickly excluded with the lack of any nunchuck type controller, the introduction of which would step away from Microsoft’s vision. With the current gaming line-up it’s clear that Kinect has been aimed squarely at the casual market – many of the core gamers are likely to find meagre interest in the mini-sports, fitness and dance games that are on offer at launch. Yet £130 is a big outlay for any gamer, casual or not and it’s even more when you factor in buying extra games.
Kinect comes away with a “B” on the report card, with a note that reads: Must Try Harder.
If you have any questions about Kinect, let me know in the comments and I’ll do my best to answer them.