When Nintendo announced the Wii, people mocked its name. When the company debuted motion controls, people doubted the departure from thumbsticks and buttons. When Sony and Microsoft announced their own motion-control systems in part to capitalize on the Wii’s success, people feared it was too little too late. But whether Microsoft had an original idea or not, the company has adapted the motion-control concept by running absolutely wild with it, taking “interactive entertainment” in an entirely new and exciting direction.
Called Kinect, Microsoft’s Xbox 360 motion-control device does much more than sense motion alone. It recognizes gamers’ faces and logs them in to the appropriate Xbox 360 profile. It has four built-in microphones that enable voice recognition when navigating the Xbox 360 Dashboard. It supports in-game chat without the use of an over-ear or overhead boom mic. It senses depth in the gameroom’s 3D space in addition to the literal up/down/sideways motion. And it does all this without any additional wand, remote or peripheral other than the camera/mic bar itself.
Microsoft’s foray into the game-console space has delivered some pretty heavy hardware, and the Kinect Sensor doesn’t break that pattern. Weighing about half as much as the Xbox 360 itself, the Kinect Sensor has three cameras built into its 11-inch-long by 3-inch-tall sensor bar, which helps explain its heft. The weight certainly can’t be attributed to an internal power source; when hooked-up to an original Xbox 360, the Kinect requires a separate outlet in which to be plugged. The new Xbox 360 Slim, meanwhile, is capable of powering the Kinect simply by plugging it into the USB port in back. (The Kinect also uses the USB port on the original Xbox 360, but solely for multimedia transfer and not for power.)
One nice aspect of the heavy Kinect Motion Sensor is that when you set it on the TV stand in front of the TV, there’s absolutely no fear that it will be easily tipped. It also seems quite durable, so if your arm and/or leg motions get unwieldy, you’re not likely to damage it easily. On the flip side, the weight and size of the Kinect Sensor make the device an absolute bulls-eye for any toddlers in the house, so durable or not, the Kinect will need to be moved to an unreachable location when not in use or mounted above the TV via hardware that’s sold separately.
Upon plugging-in the Kinect Sensor, a series of downloads and system updates take place for about seven minutes, followed by some user-controlled calibration of the device itself. Oddly, the calibration is done using a normal Xbox 360 controller rather than the Kinect. Worse, though, is that the rather drawn-out calibration process can be a bit puzzling.
For instance, Step Three in calibrating the Kinect involves fine-tuning the Sensor’s microphones. To do this, the software prompts you to turn up the volume to the decibel levels at which you normally play games. I was informed — three times — that the volume was too low. It wasn’t until I turned the volume up to literally 200% of my normal game-playing levels that the Kinect’s audio calibration finished. If I didn’t live in a household with two small children asleep when I was setting-up the Kinect, this wouldn’t have been quite as disconcerting. But, it was still confusing because for as sensitive as the microphones are on the Kinect, they appear to be deafer than a longtime gamer during the calibration sequence. The weirdest part of all this is that the Kinect was calibrated at a ridiculously high volume but still recognized quiet voices and audio. Then pray tell, dear hardware, what was the point of waking the children?
Once the Kinect is calibrated, it’s time to use your body and voice as a controller. The play space for the Kinect is defined as the area where the Kinect can “see” you. For single players, six feet back from the TV is ideal, and if you get too close the Kinect will display an on-screen prompt to step back. For two-player games in which both players participate at the same time, the ideal distance is eight feet away from the Kinect Motion Sensor. Just remember to give yourself elbow room; I found myself moving a lot more with the Kinect than I do with the Wii.
One of the updates for Kinect is a tweaked Xbox Dashboard. When the Kinect is plugged-in, a small TV-like icon sits in the bottom right-hand corner that shows a black-and-white image of what the Kinect sees at that time. When the Kinect is ready to accept your hand gestures as a control mechanism, your hands on this little video glow white, at which point you can wave at the Kinect to bring-up the Kinect Hub. The Kinect Hub is where you see large icons on the screen representing games and other functions. Moving either hand in the air causes an on-screen cursor to move over each icon. When you find the one you want, simply hold your hand over that icon for about two or seconds to register that as your selection. Alternatively, you can say “Xbox” to bring up a menu of available commands, then say “Kinect” to open the Kinect Hub. From there, each icon has a label that you can speak out loud to have the Kinect select that icon. Some of the available choices are Close Tray, Play Disc, Zune, Sign In, Kinect Tuner (a recalibration tool), Avatar Editor, Friends and Achievements.
