I’ll level with you; I’m not a massive fan of motion gaming. Waving your arms around over your head, jogging on the spot and generally making a complete arse of yourself in front of all who may be present; frankly, I’d rather lean back and relax on the sofa with a controller in my hand.
If one game looks set to change my perception of motion gaming however, it may be Kinect Sports: Season 2 for the Xbox 360. I spent a day last week at developer Rare’s HQ up in the UK’s Nuneaton, and came away sweaty, knackered and thoroughly impressed.
The day marked the first playable unveiling of the Winter Skiiing event, one 5 other events that include American Football, Baseball, Darts, Tennis and Golf.
Skiing events in winter sports games have always been a tough cookie to crack, but Rare seem to have managed just fine. Crouching into a skiing position, players raise a hand, shout “lets go” and push their arms backwards to launch down onto the track at great speed. Leaning forwards and backwards then increases or decreases your speed, while shifting your weight side to side controls steering.
The motion controls when skiing felt really responsive, with just a little lean in each direction triggering movement. The speed and intensity of the event (especially when ramping up from rookie and pro levels to championship difficulties) can entice you to make bigger movements, but the Kinect only needed slight, natural feeling moves to trigger onscreen results. Whether jumping under or ducking over obstacles, I never felt cheated by the control scheme, with any failed runs more or less down to my own timing (or bystanders waving their arms behind me to trigger off-putting cowbell sounds).
Tennis, Golf and Baseball are no strangers to motion gamers, having been done several times over on the Wii, but again Rare seem to have nailed making the sports feel as close as possible to the real deal. From backhand stokes to volleys and slices, Tennis felt like a natural game, minus the strawberries and cream and, unfortunately, a lob move. Baseball too was excellent, offering a multitude of pitching styles and batting stances, as well as the ability to call in star players when a few extra runs are needed.
Golf is perhaps the most advanced of all the sports on offer, not least of all because of the fact Rare had to program the Kinect to register players swinging in a side-on golfers stance. Again, swinging and putting feels natural and smooth, with players able to call out the names of dozens of clubs to select them, or put their hands to their brows to get an aerial view of a hole. Wind, feet placement and course topography all have a bearing on whether or not a shot is successful, just as they should in any good golf game. With a bit more content here it looks as though Rare have the foundations for an entire standalone golf title.
Darts of all the sports on offer is (initially at least) the most unnatural of events for Kinect Sports: Season 2 on two fronts. Firstly, it’s not really a sport, but rather an excuse to throw sharp pointy objects after a few beers, and secondly, there’s minute movements to be considered in the real game compared to the large, exaggerated moves of the other sports emulated here. Rare have managed a rather nice game of darts regardless however, though there is a knack to it.
A player guides a cursor over the dart board and locks it into place by flicking their wrist backwards. The accuracy of the shot is determined by how smoothly you can flick your wrist back through the arc with which you locked the cursor. Once the initially jarring feeling of not having to delicately guide a dart fades, the 180s start to fly and it all becomes very good fun. You can even side step around the imaginary oche to get a better angle when darts are bunched around, say, the triple 20 mark.
If one event was a little underwhelming, it was American Football. Maybe that’s just part and parcel of being a REAL football fan (that’s soccer for those of you from across the pond) but overall it felt the weakest sport. Players take control of either the quarterback or a field player. Quaterbacks pick plays and time a swing of an arm to trigger an onscreen throw to a runner when a “green-light” prompt appears. If the catch is made, the running player then jogs on the spot as fast as possible in an attempt to get a touchdown. While the quarterback modes were simple, they at least handled more or less accurately. Running though, however fast we sprinted on the spot, never seemed to pick up in pace. Overall, American Football appeared to lack the depth of other events.
In terms of presentation though, the game looks set to impress throughout. Avatar animations are quirky and cheeky, but it’s the little touches that really raise the smiles. For instance, Peter “The Voice of the X-Factor” Dickinson is on hand to deliver booming voice overs and the odd quip or joke. Even the eclectic licensed soundtrack delivers rib-ticklers, such as Vanilla Ice’s “Ice Ice Baby” after a successful skiing run, or a hidden Rick Astley-themed achievement that is granted to players randomly. Rare have got the party spirit off to a tee, best illustrated by the way you can make your Avatar jump around like a loon during darts matches to put off other competitors.
It’s also worth noting that Kinect functionality is built into all facets of Season 2. Voice commands litter not only the events themselves, but the navigation of menus and options, while of course gestures and hand waves can get you from mode to mode too. It looks totally possible to play through the whole of what Kinect Sports: Season 2 has to offer without ever picking up a controller.
Rare have been given some stick of late for taking their studio down the “casual” motion based path, but they seem to truly have a handle on how to make playing with the Xbox 360 peripheral feel natural. Kinect Sports: Season 2 may even turn wizened and wheezy cynics like me into lean, mean motion gaming machines.