If there's anything to be learned from the inaugural era of motion controls, it's that sports games seem to adapt better if they're simplified. Golf and tennis, which are simple in execution, are perfect fits for motion controls. Other sports, like basketball and football, only seem to work if you automate everything for the player except for shooting and throwing. Baseball falls right in the middle, with base running and fielding utilizing motion controls, but simplicity is best. That was a lesson learned early on with Wii Sports and a lesson learned again when Microsoft and Rare released Kinect Sports: Season Two last year. This year, Microsoft revisits the idea of baseball on Kinect with Home Run Stars, a fun title for which simplicity is ultimately its weakness.
As in a standard home run derby, you're given 10 pitches during your turn. Anything that isn't hit hard enough to go out of the park is considered a strike, though it nets you a few points in the process. Home runs score more points and give you bonus pitches so you have more opportunities to hit home runs. Each stadium has targets in the air and in the home run area that yield bonus points, and most of the targets in the home run area open up further bonuses, including targets that are worth even more points.
There are three stadiums to choose from, each with its own theme. The Carnival has a circus theme, with clowns littering the field, balloons in the air, trampolines making up the majority of the home run area, and there's even a large ferris wheel beyond the scoreboard. The Dragon's Den takes on an Eastern motif with panda bears, paper lanterns, and a large Chinese dragon in the home run area. Finally, Buccaneer Bay has a pirate theme with treasure chests, a large pirate ship, and volcanoes. Each of the three stadiums has three pitchers to duel with, each with a slight difficulty increase. They also come with different point thresholds that must be overcome if you want to face off against the next pitcher. Each pitcher has three thresholds, all represented by medals, though it isn't necessary to get the gold medal score to advance.
That's really all there is to Home Run Stars. In a way, this'll remind you of classic arcade games where getting high scores was all that mattered. Admittedly, one can strategize a bit by trying to aim for the multi-tiered targets to uncover bigger point targets, earning a massive high score and adding points to the Avatar Fame Star system. However, that is the only hook to get you to play this title. As good as the implementation is, you can't help but feel that this should have been a minigame or an alternative to a sports package similar to Kinect Sports. The fact that there's a more involved baseball game in Kinect Sports: Season Two makes you question why this title exists. It also doesn't help that the game only has nine duels, all of which are fairly easy to beat, giving you with an average of two hours before you've seen everything in the single-player mode. Again, this is fine if you're just looking for something simple to play with for short periods of time, but those craving marathon sessions won't find enough here.
The controls are fairly simple and a little intuitive. Swinging as if you have a bat in your hands simulates the action in the game, and aside from a few times where it fails to register, it recognizes your swing well enough. Timing is the main factor here, so the speed and strength of your swing doesn't make much of a difference compared to when you decide to swing. Your body position takes care of aiming where you want to hit the ball, but that isn't as accurate as one would like. The game tends to let the aiming arrow drift away, and the angles at which you need to stand to aim the ball can feel awkward when it's time to swing. Interestingly, the game gives you some control over the ball in the air if you lean in either direction, giving you more to do than just standing and swinging an invisible bat.
Multiplayer has three different modes, though two are mirror images. Duel mode has you and a friend square off with two pitches per round and a goal of 100,000 points; 200,000 points; or 300,000 points. Like the solo game, you have a choice of the three stadiums but no choice in terms of the pitcher. Aside from the infinite number of rounds and the reduced number of balls per round, the game doesn't reset any of the multi-stage targets for players, so you'll need some strategy if you don't want to accidentally give your opponent the upper hand. Xbox Live Duel mode simply takes the multiplayer format online, but it was impossible to check since no one could be found playing the title during the review period. There's also no online leaderboard, so there's no way to check how many people have even touched the game.
For those of you lucky enough to have a compatible Smartphone or tablet, this marks the first game to use the company's new Xbox Smartglass technology, and to be honest, it is quite good. Smartglass is only used in a special duel mode where you and an opponent have three rounds with five balls per round. The main difference is that the player who isn't batting is pitching via the tablet or phone. The pitcher gets to choose between one of three different pitch types, complete with stats on how successful each pitch has been in terms of striking out the opponent. Once the pitch has been chosen, the player is given a three-tap minigame where the speed and accuracy of the taps determine how well the pitch is thrown. Getting it with perfect accuracy and speed lets you unleash a crazier version of the pitch that's almost guaranteed to be unhittable. The implementation of Smartglass is clever enough that it makes the game more exciting should you become bored of swinging an imaginary bat all day, and it opens up the option for a deeper Kinect-powered baseball game somewhere down the road.
As far as presentation is concerned, it matches up with the simple nature of the gameplay quite well. The graphics are good enough without being spectacular. The use of Avatars means a very colorful game is going to be seen, and the use of the Unreal Engine means a good handle on the particle effects, though the engine falters a bit when you see the crowds with single-digit animation frames. The sound isn't anything special. You've got a nice cheering crowd, some good sound effects and some decent rock renditions of classic baseball themes. The announcer sounds fairly generic, and while he tries to inject some life into proceedings with his delivery, the lines aren't catchy enough — even in a dopey way.
Home Run Stars is meant for brief moments of gaming and nothing more. The hitting is quite fun, though the aiming takes some time to get used to, and the addition of targets gives provides some variety. Multiplayer is fun enough, but it really takes off if you have a Smartglass-capable phone, especially since the online community for this is pretty much nonexistent. If you're looking for the opportunity to hit baseballs, this title will do just fine. If you're looking for something with more meat to it, go for last year's Kinect Sports: Season Two instead.
More articles about Home Run Stars