One of the biggest selling points of the Xbox One, at least to hear Microsoft tell the story, is the console’s inclusion of the Kinect 2.0 hardware. Unlike the PS4, which has an optional (e.g. “added cost” camera), the Kinect 2.0 sensor comes bundled with every Xbox One. Voice commands seemed the peripheral’s primary function at launch, as only Ubisoft’s Fighter Within really leveraged the Kinect’s gesture-recognition at launch (and failed — read our review). Going into this Kinect Sports Rivals review, I knew the first-party game basically marked the first true test for Kinect.
As much as this Kinect Sports Rivals review would be an evaluation of the game, it’s just as much an evaluation of the hardware. Interestingly, in both cases Microsoft should elect to take this course pass/no-pass. Kinect Sports Rivals is entertaining, but there’s nothing here to really compel a $60 purchase. And along the way, it exposes some of the flaws that still exist with Kinect, even in its new “2.0″ form.
The very name of the game indicates what Microsoft’s trying to do here. Wii Sports made the original Wii a hit, and this name is an unveiled attempt to capitalize on that game’s brand equity (and brand glow). Adding “Rivals” to the name implies some heated battles are in store, particularly on Xbox Live. That’s the hope, anyway. In practice, the game doesn’t capture the magic of Nintendo’s hit, nor does it give you much to really hang onto in terms of compelling competition.
Kinect Sports Rivals baby-steps gamers into a half-dozen activities, each of which requires an annoying tutorial from “Coach.” The nuanced movements that Kinect Sports Rivals can detect are impressive. For instance, there’s a bit of a “wow” moment the first time you open your hand to slow down the waverunner, and when you realize that you can lean into a soccer kick to bend it like Beckham, it really makes Wii Motion Plus look like child’s play.
But where Wii Sports just plopped gamers into an environment and let them gesture their way to fun, Kinect Sports Rivals spoon-feeds those nuanced movements in a series of required tutorials that seem really forced. Worse yet, as you make your way through those tutorials you’ll encounter several teams on the Kinect Sports island (another overt Wii Sports theft) vying for your competitive services. Who will you serve? Who will you help rise to the top?
More to the point: who cares?
Kinect Sports Rivals shouldn’t have attempted a narrative or story. That’s powerful stuff coming from me, because I’m a plot junkie. But some games, this one included, need only to toss you into the action and let you sink or swim. Forcing players to work through a host of tutorials — before they can even do “quick matches” of any activity — is inexcusable for what’s theoretically supposed to be a pick-up-and-play sort of experience.
These game-design issues are compounded by gameplay issues tied directly to the Kinect 2.0 hardware. As Microsoft is wont to do with its Xbox One, the Kinect sensor has been and will continue to be updated to improve the experience. Judged on the here and now, the hardware doesn’t enable the fully immersive experience promised by the game.
For example, in the aforementioned waverunner activity, there were several times when the sensor would fail to detect the knee lifts used to activate a power-up. On multiple occasions the Kinect lost track of my hands and posture, leaving my avatar standing upright on an un-moving vehicle rather than leaning into a corner at full speed. The competition is intense at times, so having the Kinect drop a signal with two corners to go and me in first place, only to end up in third place after cursing repeatedly at the TV, doesn’t make for fun times.
On the rock climbing activity, the sensor often lost track of my feet, thus removing my ability to leap to the next toehold. On the soccer activity, the Kinect regularly missed my head movements and let the ball drop harmlessly at my feet rather than rocket toward the net. Even the shooting activity wasn’t without error, as the sensor at times picked-up elbow movements rather than hand movements and caused me to shoot targets out of sequence. And don’t get me started on the different “sports” seeming to require you to stand at different distances from the Kinect sensor itself.
Looking to battle something besides hardware limitations, I headed for the Hub. In fact, I purposefully delayed this Kinect Sports Rivals review in the hopes that the Hub would pick up some new features and signs of multiplayer life. Instead, the Hub is where you can pose your avatar, take photos, share achievements and track your best times in relation to your Friends’. And that’s kind of about it. Kinect Sports Rivals does offer same-room multiplayer, but it’s not as invigorating as I might have liked. Couple that with middle-of-the-road online functions, and the game’s kind of a bore.
None of this is world-ending, and it’s not to say the Wii Sports franchise hasn’t had its fair share of wonkyness. But for a first-party game — the first Xbox One game from Rare — designed to exclusively showcase the unique value proposition of the Xbox One, Kinect Sports Rivals just falls flat. The game isn’t an outright failure, but it doesn’t capture the “magic” it needed to in order to live up to its namesake, and it exposes too many of the Kinect hardware’s limitations in the process.
Truth be told, not even my kids found Kinect Sports Rivals all that compelling. I was hoping it would be a way to get them engaged in next-gen gaming with me, but they were frankly more interested in playing Skylanders: Swap Force and Angry Birds Star Wars than Microsoft’s shiny new Xbox One original. And the saddest part? So was I.
Score: 6.4 — There’s potential here for fun, but until you pass the tutorials and Microsoft fixes Kinect, there’s no way the game can actually achieve it.
Platform reviewed: Xbox One (platform exclusive)