Last year, when the Kinect was still known as Project Natal, Microsoft began its announcement trailer with a clip of a player using the device to play a fighting game. The game, shown from an over-the-shoulder perspective, translated the player's motions into actions for the game with actual punches and kicks being interpreted as punches and kicks for the on-screen fighter. It was impressive and became a marker for what the controller was expected to do for traditional video game genres.
A year later, when the launch Kinect lineup was shown for the first time, Microsoft seemed to abandon the notion of publishing a Kinect-supported fighting game. Seeing the opportunity to provide a game for the controller that would appeal to the core gamer, Ubisoft enlisted the help of AMA Studios to make a game based on the concept provided in the trailer. Fighters Uncaged is being touted as the first fighting game used exclusively with Kinect, but based on the execution of the title, few will think of picking it up alongside the controller.
There are two gameplay modes in Fighters Uncaged. The first is training mode, and while this usually a mode only recommended for players who are new to the genre, it is almost essential here due to the new control method. It is a rather lengthy tutorial mode, but it is nothing short of comprehensive as it teaches you everything from basic strikes to blocking to combos and super moves. It's an indispensable mode, but the time limit for learning each move proves to be irksome. Instead of letting you continue until you meet the required repetitions to pass, you're forced to perform them three times before the time runs, or you must repeat the section. You have the option to skip the training for the move, but having no timer at all would've prevented some frustration for the player.
The other game mode is the traditional story mode, though any semblance of a story must be gathered from the instruction book since the game doesn't bother conveying it. You play the role of Simon, an average guy whose father has gotten into a massive pool of debt. Like any character in stories like this, you don't have the funds to pay off the debt yourself. There just so happens to be an underground fighting tournament and, on the goading of the loan shark to whom your father is indebted, you enter with the hopes of winning it and paying off the debt.
There are three leagues to go through, each with a set of fighters to defeat. Beating an opponent doesn't just mean defeating him in battle but also getting a high enough score through the use of combos, taking fewer hits, connecting your moves without being blocked, and doing so as quickly as possible. After accumulating enough crowns, you unlock the next league with more opponents. Once you complete all three leagues, an open league appears, and you can choose any of the opponent's and fight them to your heart's content.
Players will immediately notice that there isn't really an end to the game. It works more like a traditional arcade game or party title, where the real aim is getting high scores. This isn't necessarily a bad thing since stories in fighting games can often be ridiculous, but it can catch people off guard, especially since there aren't any other modes to play.
One other omission is a versus mode. You can't go on Xbox Live and challenge people online as you would in any other modern fighting game. Worse yet, there's no way to fight against people locally, something that has become standard in fighting games since the 8-bit era. In lieu of this, you have a set of leaderboards for the open league, though this is limiting since it takes a great deal of work to unlock this league in the first place. As of this writing, there are fewer than 10 people on the leaderboards, so while this would be a good opportunity to reach the top, it is also a sign that people haven't made it that far yet or lost interest before the opportunity arose.
Good controls are paramount to any fighting game, but the controls in Fighters Uncaged are a bit of a crapshoot. For the most part, the game does a great job of reading punches and elbow strikes. These moves are natural to players, so if you're throwing an uppercut in real life, for example, expect the character to do the same. Blocking also feels natural, and the detection of a block is immediate.
The issue with the controls lies in everything that's not related to arm movement. The game reads low kicks rather well, but anything higher than the knee sometimes doesn't get read or is translated into other moves, like punches or headbutts. Headbutts rarely register, and the same goes for ducking kicks, which get translated as standard ducks or standing kicks if the game fails to translate the action as a single move. While it may be unreasonable to ask that the game translates the rapid kick movements of a professional Tae Kwon Do fighter, it seems to struggle with punch-kick combos.
Another issue with the game has to do with stance. Fighters Uncaged seems to do best when you're standing squarely at the screen instead of shifted toward the side, like a trained fighter. The traditional fighter's stance doesn't hinder the controls further, but the game's requested square stance will be foreign to those who are used to seeing fighters do the complete opposite.
The graphics feel a bit sterile in places. The character models don't look too bad, but there doesn't seem to be anything that makes the fighters memorable. None of the minions look too menacing, and with the exception of one or two characters, none of the major fighters have distinctive features. The animations aren't spectacular, but they are good enough for the game. They don't feel too stiff or fluid. The environments carry a strong urban theme but, like the fighters, it doesn't look like anything special. You end up fighting in alleyways, gyms and rooftops, but because there's nothing special happening in those environments, and they aren't interactive (i.e., fighting in alleyways means you can knock the opponent into walls), they don't make any battle feel exciting. As for the particle effects, they're pretty subtle versions of the hit effects seen in Tekken and do a good job of letting the player know whether or not a hit has been blocked. Overall, the game's look is generic enough that one could argue that the power of the console isn't close to being fully utilized.
The sound ranges from middle of the road to laughable. The musical score is of the urban/hip-hop variety, and it's supposed to match the grimy fight environments. It's original instrumental material, and it doesn't sound too bad during gameplay. The effects don't hit as hard as you'd expect since each impact is muffled, but it works well enough if you're going for a more realistic slant. The voices aren't spectacular, with your opponents sounding like the typical tough guys in any other video game. The voices are laughable because of your character's inner monologues after failing to block or counter-attack after a successful block. It's a bit too calm and feels out of place considering the overall vibe of the game, especially when he talks about how he should shout before attacking to unleash a super-move. This becomes more apparent at the end of a match, when your character sounds more aggressive in his post-match taunt.
Fighters Uncaged shows promise but nothing else. It detects arms well but falters with other limb movements and headbutts. The game sounds fine but looks generic, while the lack of multiplayer is a big turn-off for anyone who's interested in doing something more than fighting the CPU all day long. Despite the score, though, this would be a fine candidate for a rental to those who already have the Kinect. It shows that the fighting game is a core genre that can be adapted to the Kinect, but the controls need to be polished up some more before it's worth a longer look.
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