Game Rant's Ben Kendrick reviews Microsoft Kinect
Microsoft Kinect is certainly an innovative piece of hardware — albeit with a number of limitations. Like any motion control device, space and calibration can be a pain and, despite a few exceptions, the launch titles aren’t particularly inspired.
If you’re thinking about making the jump to controller-free gaming, we’ve put together an in-depth review of the Kinect hardware — as well as a comprehensive guide as to which launch titles are worth your time.
If you’ve already picked up the Kinect hardware and are simply looking for game recommendations — feel free to jump ahead to our software reviews below:
As we mentioned in our PlayStation Move review, a lot of gamers (and news outlets) are looking to this next generation of motion control hardware to help justify a particular allegiance to their system of choice. In reality, comparing PlayStation Move to Microsoft Kinect is like comparing the Nintendo Game Boy to the Sega Genesis — each one caters to an entirely different gaming experience.
As a result, we’ve focused our review on the hardware at hand, offering an objective look at Kinect (what’s compelling and what falls short) - not how it stacks up against the PlayStation Move.
Microsoft has pushed Kinect as the superior motion control gaming experience where “you are the controller” — and while the gameplay is unlike anything players have likely experienced, some users could find the first 30 minutes with Kinect to be extremely frustrating. In ideal settings, Kinect calibration is a simple 5 minute process where the device scans for ambient noise, tests lighting levels, and maps the physical space of your room. My initial setup went off without a hitch; however, when I unplugged the device and had to re-calibrate, I was tasked with utilizing the smiley-face calibration card, a much more involved, and at times frustrating, endeavor.
The largest hurdle some consumers will face is lack of physical space, the Kinect sensor requires six to eight feet (minimum) from the sensor for gameplay, and that doesn’t address the issue of width for sidestepping and arm waving. To really get the most out of the device, you’ll need around forty-eight (8’ x 6’) to seventy-two (8’ x 9’) square feet of room to play — with about thirty (6’ x 5’) square feet as the bare minimum. Seriously, you might be the most eager Microsoft Kinect fan on the planet, but if you can’t put six feet between you and your TV, the hardware is pretty much useless.
Once you’ve calibrated the sensor and cleared away your furniture, Kinect can provide a lot of fun — even before you put in a game disc. Gesture support in the Kinect Hub (the Kinect portion of the Xbox 360 dashboard) works well and provides a futuristic Minority Report-esque interface that never gets old. Familiar applications such as Last.fm and Zune, as well as the new ESPN app, are laid-out a bit differently from the original controller-dependent versions and most owners will have to discover for themselves whether the added cool factor of the Kinect versions are worth a little extra effort. That said, Kinect is not compatible with Netflix at this time — which is definitely a letdown. Voice command functionality is responsive but limited to a “if you see it, say it” pre-set list of selections such as “Play Disc,” “Dashboard,” etc.
Similarly, Video Kinect, the video chat program Microsoft touted at E3 is an especially lackluster entry with an extremely low frame rate. In several trials, Video Kinect allowed us to see a friend on the other line as well as hear their voice — but rarely captured enough detail to make it a comprehensive video chat app that could rival those built-into personal computers or Apple’s FaceTime program. Most of the time we couldn’t even see whether or not the other person was moving their mouth.
The lack of precision in Video Kinect is a result of Microsoft implementing a cost-effective camera system for the device — to drive the price down. This “budget” feel is apparent in all aspects of the hardware - as nothing is very accurate, including routine gameplay. There is considerable lag between physical action and onscreen recognition, though this varies from game to game.
For example, the lag is masked in Dance Central by limiting the onscreen player feedback to a small shadow box on the far right side of the screen as well as subtle red highlights to the pre-animated character’s appendages - about half a second after the player screws up. In other games, such as Kinect Adventures, the lag is more noticeable, major movements such as jumping, side-stepping, or ducking are delayed onscreen which could frustrate especially competitive gamers. Even the most basic Kinect functionality, navigating menus by hand can be clumsy at times.
The propensity for clumsy gameplay could also be a result of the sheer exhaustion players will face after several hours of Kinect. Even the most rambunctious children will likely find themselves worn out after an hour or so of full-body play. It’s not a reason to avoid the peripheral but it does highlight the fact that, in the long run, Kinect can’t always replace a controller. For a lot of players, videogames are a way of losing themselves in an experience, forgetting the troubles of their personal lives or the stress of their work day — and relaxing on the couch. It’s hard to relax when you’re jumping around for two and a half hours.
However, given the casual audience Microsoft is aiming for with the device, none of these criticisms detract from the single most important thing Kinect has going for it — it’s extremely fun. Nonsensically flailing around in front of the sensor during a round of Rallyball is a blast — even if you routinely miss a ball because you didn’t forecast your hit in time. Dance Central is probably the most polished of any of the titles available this holiday season and lives up to the already high expectations of being the next great party game. The tech might not function perfectly, but the gameplay really is a breath of fresh air for players whose friends are intimidated by other social games, such as Rock Band, but still want to get people together.
Most of the titles are extremely approachable and, though it might sound counter-intuitive, the lack of precision in the tech makes it easier for self-conscious players to step in and have a good time — because, even if you’re doing terrible, it’s still a lot of fun. Not to mention you can blame sucking-it-up on the device itself.
Similarly, Kinect could have a real impact in the fitness industry — as, even with its technical shortcomings, Kinect is a major improvement over Wii Fit, which typically confined players to some form of interaction with the balance board. Instead, Kinect tracks posture, technique, and rhythm in a variety of exercises, without relying on physical feedback. Though, you can’t weigh your dog or cat with the Kinect sensor.
The current batch of launch titles are mostly cute and silly experiences that prioritize outrageous and frenetic gameplay over refined “hardcore” mechanics. It’ll be interesting to see how Microsoft and third party developers build on this foundation — though, given the corners that Microsoft cut in order to get the cost down, only time will tell how far game designers will be able to push the tech. Otherwise, Kinect will be relegated to the next shovelware mecca — which will certainly be profitable for Microsoft but will leave most hardcore gamers with little interest in dusting off the device.
In the end, $150 is a fair price for the Kinect offerings — so long as players are looking for a fun, but casual, gaming experience. It may be awhile before we know whether Kinect has enough power behind the tech to grow into a serious gaming device but, for the time being, it’s certainly an outrageous addition to the Xbox 360’s offerings — so long as you have enough room for all the fun.