The original Kinect Sports for the Xbox 360 did exactly what it set out to to do. It didn't set the world on fire or reinvent gaming as we know it, but it showed that despite some gimmicky features, the Kinect actually works -- for the most part.
And here we are almost four years later with Kinect Sports Rivals -- a souped-up version that's no longer just a free pack-in, but a premium-priced game delayed months after the release of the Xbox One.
As you can imagine, the actual results are mixed.
Kinect Sports Rivals (Xbox One)
Publisher: Microsoft Studios
Release: April 8, 2014
Rivals begins with an interesting avatar creation process led by David Tennant of Dr. Who fame. It's a fantastic intro for any piece of entertainment, as Tennant has a perfect voice for it, especially when you consider the fact that this is his first foray into videogames. Kinect has come a long way since the original iteration, and now you can play closer to the TV as well as enjoy some of the enhanced scanning capabilities. The scanning module can detect glasses and facial hair, as well as your general physique.
It takes a few minutes, but the results are pretty incredible -- at least, they were spot-on for me outside of a slightly bigger head than I would have liked. Against all odds this Kinect-only game allows you to control all of the menus from a controller -- additionally, you can fight with hand pointer motions, or employ the smooth voice controls to navigate the menu. Personally, I'm just glad they added options this time around, and this should be considered standard for all motion-based games.
The theme of Rivals is decidedly contemporary, sporting licensed music for its soundtrack like Calvin Harris' "Let's Go" and "Feel So Close." It's trendy for sure, but not in an annoying or particularly dated way. It helps that the tunes are upbeat in general, making it a tad easier to get into the game. There's also a bit of advertising in the game during some of the events (mostly logos) -- just to warn you.
Before you jump into the sport of your choice, you have to do a few wakeraces first, then climbing and so on until you unlock all six activities. In other words, it's a medium-paced trickle that doesn't take more than an hour to complete, and just straddles the line of frustratingly slow and acceptable crescendo. Similar to the middling pacing, Rivals attempts to build a world of strange characters and "teams" that litter the miniature story, which comprises of three factions: the Eagle Legion (spartan-like), the Wolf Clan (tribal), and the Viper Network (futuristic hackers).
If you've played Dance Central before you'll have a clue as to what the characterizations are like. While the characters never really stood out for me, the world is convincingly beautiful. I love all of the vibrant colors used (particularly the neon green and bright blue hues for the water) in the game, and some of the events (like wakeracing) are particularly entrancing. Sometimes the universe is difficult to see during all the action, but similar to Nintendo's Wii Sport Resort island, I wouldn't mind visiting it myself.
There are six sports included in all: wakeracing, rock climbing, target practice, soccer, bowling, and tennis (unlocked in that order). If you've been waiting for a follow-up to Waverace 64, the wake event in Rivals is similarly designed, and a ton of fun. The Kinect 2.0 actually works like a charm, allowing you to move your arms forward and backward to simulate the direction of handlebars.
You can also lean to the sides for sharp turns, or lean forwards and backwards for flips. Speed boost power-ups are sprung by stomping or using voice commands (again, the option is great). That's pretty much it, and everything functioned as advertised without any frustration on my part. The track itself is also gorgeous and detailed, and even though I wish there were more power-ups and hazards outside of mines, it's fun to play based on the control scheme alone.
Climbing is easily my favorite event, which I didn't expect in the slightest. All you have to do here is raise your arms above your head, and grab onto the appropriate hold with the correct hand, then pull down to raise yourself up. If there's a gap you need to clear, you can raise your torso or actually jump to have your character leap up the mountain in turn. You can also relive your most wildest American Gladiators fantasies by grabbing people and chucking them off the wall.
You'll look ridiculous doing it, but like wakeracing, the motion aspect actually works. There's a lot of strategic play involved, as only holding onto one hold will drain your stamina bar and cause you to fall, and sometimes you'll need to move fast to grab onto something. It's also extremely difficult to learn, and like playing Guitar Hero for the very first time, I legitimately felt like I was using a new control scheme and not just a gimmick.
Target practice is also fun, and in an endearing move to lefties, you can use either hand for this one. All you have to do is point your finger or hand at the screen to move around an accurate reticle, and Rivals will automatically fire at targets. There's a light puzzle element involved, with numbers that you have to shoot in an increasing order for bonus points, or skull targets that cause a loss in score. You'll also have to occasionally dodge to the left or right to avoid turret fire. It's a simple, nuanced addition that makes everything feels more action-packed.
Soccer, however, feels like a completely wasted opportunity by comparison. This is a one-on-one sport, involving passes and shots with your feet and head as you square off with a goalie, and on the other end, square off against a striker. While goal keeping is fun enough as you attempt to block shots with precision, shooting is a bit of a farce. You'll have to go through this elongated and boring process of shooting downfield against foosball-like defense, which just feels like a waste of time. The shots also aren't very accurate and not a good demonstration of the tech. For these reasons and more, I'll most likely never play it again.
If you loved Wii Sports you'll love bowling, but it feels oddly out of place in an otherwise fast-paced sports title. It works as advertised, but it's very bare-bones, and also ridiculous to see a giant futuristic crowd cheer for a bowling match. In general, bowling feels like a completely underwhelming and throwaway (ha) addition -- like it was added in to pad the game.
Lastly we have Tennis, which packs a lot more punch by comparison. Because the Kinect recognizes nearly every appendage, you'll be able to serve by throwing the ball up with your free hand, and whacking it with your dominant racket hand. The process is incredibly nuanced, as you can swing normally, or mix things up with top spins, backspins, and lobs.
Even though you can't technically feel the impact of hits, contact has a definite weight to it, and the over-emphasized neon effects of slicing a ball help add more character to the proceedings. There's a limited amount of actual movement, but your arms will feel tired by the end. I got pretty into it in fact, sometimes swinging with two hands, which is by no means required.
If any combination of those games sounds enticing to you, Kinect Sports Rivals offers up a ton of content to mess around with, including its own Hub app that collects all your scores, friendships, and leaderboard information. You can also submit photos, participate in ongoing challenges and events, start a rivalry, and customize your character with new clothing options. Local multiplayer will up your enjoyment considerably.
Kinect Sports Rivals has an inexcusable amount of wasted space with bowling and soccer, but the other four activities are engaging, and the world is charming and appealing enough to win over most of the gamers who enjoyed Wii Sports. If you have a family who likes getting together and play games like this, go ahead and pull the trigger -- all other curious parties should wait for a sale to compensate for the weak activities.
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