But voice commands and navigating menus are only going to entertain you for about five minutes. It’s the games where Kinect really shows its potential. Included in the Kinect box is a product called Kinect Adventures. This pack-in game has two core modes, Free Play and Adventures, both of which share the same basic activities. In Free Play mode, players choose freely from five different game types (described below) and just play until they’re tired. In Adventures Mode, the game type is essentially chosen for the player via a “plot” that involves traveling the world trying to beat the rest of the planet in achieving specific milestones within each game type. The games vary from location to location, and they’re chosen from all the games and playing “maps” available in Free Play mode. So, what are the games in Kinect Adventures? Glad you asked.
If the games here sound basic, it’s because they are — and they’re supposed to be. Much like Wii Sports was a tutorial about how the Wii controls worked, Kinect Adventures provide a glimpse into the capabilities and basic functions of the Kinect hardware. 20,000 Leaks is a simple title in which players plug leaks that have been sprung by sadistic fish banging into an underwater glass tank. Players must move their hands and feet over the holes in the front, sides and floor of the tank to stop the water from filling it up. Points are earned based on the time it takes you to plug each wave of holes. The game also takes your photo at certain points so you can see how foolish you look. These photos, as well as any others you take, can be uploaded to KinectShare.com for 14 days. From KinectShare.com you can upload the photos to your Facebook page or via Twitter, print them at home or download them to your hard drive.
In River Rush, players find themselves going down different rivers trying to capture coins, avoid obstacles and find hidden paths. It’s actually quite reminiscent of the old Toobin’ arcade game, but rather than press buttons to move your avatar’s left and right arms, you’re literally moving your feet side to side to adjust where on the innertube you’re standing and thus adjust how hard and fast it pulls to either side of the river. The on-rails experience is relatively straightforward, as was Toobin’, but there are wooden pylons, some of which move, and jumps to navigate while steering the tube to reach more coins.
Rallyball is a lot like a next-gen version of another arcade game: Arkanoid or Breakout. However, in Rallyball you use your body, arms and legs as the paddle that’s used to bounce the kickballs down a long corridor to blast apart the blocks at the other end. This game controls marginally well, although of the six games included in Kinect Adventures it’s the hardest to say with certainty that you’re really doing anything. Just throwing your body in the way of the balls will push them down the alley, which defeats the purpose of moving around. With that said, when you smash certain obstacles you generate additional balls, and when you have to track and bounce all those balls down the bowling-alley-wide room, things can get pretty frantic.
Reflex Ridge is the slowest-moving game in the Kinect Adventures pack, but it’s the one with the most diverse motion. In the game, your avatar stands on an on-rails platform while trying to duck under, jump over and dodge obstacles to maintain his or her speed. The avatar can only do this, of course, if you (the human being who’s watched by Kinect) does these actions in real life, so make sure your play space is sufficiently wide, particularly if you’re playing with another person alongside you.
The final game included in Kinect Adventures is Space Pop, an arm-tiring game in which you flap your arms to gain elevation in the zero-G environment, hold your arms out to hover in the air, and manipulate your body to swoop back and forth in a fully 3D plane to pop water bubbles in space as they pour out of holes above, below and alongside your avatar. This mini-game didn’t seem quite as capable at determining the player’s specific location in space, so popping the bubbles is someone of a crapshoot. Of all the titles in this Kinect pack-in game, it was definitely my least favorite.
Yet you can’t judge Kinect based on this single pack-in game. After all, the Wii eventually proved to be more than a Wii Sports-only machine, much like the original Xbox eventually proved to be more than a Halo adapter for your TV. Kinect Adventures is a good entree into the world of Microsoft’s motion-control hardware, but it tests only the system’s motion-based capabilities, and it only does that effectively in about two or three of these games. It’s obvious that the Kinect’s future can be very bright, but it will require some creative thinking by some expert game developers. We hope to review additional launch games for the Kinect in the near future. In the process, we hope to get an even clearer idea of what the future holds for Kinect and, perhaps, the future of interactive entertainment.
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- Score: 8.7
- The Kinect hardware, though bulkier than expected, is remarkably advanced, functional and holds great promise. The game that comes with it, though, provides only a taste of what the device can truly do, thus bringing down the overall score of the complete package.
Platform reviewed: Xbox 360