Prior to E3 2010, much of the appeal of Project Natal came from its mystique. Microsoft had yet to reveal an official name, let alone its actual capabilities. However, the curtain has since been pulled back on the rebranded Kinect and what developers have been doing with the technology. There now remains but two simple questions; does it work and is it fun?
Inevitably for a product like this, the first wave of releases is primarily proof of concept. The demos on display were the same as those shown at this year’s E3 the only notable absentees being Ubisoft’s Your Shape and Child of Eden, the only title revealed so far that offers a choice between traditional and motion control. For most people, their first experience of Kinect will be Kinect Adventures, a mini game collection designed to ease people into the technology. With three mini games on display, Kinect Adventures simultaneously highlighted the potential of the motion tracking camera, as well as its drawbacks. So far, the company line has been ‘’you are the controller’ and when games stick to this rule, Kinect shows promise. It works best with gesture based commands; step left, jump, duck etc. Both the river rafting and mine cart race showed promise and trying to navigate a river by stepping left and right in time with a partner was simple silly fun. However, when tasking players with interacting directly with objects on screen, problems behind the entire concept of a controller free device emerge.
Judging depth in a television screen is normally not a problem, but when the screen is supposed to represent a 3D space in front of the player, accurate control becomes an issue. Ricochet, the dodgeball game which is now part of Kinect Adventures and Kinectimals both felt unwieldy as moving arms about became more about guess work and pulled me out of the games rather than making them more engaging. Ricochet boiled down to little more than shaking arms and legs in all directions in the hope that it would connect with the ball and while the fur on each cat did look very soft, in the end rubbing it boils down to waving your hands in empty space in front of you. This also extend to gesture menu navigation. While scrubbing through a video is smooth and surprisingly precise, navigating through the menu screens is still an unwieldy proposition. There was a lot of swinging arms out wide to catch the button on the side of the screen and it left me wishing the voice commands were available to try as waving hands around in space to move left was unnecessarily slow, especially because confirming a command requires your hand to hover over the icon for two or three seconds, rather than an instantaneous button press.
It was while playing Kinectimals that another potential problem emerged. Having just come from trying out the hurdles in Kinect Sports, I moved on to the pet simulator to take my tiger cub through an obstacle course. To make it run faster, the game asked me to run on the spot to which my immediate reaction was of déjà vu. There is a limit to the number of purely gesture based inputs games can use and regardless of what was happening on the screen, it’s still difficult to shake the feeling that your jumping again, or balancing your arms again and unless games can find ways to vary the gameplay, the novelty of the motion control will find itself wearing thin very quickly.
Kinect may have disappointed in some areas, but it certainly surprised in others. The most repeated comment about Dance Central coming out of E3 was that it works and it certainly showed off the cameras potential. I watched a lady in front of me 5 star Poker Face on medium with little difficulty and initially feeling confident, I followed by stumbling through the same track on easy. Like other music based games, there was a clear learning curve and there was never the feeling that random shaking was enough to get through the routine. It also felt like a proper game, rather than a tech demo, one that, with practice, players could improve at over time.
Dance Central was an expected highlight, but it was Joyride that had us coming back for a second try. Controlling a car with two hands on an invisible wheel may sound like an unappealing concept, but steering turned out to be one of the games most appealing aspects. In a kart racer such as this, the lack of speed control was not lamented and even the drifting, achieved by throwing out hips left or right, was fun and intuitive. Crucially, it never felt like the game was playing itself, choosing to take suggestions from the player rather than commands, as was the case with Kinectimals. The main question hanging over Joyride is cost. Originally announced as a free to download racer it remains to be seen whether or not it will have enough content to justify a full retail price tag. However, the concept is sound and the questions surrounding it are with volume not control. Although not playable, one of the modes mentioned was a multiplayer race, where one player drives while the other throws objects from the car to hinder opponents. If done right, it would be a great example of how Kinect has the potential to offer something really unique.
Kinect clearly has potential; the debug demo clearly showed that it tracks with far greater accuracy than many of the launch titles suggested. It has greater success when it asks you to follow, rather than lead, as was the case with Dance Central. Swtiching playerswas also impressively simple; when Kinect recognised a different person in front of the camera, the screen rippled to acknowledge the change and the demos continued uninterrupted. However, when I asked someone to walk in front of me while I was playing, Kinect kept me signed in and the I noticed little to no lag as it picked me up again. It remains to be seen whether or not its use in conjunction with a controller will make it more palatable to a more traditional audience, though the games demoed had little to suggest that Microsoft has them in mind at launch. Kinect certainly works, it just remains to be seen if developers will tap its full potential, or get caught up in the fine line between immersion and frustration.
This article originally appeared here