Kinect Sports Rivals Review (Xbox One)
While there is Skype, Xbox Fitness, signing in with your face, scanning QR codes or using your voice to navigate, there haven't been any (meaningful) game reasons to use your Kinect 2.0 on the Xbox One. Enter Kinect Sports Rivals, the first substantial foray into motion gaming on the new Xbox. The idea of the game is fairly simple, and it's akin to previous Kinect Sports titles or even Wii Sports Resort. In this entry, you compete in a series of six sports in an island setting, unlocking new chapters of the game's silly story as well as new gear for your character. When you want to take your skills against the world, you do so via the Rivals mode. All of this comes for a $60 asking price, which is too high, but if you can look past that and some other issues, you may have some fun here.
As I said in my impressions, the most immediate takeaway is that the Kinect 2.0 actually works better than its predecessor, and most of the mini-games on offer here are somewhat enjoyable. The Kinect seems to do a much better job of tracking subtle arm movements as well as small details like your thumb or index finger. It's nice to be able to play an event like wake racing while sitting down, and the slightly improved voice support is also welcome. This isn't to say that all of this works perfectly, as Kinect still loses you in certain living room situations, and it is problematic in some instances when there is a subtle difference between two motion inputs — as in soccer, for instance.
I spent less time wrestling (metaphorically, of course) with the input device than in previous Kinect experiences. Once I got used to navigating the menu and playing the sports several times, there was a decent flow that rarely required the controller. I wouldn't say the sports on offer were riveting, by any means, but certain games lent themselves well to the new tech, and it was enjoyable to execute some fairly precise movements and see them reflected with success in the game.
You start out your “Champion” journey by creating your character, which has the Kinect scanning your face and body to create a sports avatar. David Tennant babbles away as your face is scanned. There is some fun presentation here, as the morphing face looks like a boss out of Starfox or something. The software did have trouble detecting my face somewhat, and it thought I was wearing glasses (likely due to the lighting conditions of my place). Once it had done its magic, the game spat out a reasonably decent replica of me, complete with proper beard style, hair color and eye color. I had to tweak it a bit, but it wasn't bad for a stylized character.
At this point, you enter the island and start participating in training events and meeting the inhabitants of the place. Even though the coach character can be annoying, he does do a good job of explaining how each mini-game works and what you need to do to succeed. All of these tutorial videos are bridged into an actual tutorial session, which gives you ample time to get a handle on something before playing the real thing.
The first sport you are shown is wake racing, and it's the strongest of the bunch. In fact, I think the game basically scales its sports and shows you the best to the worst, in the order that you unlock them. Wake racing feels close to something like WaveRace, and you'll use your hands as if you were holding the handlebars on a jet ski. It's quite a revelation to see the Kinect actually pick up small movements, such as opening my hand to slow down and closing my fist to accelerate. I almost found myself flaring the hand open a bit around turns to slightly slow down, and the Kinect tracked that well. The tricks off of jumps work also, with you leaning forward to spin and then readjusting to land. You can also use boosts by shouting “power up” or stomping your foot (the same in all minigames), and there's new gear to unlock as you progress. The wake racing felt really natural, and the experience had almost no issues (contrary to my time with the demo).
Bowling is the only sport that supports four players, and it also works relatively well. You hold out your bowling hand to the side to get a ball, and then you bring it into a bowling stance with a closed fist. You then make an underhand throwing motion and open your hand. How you turn your wrist affects spin on the ball, and this seemed to work more often than not. The odd time it didn't pick up a turn in my wrist was annoying, but it never butchered a shot completely, which is kind of like real bowling anyway. I feel this would make for a great party game, as you can just walk up to the screen and see your character appear and then quickly bowl. There's very little wait time within this minigame.
I had to come around on the rock climbing a bit, as it initially is a bit weird in how you control the game. For this one, you reach up to a handhold and close your fist. Then you bring the fist towards your body, as if you were pulling yourself up. It's actually pretty cool to be able to jump up several handholds or contort your body fully to reach a side handhold. There's good fidelity on display here, and the later stages try and trip you up with traps, pursuing opponents and wind gusts. I still think wake racing is the most complete of the games, but this one feels the most unique.
Target shooting is another minigame that generally works, and the conceit is sort of interesting. You and an opponent face opposite sides of a scoring wall, attempting to shoot out targets as they pop up. There are good targets, bad targets, numbered targets and an even a “counter-attack” target. To shoot, you simply hold out your hand with your thumb up and index finger pointed, and then you paint the targets as they appear. The reticule did go a bit crazy from time to time, but definitely less so than in previous Kinect games. I found that taking your time and slowly moving the cursor was the best strategy. There are neat multiplayer possibilities for this game, with its counter-attacks and point-stealing. Still, there isn't a ton of depth, but the game does work in what it tries to do.
