One of the biggest initial selling points for Xbox One is its inclusion of the Kinect 2.0 sensor. Bundled with every Xbox One console, the Kinect 2.0 hardware is key to Microsoft’s strategy for an all-in-one entertainment system. As we saw with Xbox 360 and the original Kinect camera, the technology also holds great promise for games, which is another reason Microsoft packed it into every next-gen console. Yet sometimes a game doesn’t live up to that promise. That’s unfortunately the case with Fighter Within, one of the only Xbox One launch games to make use of the system’s gesture controls.
Ubisoft has perhaps the best handle on what it means to be a “next-gen” game. Between Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, Watch Dogs, The Crew and Tom Clancy’s The Division, the publisher seems to have it going on when it comes to PS4 and Xbox One experiences. But all coins have two sides, and Fighter Within falls distinctly on the other.
As a fighting game, Fighter Within represents one of the most a logical uses of gesture-based controls. Rather than flail about, gamers must use specific hand and leg motions to throw different types of punches and kicks. Blocking is accomplished by a specific motion, too. Considering the advanced Kinect 2.0 hardware, every nuanced move should lead to some unique, maybe even personalized, combat.
No such luck.
Ubisoft is no stranger to motion controls. Ubisoft first tried its hands at a gesture-based fighting game with PowerUp Heroes on Xbox 360 (read our PowerUp Heroes review). Back in 2011, PowerUp Heroes used the original Kinect to try and translate real-world movements to on-screen combat. It worked with only marginal success.
Going into our Fighter Within review, we knew motion controls were going to be the focus once again. The game is structured like the original Mortal Kombat, with players going up against multiple rounds of unique fighters. The difference in Fighter Within is that the opponents get progressively harder and require players to use the moves they’ve learned in previous rounds.
In each round you learn a new move, be it a roundhouse kick, a new blocking technique, a counter or a power-up attack. In some respects it feels like 50% of the game or more is just one big tutorial. The benefit to this is that Fighter Within baby-steps you into motion controls, so by the end you feel like a total pro.
The downside is two-fold. First, as I said, the game feels like one big demo rather than an epic next-gen outing. Honestly, if Ubisoft had released the game more like Killer Instinct, where you could pay to unlock new characters, this Fighter Within review would probably be a lot better. But it’s a full-priced game that feels like a proof-of-concept demo, and that’s never a good thing.
Second, the gesture recognition is spotty at best. It’s too early in the Xbox One’s lifecycle to know whether this indicates some limitations of the Kinect 2.0 hardware or is just bad game development, but my guess (hope?) is that it’s the latter. Ubisoft didn’t exactly bowl us over with PowerUp Heroes, so it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if the frustrating gesture controls were a sign of inexperience or incapability.
For instance, in one round the game teaches you to punch at a certain angle to unleash a more powerful attack. The subtle angle is important, because otherwise you’ll simply block. I eventually stopped counting the number of times my character would block rather than punch — and no, it wasn’t just user error. In some cases, my character would jump backward rather than dodge, or try to do a counter rather than kick. For a game reliant on recognizing specific motions, Fighter Within sure seems blind to what this user was trying to do.
I’m embarrassed to admit it, but there were several instances when flailing about wildly — the exact thing Kinect 2.0 was supposed to avoid — was exactly what I did. And then won the match.
I also grew increasingly frustrated as I played through Fighter Within that I couldn’t improvise moves. Some of the moves just require too much subtlety. Put martial arts philosophy aside for a moment and think of the people buying this game. Martial arts are a graceful art, but the potential audience for Fighter Within just wants to kick and punch things. It’s important from an input standpoint to bring structure to all that flailing, but in doing so Fighter Within removes almost all the visceral vibe from the experience.
The result is a game that relies on gestures that it doesn’t even recognize yet doesn’t allow sufficient freedom to give gamers a sense of “ownership” over the experience. I had high hopes that a next-gen console game would show at least as much evolution in quality as the hardware itself. Instead, it feels like Fighter Within in some cases actually devolved when it comes to motion controls in the fighting-game genre. There’s no way I can recommend this game, even if you’re desperate to find a new game among the arguably small selection at the Xbox One’s launch.
Score: 6 — Launch games are supposed to showcase new technology, not expose its shortcomings. By not recognizing its own motion controls, Fighter Within is gesture-based by definition alone.
Platform reviewed: Xbox One (platform exclusive)