Kinect Sports Rivals Review – Xbox One

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Up until now the new Kinect for the Xbox One has really only been useful as a voice input device for voice chat, TV navigation, and the occasional voice feature in games like Dead Rising 3 and Ryse.  The only game that has tried to do anything serious with the Kinect motion capture is Fighter Within and that was a total train wreck, but now comes Kinect Sports Rivals; the first game from Microsoft and Rare.  I’ve been playing this game for over a week now, and while there are still a few points of contention with the Kinect and its reliability when it comes to motion capture, I have to admit I haven’t had this much fun and physical integration with a video game since Kinect Star Wars.

I was a big fan of the original Kinect Sports game, mostly because it made for a great “party game” when lots of people were over and we wanted a shared gaming experience.   Kinect Sports Rivals brings back that competitive style of sport-related games, admittedly to a somewhat lesser degree since all but one of the six included activities are restricted to two players.  Kinect Sports Rivals seems more intent on creating an online competitive atmosphere and a persistent athlete that can compete with friends both online and even when you aren’t through the use of a cloud-based avatar or champion.

facescanThe first order of business is to create your virtual athlete, and that is where the new Kinect really starts to showcase the power lurking within.   You are greeted by the soothing voice of David Tennant who will be serving as your guide and narrator for the endless hours you’ll be spending in Kinect Sports Rivals.  He will guide you into standing (and possibly kneeling) in the proper positions so the Kinect can scan your body and 86 points on your face.  The Kinect is smart enough to tell you when you need more light in the room, and it will even detect if you are wearing glasses, ask you to remove them during the scan and then remind you to put them back on.  In my creation session it even went as far as going into the glasses sub-section and picked out matching frames for the glasses I was wearing before it told me to take them off.  The end result is nothing short of astonishing.  While not totally photo-realistic, the facial renderer does create a fun caricature that is totally recognizable and even a bit super-hero/comic book in nature.

facecompFrom there you can go into the customization menus and tweak hair, eyes, glasses, etc., but I found the Kinect not only picked out the proper frames for my glasses it also captured my 5 o’clock shadow and hairline.  Honestly, there wasn’t much to tweak.  You can then go to the Avateer section and strike up a few poses or zoom in to see just how well the Kinect captures your facial expressions and mouth movement.  My only regret here is that you can’t save these poses for the numerous pre and post-game splash screens that prominently feature your character in a variety of preset poses.

There are six sports that make up Kinect Sports Rivals.  When the game starts you will need to unlock the various events by completing the tutorials and engaging in at least the first story mission for that sport.  It can be a bit annoying if you want to play something like Tennis or Bowling only to find that you have to go through nearly an hour of other games to unlock the events near the end of the list.  You are greeted by the gruff yet oddly loveable Coach who will guide you in the subtle nuances of playing all six sports; Wake Racing, Climbing, Target Shooting, Soccer, Tennis, and Bowling – in that order.  It is also during this time that you will be introduced to the three rival teams on the island, Eagle, Wolf, and Viper.  They’ll be checking you out as you engage in several sessions of each sport before you are forced to pick and join a team.  It can actually take a few hours to get to that point, and even though I chose the Wolf Clan, I have yet to see any benefits of that decision.  It mostly impacts the story and pre-game cutscenes, which can be super-annoying because they cannot be skipped, and they play each time you start (or restart) an event.

There is a nice sense of progression with the game with both Coins and XP.  Coins are the cash you’ll use to buy all sorts of items from the shop like clothes and gear.  Clothes are purely visual and in my opinion a waste of money; at least early on as it is the gear that will enhance your gameplay with various abilities and power-ups.  Each sport has its own store with its own clothing and equipment, and as you earn XP and start to rise through the ranks new and better equipment will unlock for purchase.  XP will also unlock specialty events and challenges that will in turn reward you with more coins and XP.  Winning events will also earn you fans, which is the main way Kinect Sports Rivals tracks you on the leaderboards.   Just like the gear, fans and leaderboards are unique to each sporting event.

So, how about those events.   Here they are in order of their presentation along with their good and bad points.

Wake Racing is the first sport the coach will have you try and it’s also the one you are probably the most familiar with if you have been playing the Pre-season demo of the game that has been available since the Xbox One launched a few months ago.  This event totally reminded me of playing the Pod Racing game in Kinect Star Wars, as it has you reaching out with your hands grasping imaginary handlebars and moving your arms in and out to steer.  The new Kinect is able to track whether your hand is open or closed, allowing you to realistically apply the gas and let off as needed.  You can also combine sideways leans for sharper turns and forward and back leans to pull stunts off of the ramps and choppy waves.  Stunts will fuel your power-up meter and depending on your chosen ride you can periodically summon a Force Field, trigger a Speed Boost, or do a Mine Drop for any tailgaters.

Climbing is probably the biggest surprise in the collection; not only the fact that it was included but also that it works so well with one small caveat.   Depending on your Kinect setup you might need to rearrange some things, as this was the only game of the six where it was constantly losing tracking – mainly due to the fact that this is the only game where you are reaching way above your head, often out of normal sensor range.  Climbing can really wear you down, so stretch before playing as you will be making extreme reaching motions as you virtually grasp the various handholds on some impressively tall rock faces and other climbing surfaces.   Climbing does a fantastic job of tracking your open and closed hands as you climb up and sideways and even perform daring leaps to higher ledges.  You can even grab and yank your opponent off the wall.  Power-ups includes a Shock Shield to protect you from an opponent that is grabbing you, a Super Jump that can make you jump even higher, and a Blast Wave that sends out a shockwave to knock opponents off the wall.

