Kinect Sports Rivals is something of a milestone for the Xbox One. While other games have used the Kinect, the extent of their usage boiled down to gestures, voice commands, or body scans. Kinect Sports Rivals is the first game that tries to use the Kinect for anything close to the level of capability that was touted for the device at last year's E3. To this end, the game excels at highlighting how much more powerful the new device is, and the minigames that comprise the gameplay are well rounded. Unfortunately, it also showcases some of the Kinect's shortcomings that trickle into the gameplay and can put a serious damper on the enjoyment for some.
Kinect Sports Rivals starts with one of its most impressive features: scanning you to create your in-game avatar. Initially, you see a mass of featureless cubes that form a vaguely human shape. The game walks you through your body scan to establish the overall physique, and then it has you kneel in front of the Kinect to get a detailed scan of your face from a few angles. After the scans are complete, the featureless mass of cubes slowly changes to reveal the resulting scanned avatar, and the results are impressive. In my case, it substituted my facial hair with a five-o'clock shadow and gave me Bruce Campbell's chin, but overall, it was a pretty good likeness. You can throw out the scan to make a new one, alter the one you have, or proceed to the game.
To learn the ropes, you are guided through learning the different game modes by Coach, a former-athlete-turned-instructor who has the mannerisms of a drill sergeant. The six game modes are Bowling, Rock Climbing, Soccer, Target Shooting, Tennis and Wake Racing. While learning about the game modes, you're introduced to the three resident teams on the game's island. Eagle Legion is the island's honorable team that is dedicated to fair play, Wolf Clan believes that strength and power are the keys to victory, and the Viper Network are crafty and not above a little foul play. Once you progressed into the game, you can choose which team to join, which unlocks some new items to customize your character.
Bowling is represented quite closely to the actions you take when playing the sport in real life. Throwing the ball is a simple matter of gripping the "ball," bringing it back, swinging it forward, and releasing your hand when you want to release it down the lane. If you also give it some wrist rotation as you release, you can put a spin on the ball to get it to hook down the lane. Release too late, and you'll send the ball bouncing down the lane, which feels just as embarrassing as it does when you do so in real life.
Tennis is pretty straightforward, with the game automatically moving your avatar laterally on the court while you concentrate on hitting the ball with your racket. Timing is crucial, but you also have the ability to put a backspin or topspin on the ball to give it different movement characteristics when it bounces on the other side of the court. Topspins cause the ball to accelerate after bouncing, and backspins do the opposite. To serve the ball, you simply throw the ball into the air with your non-dominant hand and use your dominant hand to swing overhand and send it across the net.
Wake Racing is probably the most successful game mode, both in its implementation and for its entertainment value. In this mode, you race a jetski as you navigate the course, avoid floating mines, and catch air off of ramps. Steering is done by holding your hands in front of you like handlebars — basically like steering a bike. Leaning your body while steering makes for tighter turns, and leaning forward or backward while going over a ramp makes you do a flip and gives you a speed boost.
The remaining three game modes are far less successful. Rock Climbing can be either passable or completely broken, depending on your setup. At times, you hold your arms straight up, so if you aren't far back enough from the Kinect sensor, the game mode is essentially unplayable. In our setup, a six-foot-tall player is unable to play the game if you are any closer than seven feet. Move a couch out of the way, and the game mode is decent but lackluster. You navigate the wall by reaching with your arms, grabbing handholds on the wall, and then pulling back toward your body. Your legs are automated, though if you jump in real life, you can leap up the wall to skip a few handholds. It becomes problematic when the game doesn't register you gripping or releasing those handholds, either slowing your progress as you literally grapple with the controls or even making you climb backward.
Soccer is similarly limited, with you passing the ball forward to set player positions on the field. Forward kicks lob the ball high into the air, side-kicks curve it around low, and the two can be used interchangeably to kick the ball around the defenders who move on predictable grooves on the field. Once the ball gets to the scoring position, you hit it again and try to get it into the net. For scoring, there is little strategy involved, and for defending, there is even less. As the ball comes close, you play as the goalie, and once the ball is kicked toward the goal, you play as the goalie trying to use any part of your body to block it.
Target Shooting amounts to little more than pointing your finger at the screen and trying to hit targets to gain points. You have no control over when you fire, and you automatically do so once the cursor has been on the target for a short length of time. Some targets gain more points when shot in succession, and some targets actually lower your points, but there's little else to this mode. Occasionally, your competitor can make an automated turret shoot at you, but you have to lean a little to dodge the shots.
Kinect Sports Rivals is the first big test of the Kinect, and for what it's worth, there is a lot of promise. The new device is able to pick up a lot more nuanced movement, like the twist of a wrist or the opening and closing of a fist. For the most part, the game leverages the sensor well, and the big failings are hardly the game's fault. If you need to hold your arms above your head for gameplay, the new Kinect, much like the old one, simply requires a longer play space than seven feet to work properly. For all the expanded field of view that the new Kinect has in the horizontal plane, it really needed more in the vertical.
However, I'm not convinced the purchase price of $59.99 lines up with what Kinect Sports Rivals has to offer. Of the six game modes, only bowling and wake riding stand out, and the other modes suffer from a lack of entertainment. For all the enhanced graphics and technology involved, the game isn't that much more impressive than Wii Sports was at release, and it doesn't feel worthy of a full-price sticker. It's fun to pick up and tool around with some of the modes, and between the gameplay and the avatar scanning, it showcases the Kinect's capabilities. It's just disappointing that the game doesn't have that much depth, and with few exceptions, its only successes are things that have already been done before with different technology.
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