Tennis provides an unintended joy in that its fun to watch your avatar move around in one-to-one as he or she reflects your exact movements. I had fun jumping and taunting my opponent before they served, which may or may not have been the point. As for the tennis itself, it works, more or less, as you have to time swings as the ball comes in. The serving missed some of my inputs occasionally, and the mini-game generally lacks any real depth, but hey, taunting!
Soccer is easily the most problematic of the minigames, as Kinect's biggest flaw — no way to move — is readily apparent. You're basically participating in foosball, kicking the ball up the field in volley fashion and eventually kicking it at the net. When it comes the other way, you have to save it as the goalie. I just found the timing of the inputs way too idiosyncratic and weird in this one, and there was no sense of finesse when I tried to steer a shot or header a certain way. This game felt like a tech demo, with very little polish or thought put into the intuitiveness of its control scheme.
Rare has done good job of making the island environment seem fun and approachable, as they use a vibrant color palette and exaggerated characters to tell their story. All of the events actually look quite good, with no real slowdown or framerate issues. There are some snazzy effects present when boosting or hitting certain shots, and all of these little details give the events some heft. This isn't to say that there's much coherence to what's going on, as it seems like an arbitrary choice to just sort of stitch together some goofy characters in all of these different sports. Additionally, I found the menu navigation a bit finicky, with voice commands not working all the time and the iconography of the map being kind of confusing (nested menus, hidden options, etc).
The story mode in Kinect Sports Rivals just isn't that great — period. I feel that Rare didn't target this story at any specific audience, and its apparent in the painful attempts at humor, silly characters and wacky aesthetic. The idea is that you're a new recruit on the island who is being courted by three rival gangs (Viper Network, Wolf Clan, Eagle Legion). Initially, these characters add a bit of life, but pretty quickly they just get in the way. Rare should've gone further with these characters, as the idea of gangs fighting over bowling or tennis is sort of amusing, and that could've made for some truly silly material. What's here just makes you want to pass on the story beats and focus on the randomly generated events, which the game does a nice job of letting you choose, thankfully.
The other big draw for Kinects Sports Rivals is the titular Rivals mode. It's here that you'll be able to compete against your friends and the world in challenges and tournaments. The Kinect Sports Rivals Hub (a separate app that launches from within the game) does a nice job of keeping you up to date on the goings on in terms of challenges and community stuff (pictures, clips, etc), and you're able to play against other players' characters (as in Forza or Powerstar Golf). I did find it poor that you can only play live multiplayer against friends, as that just seems like a weird oversight. Still, with the ability to play your friends and asynchronously go against many others, there's lots to unlock and shoot for when trying to climb the game's six leagues (six divisions per league).
Local multiplayer is available via Quick Play once you unlock it in the main game (about 30 minutes), and you play as one of the random story characters from the main game. I didn't see any easy way of using your champions in this mode, which seems like an oversight. The local multiplayer action works well enough, but the usual problems of space limitations, hitting each other and the odd delayed movement make some of these events tough. The bowling works best, as the alternating shots alleviate the problem.
The biggest compliment I can pay to Kinect Sports Rivals is that the Kinect itself isn't a major source of frustration, and that at least shows some progress. No, unfortunately, the issues come mostly from external factors, such as a poor story mode, a few missing features and a hefty price tag. Soccer is the only game that doesn't work as it should, and that's too bad. Even with all that, if you're able to pick up the game on the cheap, I'd say the wake racing, bowling and rock climbing provide something worth checking out, especially with the Rivals mode keeping you going.
Learning Curve: Some sports, like wake racing, I got my head around pretty quickly. Ditto for bowling. Others, like wall climbing, took some practice. Soccer is just problematic no matter how much time you put in.
Control Scheme: The nice surprise is that Kinect 2.0 shows a lot of improvement, with detection of subtle wrist gestures and hand-pointing as well as better one-to-one tracking in general. Still, menus can be problematic, and soccer makes me think of last-gen Kinect.
Visuals: Rare did a good job making everything look colorful, flashy and approachable. There isn't much cohesion from sport to sport, but they somehow made it kind of work.
Audio: Everything sounds appropriately splash and silly, and there's a FIFA-esque soundtrack to tie everything together. The voice acting does start to grate quickly, though.
Value: I was actually shocked that this game is selling for the full $60. Microsoft would've been better served charging $40 for the whole thing and/or selling the individual games a la carte.
Score: 6.5 (Above Average)