Target Shooting is pretty clever and reminded me of a light gun game without the gun.  In this event you merely point your finger at the screen to aim the crosshairs and shoot the targets.  The trick here is that there are all sorts of targets, each with varied points, some with shields, some with small hit centers, skull targets that will deduct points, and numbered targets that must be shot in sequence.  To make things more challenging you are facing your opponent who is shooting similar targets on his own side of an invisible force field.  You can snipe his targets if they manage to rise above the wall and steal his points.  You can also activate a turret that will steal more points if it hits him, but he can fire a turret at you forcing you to quickly lean right or left to dodge the shots.  Power-ups include the self-explanatory Blind Fire, Target Bonus, and Gun Jammer.

Soccer is surprisingly fun considering how much they have condensed and simplified the sport down to pure offense and defense much like a Foosball table.  You start by kicking the ball downfield using realistic kicking motions to determine angle, direction, and lob.  Once you get the ball to the scorer you can then try to kick the ball into the net avoiding the goalkeeper or even try for a header.   The Kinect tracking for this is quite good, and it can be way too easy to get overly physical in this game, so don’t kick over a lamp doing a roundhouse into the side post.   When the ball is coming back to your end you are the goalkeeper and must anticipate and block any incoming shots.  Power-ups include Goal Shield that spawn two more guys to protect the net, Super Charge that improves your shots and can smash through defenders, and Time Steal that will shorten the opponent’s shot clock.

Tennis might just be my favorite game of the six as it offers the most realistic depiction of the sport it tries to mimic.   The Kinect is nearly flawless in its tracking as I toss the ball up with my left hand and crush it with my racket in the right.  Timing is critical to return the ball at just the right moment, but you can also add your own spin and direction on the shots.  I threw out my shoulder and elbow after two days of playing this event.  Power-ups like Energy Boost, Super Racket, and Disruptor Racket add some fun arcade goofs to an otherwise very serious and accurately represented sport.

Bowling is the only four-player game in the collection making it the big draw for parties but sadly, the game doesn’t play anything like the real sport.  No matter how hard I tried or what I did I could not put any type of spin on the ball.  I couldn’t even get the ball to travel across the lane at an angle.  This ultimately meant stepping very far to the left and throwing balls straight into the pocket.  While I was able to reliably exceed 200 points most of the time it just never felt like real bowling.  Playing in the story mode is just ridiculous as the computer was seldom scoring above 40-60 pins compared to my 200+ games.  The game also makes you watch the computer bowl but doesn’t show their pins going down – you watch them throw the ball and then it tells you how many they knocked down.  Power-ups for this game include Hand Switcher that forces your opponent to bowl with their opposite hand, Speed Bowl for a faster ball, and my favorite, Meteor Ball that supersizes your ball and leaves a smoking crater in the lane for the bowlers who must follow you.

faceingameThe presentation is fantastic with gorgeous graphics that make up the island venue that also serves as the rotating hub menu for all areas of the game.  The environments are excellent; especially the crystal clear water for the Wake Racing and the dizzying camera angles for the climbing.  The main characters for the story are nicely designed and have some amusing voice acting, but there really needs to be a skip button.  Perhaps the coolest thing is seeing myself (or my avatar) inserted into not only the game but some very cool pre-event cutscenes.   The audio is outstanding with a great selection of music that never gets stale, cool sound effects, and great environmental sounds.

Kinect Sports Rivals thrives on multiplayer so you will definitely want to download the Kinect Sports Rivals Hub from Xbox Live.  This is your one-stop destination for sharing images of your character as well as checking out leaderboards for all of the sports, issuing challenges to other players and seeing what challenges others have sent to you.  Your athlete exists in the Cloud, so he or she can be taking part in your friends’ games even when you aren’t online.  The game will create an AI based on your recorded play style, current rankings, and current equipment to create a competitive opponent.

For those who have been playing Kinect Sports Rivals Pre-season regularly there will be a lot of unlocked goodies waiting for you when you fire up the full game, and there is countless hours of fun waiting for anyone who wants to get more physical with their gaming.  While this might not be the party game we had hoped for there is still a lot of great party fun if everyone is willing to wait their turn.   I was slightly miffed that you can’t play as your avatar in Quick Play, but are forced to play as some random generic athlete.

There is virtually no end to the amount of fun you can have with Kinect Sports Rivals.  There is a steady progression of increasingly challenging events leading up to the Expert Unlocks and this spring there is going to be a World Championship culminating in a super-star showdown at San Diego Comic-Con.  Until then the Hub and the Rivals League will keep you motivated, as you make your way through all six League tiers, and you’ll definitely be breaking this game out every time somebody comes over.  There are still a few issues with the Kinect and a few annoying design decisions like repetitive, unskippable pre-event cutscenes, but when it comes to physically interacting with your game in a nice variety of sports, Kinect Sports Rivals is unrivaled.

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