I was inches away from head-butting my television.
It wasn't because I just watched the finale of How I Met Your Mother, or because of the Maple Leafs' most recent crushing loss — I just really needed a goal. After a back-and-forth game of soccer, it was overtime, and I needed the next goal to win. I had just punched a shot out of the corner to keep my opponent from scoring, and after a few passes upfield, it was my turn. I chipped the ball in front of the net, dove for the header, and narrowly put it over the keeper for the win. But my momentum also brought me close to diving into my TV — playing Kinect soccer in your living room can be dangerous.
Ever since the transformative release of Wii Sports, sports-themed mini-game collections have been the go-to way to show off new motion-sensing controls. After Nintendo showed the world the promise of its Wii remote, Sony followed suit with Sports Champions, a showcase for its new Move controller, and a few months later Microsoft did the same with Kinect Sports. None of these games had the same impact as Wii Sports, which was more than a tech demo: it was a new vision for video games beyond the buttons and joysticks we were used to. And even as the technology has improved, five years later the best Xbox and PlayStation games are still played with a controller.
With its new and improved Kinect for the Xbox One, Microsoft is taking another shot with yet another collection of sports games. When it works as intended, Kinect Sports Rivals feels like the future, a new way of playing games that makes that Xbox One controller on my coffee table feel outdated. But amazing tech doesn’t always make for a fun game.
Rivals lets you use the Kinect to playing six different sports: soccer, Jet Ski racing, target practice, bowling, rock climbing, and tennis. Perhaps the best showcase for the Kinect is the soccer game, since unlike the Wii's controllers or the PlayStation Move, the Kinect can see both your hands and feet. The Rivals version of the sport feels a bit like an arcade game crossed with basketball: you and your opponent take turns kicking the ball downfield for a chance to score, with a shot clock ensuring you do so quickly. When on offense, you'll take control of each player as they receive the ball, while defense amounts to simply playing goalie and punching shots out of the air.
the on-screen animations almost never matched what I was actually doing in real life
It’s easily the most active sport in the game. I was twisting and turning my body to aim, kicking multiple times in quick succession, and reaching high into the air to block shots. The momentum can be exhausting, but it also feels incredible when it all works right. When I was able to chain together a series of quick passes and end with a strong kick into the back of the net, I actually felt Microsoft's vision of controller-free gaming. But errors happened far too often for this feeling to last long. Often the game would simply fail to register when I kicked, and my shots and passes would regularly go in completely opposite directions. Making matters worse, I felt very disconnected from my avatar, as the on-screen animations almost never matched what I was actually doing in real life.
The same is true of the Jet Skiing. Here you're supposed to hold your arms out in front of you as if you were gripping invisible handlebars, and then turn them to steer. Actually controlling the craft was pretty intuitive and worked well enough, but the game would regularly fail to register when I clenched my right hand in order to accelerate. It’s a great idea that almost perfectly mimics how you accelerate a Jet Ski in real life, but because the Kinect struggled to recognize the motion consistently, I would simply stop multiple times in a race. Not exactly ideal when you're meant to be going as fast as possible.
Rock climbing features a similar mechanic, but for whatever reason was a lot more accurate when I played. In order to climb you have to reach up and close your hand to actually grab onto the grips, and you can pull yourself either up or sideways, as well as jump across gaps. Like revving a Jet Ski, it’s a motion that feels entirely natural, and the seemingly small addition of clenching your fist makes it that much better. Aside from the odd time when the game would fail to register me grabbing onto something, the only problem I had was that I got too into it, reaching up so high that the Kinect would lose track of my hands.
The new Kinect seems best suited for simpler interactions: bowling and tennis were much smoother experiences, and they require relatively basic movements. I never had problems tossing a bowling ball or backhanding a tennis ball, but that's less impressive considering I was doing the same thing on my Wii in 2006. If anything, Rivals shows that the technology just still isn’t there for games that try to mimic our actions too closely.
By far the worst experience is the shooting. This game is essentially a competitive target practice mini-game, where you're trying to shoot targets faster and more accurately than your opponent. To fire you simply hold your hand out and point your finger as if you were a kid making a pretend gun, and when you point at a target the gun will automatically shoot. Except the sluggish movement means it feels less like firing a virtual gun, and more like awkwardly dragging a cursor around the screen with your finger. It's slow and tedious and just no fun at all. The only thing worse is navigating the game's menus using the Kinect — it usually took me two or three tries to select a menu option, and that was after spending far too long trying to actually get to the option I wanted. Most of the time I gave up and used the controller instead.
you'll look hilariously ridiculous
Rivals can still be a fun game to play with friends: it definitely beats heading out to a bowling alley, and you'll look hilariously ridiculous trying to head an invisible ball into the net. Much like the original Kinect Sports, it’s a solid party experience. But the game also highlights both the incredible highs and frustrating lows of Microsoft’s motion-sensing camera. The fact that it can detect the smallest motions, like revving an engine or grabbing on to a rock, is legitimately impressive, and its ability to see your whole body really makes you feel like part of the game. During the character-creation process you’re able to see a giant, pixelated head move its mouth and face when you do the same. It’s incredibly creepy, but also amazing. But the seams show far too often — when Rivals fails to register your kicking motion for the sixth time in a row, the future feels very far away. Kinect can do incredible things, but most of the time it doesn’t.
The best parts of Kinect Sports Rivals are games that you've already played. It may look better and have more variety, but Rivals won't turn you on to motion controls the way Wii Sports did. In many ways the relative simplicity of the Wii remote actually made Wii Sports a more enjoyable game — because it didn’t try to mimic your motions exactly, you never expected it to. At no point did your Mii avatar ever start gyrating wildly because you needed to scratch your back. Rivals, meanwhile, tries so hard to do things that the Kinect can’t quite manage yet, at least not consistently, and that makes its faults all the more glaring.
Kinect Sports Rivals is available tomorrow on Xbox One.