The release of DreamWorks' animated summer movie, "Kung Fu Panda 2," has brought with it the usual video game tie-in for most major consoles. Usually, this would mean that the DS version would be radically different from the rest, the Wii version would be scaled down and try to incorporate some kind of motion controls, and both the Xbox 360 and PS3 versions would be the expected platformers. We've seen the formula work to varying degrees before, and we sort of expect it to continue for as long as the medium lives. However, the new publisher for the license, THQ, took a huge risk in having each version be radically different from the last, with the PS3 iteration being the only expected platformer of the bunch. For the Xbox 360, this means transforming the game into a purely Kinect-enabled experience. For those playing on Microsoft's console, the question is whether the gamble was worth it. In a way, it was.
The plot is set shortly after the events of the first movie, but since it doesn't really reference anything from that film, it's fine to play this title without worrying about spoilers. Lord Shen, the villain from the second movie, has been defeated, and Gongmen City is celebrating. However, the celebration doesn't last long as the remnants of Shen's army start attacking the civilians, causing Po, the Furious Five, and the other kung fu masters to fight them off once more. Seeing the scenario unfold before his eyes, the warlord Xiao Dan decides that it's time to unleash his own assault and vie for domination of the land. As Po, it's up to you to fend off the remnants of Shen's army and stop Xiao Dan before he gets any further in his plans.
Kung Fu Panda 2 is primarily a brawler, a genre that hasn't really gotten much exposure on the Kinect. As expected, you have to defeat the enemy by blocking their attacks and unleashing attacks of your own until their energy meter is drained. What's fascinating about the approach is that it isn't as freeform as you would expect. No matter how many enemies there are on-screen, you'll face each one in a one-on-one battle, so while you can't take out enemies simultaneously, you also can't get ganged up by them. During a fight, you'll be given certain time periods when you can attack, and while early enemies will let you hit them, later enemies require you to find a specific hit type to lower their defenses before you can unleash a pre-determined attack to take away one of their health icons. There will also be times when you have to go on the defensive and block or dodge attacks coming toward you. The more attacks you successfully defend against, the more likely you are to inflict counterattack damage on the enemy. It's a curious system, to be sure, but it also provides more of a structured experience for the kids who are the target audience for this title.
The game features two different modes, both of which are single-player affairs. Story mode takes you through the game's plot as you try to stop everyone else in your way. You'll encounter multiple fights throughout the journey, but fighting alone doesn't comprise the whole experience. To break up the monotony, you'll encounter three different minigames along your journey. Rickshaw races have you chasing down enemies as you avoid obstacles and try to pick up items. You can also throw items back at attacking enemies, causing them to lose control of their rickshaws in the process. Throwing events have you aiming at various enemies with one hand while you're hurling rocks with the other. It isn't just a simple aim and shoot process, though, since some enemies throw items or fire projectiles at Po. Finally, there are noodle cooking events where you have to serve the correct bowl of noodles to the right customer as many times as possible before time expires.
There are two different things that hurt the Story mode. The first is the length of the mode: Barring a few difficult fights, the story lasts a maximum of four hours. Considering the lightweight plot, the game will feel like it's over just as it's beginning to get interesting. The other issue that makes it feel even shorter is that half of the time, the player is watching cut scenes instead of actually playing the game. With half of your time spent watching the game, it doesn't really feel like you've gotten your money's worth from the title, no matter how fun it may be.
Free Play mode lets you go through the different events in each area for points and medals. Surprisingly, only half of the activities you'll encounter here are from the Story mode. Some areas contain brand-new throwing challenges and noodle challenges, but the rickshaw challenges are the same ones from the story. Fighting arenas are the same with the same enemies encountered per area, and there's a training session where you can practice some dodging, blocking and attacks without enemy interference. Each challenge comes with three difficulty levels, and since they all have their own medal sets, you'll play this far longer than the Story mode, though you'll have to finish the Story mode first to access everything in Free Play.
Based on another Kinect fighting game, Fighters Uncaged, one would expect the controls for Kung Fu Panda 2 to be horrendous. Fortunately, Griptonite Games has done a better job in this department than its predecessors. The game doesn't require you to get too specific with hand movements, so you can swing a punch any way you want, and it'll be read and connect just fine. Double punches may miss on rare occasions, but for the most part, they can be read rather well. Kicks can also be read without error — Fighters Uncaged couldn't get this right — and jumps immediately register as well.
Dodging has a small half-second delay, though, and ducks get more problematic, making some fights with enemies and bosses more difficult than usual if they pummel you with unblockable attacks. The microphone on the device also picks up voices well enough that calling out on any of the Furious Five for help is quite easy and responsive. The other minigames control well enough, though the noodle minigame requires some practice to get it right on the higher scores. If you aren't quick enough, there are a few instances when tossing a bowl aside leads you to unintentionally pick up a bowl, and that can be a tad annoying.
The graphics look fine, but a bit more work wouldn't have hurt. The character models look great because of their large size, and there's some nice fur shading on Po and everything else that uses it extensively. When it comes to the animations, it's obvious that Po received the most attention. Big sweeping movements look great, but it's the little touches, such as the ear wiggles and the eye expressions, that make him endearing. Fighting moves for both also look fine, but the mouth movements feel a bit too generic since it's just a simple open/close animation instead of better lip-synching. The environments look fine but are slightly lifeless because of the dull colors. That feeling is amplified whenever you call on one of the Furious Five for help because the screen inexplicably darkens during the attack, making it harder to see the finer details without turning up your TV's brightness.
The game does a pretty good job in the sound department. The music, while generic, plays on the themes of the setting and the movie quite nicely. It may not be memorable or match the quality of the movie score, but it is fairly good. The effects also play out well, though players would be disappointed that the hit impacts don't have more depth. They sound light instead of sharp, so they seem less powerful than one would like. The voice actors do a good job of emulating their movie counterparts, with some doing a better job than others. Po produces plenty of mistakes in this department. He repeats lines far too often during fights, and while it may be funny to hear them the first few times, it quickly gets very tiresome. He also calls out various attacks whenever you ask the Fearsome Five for help, but since each member only unleashes one attack apiece, it makes his calls seem like software bugs.
Kung Fu Panda 2 should be commended for trying something new and mostly succeeding. The fighting, while in no way deep, is responsive and fun, and the minigames control pretty well. It could have looked a little better, but the sound was nice enough. The game length does hurt, and since a good chunk of that time is spent watching the game instead of interacting with it, it's difficult to recommend Kung Fu Panda 2 for purchase, especially at its current price point. If it gets cheaper, it's not a bad purchase for fans, but for now, it's best as a rental.
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