Formerly known as Project Natal, Kinect is Microsoft’s new motion controller for the Xbox 360 which squares off this Christmas against Sony’s Move. The name Kinect is essentially a cross between two concepts: “kinetic”, meaning related to motion, and “connect”, as in directly connecting to the game. And by directly, we mean your body is the actual controller.
Unlike Sony’s Move, which employs a Wii-like wand, Kinect consists of two cameras (plus a microphone) that track body movement. The player holds no controller, and simply moves, steps and jumps around, waving their arms and legs, with the sensor interpreting these motions and relaying them directly to the in-game avatar. Of course, the obvious concern with a body movement translation system is the potential lag which could mar the experience and leave you feeling less than connected to your on-screen character.
Before we get to that, though, the first issue confronting the Kinect buyer is room space. While setting it up is easy, and a matter of plugging it into the USB port and following some simple calibration routines, positioning and space are more critical issues. If you’ve got a small cluttered living room, or have your Xbox in a tiny study room, under-stairs cupboard or similar, then you can pretty much forget having a decent Kinect experience.
For the sensor to be able to read the player properly, they need to be standing six feet away from it. For a two player game, that increases to eight feet. Bear in mind that you’ll need a bit of space behind you – you can’t be backed up against the wall or sofa – and it becomes clear you need a reasonable sized room for the peripheral to function well. Ideally, the sensor should also be positioned between two feet and six feet off the ground, so you can’t just put it on the floor and expect optimal performance.
There’s a little over nine feet between our TV and sofa, which is just about right for two players. We had to place the unit only one and a half feet off the ground on our TV stand, a bit lower than the optimal height, but that didn’t seem to phase the sensor. One other issue is that direct sunlight can also throw Kinect, but literally only if the sun is shining through the window right onto the player.
Those are the only downsides to be aware of. The good news is, given a decent space such as we had, the system’s motion tracking works very nicely indeed. The first game we tried was Kinect Adventures, which comes bundled with the device, and is a series of somewhat throwaway mini-games that show off the technology more than anything else. 20,000 Leaks, for example, has you plugging holes in an underwater tank with your hands and feet, rather like a technological variant of Twister.
The sensor’s tracking proved pretty sensitive and accurate, but for the odd occasion when it seemed to have a little difficulty detecting the exact orientation of our hands. However, that really didn’t negatively affect the gameplay experience. Most of the Kinect Adventures mini-games don’t have much lasting appeal, although there are a couple with more longevity, such as the white river rafting and a volleyball style breakout game.
We also took a look at three high profile launch titles out for the system, the first being Kinect Sports. This offers a range of activities including ten pin bowling, boxing, table tennis, track and field, volleyball and football. Some of these are pretty manic: track and field was our favourite, and the running events along with the likes of the long jump really get you sweating. All of the activities ran pretty smoothly, with the motion tracking even performing admirably when javelin throwing, with no lag issues.
Table Tennis was the event we felt lacked a touch of precision regarding shot detection, with the game letting you get away with being near enough to the ball rather than spot on. However, the accuracy across the other events, such as detecting whether your arm is straight as you bowl in the ten pin alley, was spot on. The bowling is very nicely presented, complete with bursts of music accompanying your strikes. Even football works well, with Kinect reading the direction of your passing and shooting very smartly. A host of mini-games and a smart party play mode make Kinect Sports a thoroughly recommended buy, although be prepared to get seriously sweaty.
Dance Central from Harmonix (the developer of Rock Band) is the dancing game you can play without slipping and sliding around on one of those daft dance mats. The mat-less element evokes a feeling of dancing for real; you’re not merely stepping on directional pads, but actually doing proper full body dance moves. The game’s evaluation of the accuracy of the player’s moves seems spot on, and while it’s slightly more forgiving on the easier skills levels, that’s as it should be.
For the harder difficulty levels, the various routines can be broken down and practised step by step. You can even slow dance moves right down, and with an instructor spelling out the exact beat and steps to help you, the complicated soon becomes more digestible with a bit of practice. While the song listing didn’t look particularly enticing to us at first sight, it’s actually filled with numbers which are surprisingly enjoyable to dance along with. Overall, Dance Central is highly entertaining, and a very polished application of Kinect. While you can boogie away unlocking new songs, venues, achievements and all the usual goodies, the one slight hitch for us was the lack of a better defined career mode.
Finally, we booted up Ubisoft’s Your Shape: Fitness Evolved. This is a serious fitness title, presenting you with a series of personal trainer guided workouts, along with gym games and fitness classes. The main trainer section assesses your fitness level, and then presents you with a fairly diverse selection of routines, some designed to tone, or to get you really sweating, and some even use weights. You follow the movements of the on-screen trainer, although that can be trickier than it seems at times (particularly for the uncoordinated).
Luckily, the trainer provides feedback along the lines of “lift your knees higher”, or “keep those arms moving” and so forth. It provides a good workout and a generally accurate assessment of how closely you’re following the exercises, although occasionally Your Shape told us we were out of sync when we weren’t. Extra classes such as cardio boxing and Tai Chi are welcome, as are the gym games, which involve punching blocks or stepping swiftly onto lit squares. While the interface is a little clunky, this is a solid effort on the exercise front, and definitely gets you working hard, especially with the more demanding cardio sections and weights.
Across all the games we played, from adventures to sports, lag was never an issue. Every now and then the sensor misinterpreted a movement slightly, but that was a pretty rare occurrence. Kinect really is a very impressive piece of technology, and even little touches such as interacting with menus directly using your hands adds to the experience.
Voice control is here too, and talking to your console to bring up a menu, close the disc tray, or pause a video is hugely novel. The microphones picked up all our voice commands first time, even though the device was placed quite close to the TV speaker.
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Providing you've got a decent sized room, and you can position it properly, Kinect works a treat, with no real lag to speak of and a commendable level of accuracy on the motion detection front. The key launch titles we looked at, while casual gamer oriented, are very impressive. And the novelty of playing with no controller at all, and indeed talking to your Xbox, is undeniable. Okay, the Kinect price tag might seem a little steep, but we feel it's worth every penny.