Is this the killer title Kinect’s been waiting for?
Much to my chagrin, Kinect Sports Rivals (KSR) was one of the highly-anticipated launch titles that saw its release date slip. As a result, for the few months following the console’s launch, Microsoft’s much-heralded all-seeing Kinect camera had no choice but to spend most of its time watching me attempt a few Xbox Fitness routines and do little more than yelling at zombies or urging my legionnaires to fire arrows on the rebel horde.
After two iterations of Kinect Sports on the Xbox 360 and countless DLC addons, Kinect Sports Rivals is Rare’s first foray onto Microsoft’s next gen console and blends some familiar events with all-new sports, only possible with the enhanced technical wizardry of the new hardware.
Within seconds of booting up, a voiceover from a very enthusiastic David Tennant (of Doctor Who fame) leads you through a brief tutorial to create your very own virtual you. Gone are those cartoony-looking avatars of before; this time round, clever face scanning tech scrutinizes your every crease and crevice to recreate your visage with unnerving accuracy. A few menus allow tweaks to be made, such as adjusting eye colour, facial hair, adding glasses and so on.
"KSR’s matchmaking pits you against others of similar or slightly higher skill level to encourage constant improvement. It’s all very effective and means you’re always going to be pushing yourself a little more to come out victorious."
However, my experience with this was a little hit and miss. It’s undeniably clever but my caricature didn’t really look much like me (I was given a full beard after scanning despite being clean shaven!). I didn’t fare much better after a few attempts at rescanning either, even in different lighting conditions etc… The scans of the family and friends I dragged in front of the camera also produced some mixed results, although there were some that were eerily accurate. Still, it certainly adds to the experience and improves on those avatars of games past.
Once you’ve gurned a few times at the screen and are happy with your digital doppelganger, you’re ready to take on allcomers and become the ultimate champ. And boy, does KSR bring out your competitive streak!
In single player, you soon get to pledge your allegiance to one of three very different teams – Eagle Legion, Wolf Clan or Viper Network – before facing off with other players and teams around the globe in a bid to fight your way to the top of the leaderboards. Alternatively, you can dive straight into any event with friends locally through the Quick Play option.
KSR’s matchmaking pits you against others of similar or slightly higher skill level to encourage constant improvement. It’s all very effective and means you’re always going to be pushing yourself a little more to come out victorious. What’s more, “Xbox One Living Games technology” matches you against your digitized friends even when they’re offline, meaning you’ll be playing against them rather than generic AI.
"Rare says Kinect offers three times more fidelity and 10 times more power than its predecessor, which effectively means that it’s not only your limbs that are now detected but your fingers, hands and head movements too."
On to the six sports then, and KSR offers a pretty decent mix that offers something for everyone. Old hands at the Kinect Sports series will recognise soccer, tennis and bowling – although these have all been overhauled to accommodate the increased fidelity of the new camera. Besides the fact Kinect is now far more accurate, it now spots intricate wrist movements and hand clenching, for example. You really do feel like you’re more in control than before, able to put some wicked spin on your shot when bowling or power that return shot in tennis.
Rare says Kinect offers three times more fidelity and 10 times more power than its predecessor, which effectively means that it’s not only your limbs that are now detected but your fingers, hands and head movements too. Simple things prove really impressive, like outstretching your arm and making a grabbing motion to pick up a bowling ball, and then watching it fall to the ground as your unclench your hand.
Bowling is a firm favourite, guaranteed to consume countless hours of your life and perfect for local play. It’s so much more than simply grabbing a ball and hurling it down the lane to knock down a few pins; you’ve now got to factor in wrist spin, stance, follow through and power. A few successful shots later and power-ups become available: faster bowls, powerful meteor balls that leave a crater in the floor or the ability to force opponents to bowl with their other hand. It all works fantastically and is just as good as heading out to a real bowling alley – you don’t even have to wear unfashionable footwear!
"I found Soccer (or football!) a bit of a slow burner, given that like the version in Kinect Sports there’s no requirement to jog round a virtual pitch or foul the opposition. It all seems a little more reminiscent of fussball or table football, with a few teammates in the distance surrounded by side-moving defenders."
Tennis needs little by way of explanation but feels far more realistic this time round. In fact, the additional accuracy certainly makes it far more involving as timing, positioning and the type of shot all require an element of skill. The power-up of note is the Disruptor Racket, which rewards your rival with a diminutive racket and makes it far harder to play.
I found Soccer (or football!) a bit of a slow burner, given that like the version in Kinect Sports there’s no requirement to jog round a virtual pitch or foul the opposition. It all seems a little more reminiscent of fussball or table football, with a few teammates in the distance surrounded by side-moving defenders. Side-footed or lofted shots determine the power and height of a kick, and you can influence the direction and aftertouch too – and it’s all against the clock. There’s certainly more to this version than its predecessor, and strategically the fact you can energise shots, deflect them and counterattack, certainly makes this a grower. But I’d suggest this isn’t as instantly accessible as the other sports on offer.
New to the lineup then are wake racing, rock climbing and target shooting.
Wake racing will undoubtedly be familiar to the majority of Xbox One owners given that it was one of the few ways to put the camera through its paces at the console’s launch last November. The water-based racing was the sole event available through Rare’s Kinect Sports Preseason trial.
"In fact, so adept was I at scaling cliff faces and vertically-suspended ships that I managed to climb the global league tables to a lofty 14th place… admittedly this was playing a review copy against only a handful of people in advance of the game hitting the shelves, but it still felt like an achievement! And that’s the point of this game – there’s a real desire to compete and be the best."
Playable standing or seated, a simple fist clench is picked up by the all-seeing camera and makes your jet ski accelerate. Relax your fingers and open your hand up to come to a stop. Simply outstretching your arms and steering as you would a bike changes your direction and leaning further to one side makes tight turns possible. A lean backwards or forwards allows some cool flips to be pulled off when driving over ramps or more extreme waves.
The undulating waters and hazards such as mines and moored boats combine nicely with the unscrupulous competitors who will do their utmost to beat you to the finish line. Power ups help them on their way, allowing them to deploy mines, protect themselves with a shield, or activate a temporary speed boost. Great fun and visually, it looks fantastic – especially the water effects.
Grabbing and pulling gestures are the name of the game in the climbing events as you negotiate perilous ascents while rivals try to snare a trailing leg and pull you down. Climbing is arguably one of the sports that best showcases the advances made by Kinect since its last incarnation. This was among my favourite games – especially when played alongside a friend – the tension mounting as you try to accelerate up the wall, all the time keeping an eye on your stamina level to ensure you don’t tire.
If you’re grabbed by a rival, a quick jump frees you from their clutches… although you’ve got to remember to grab the wall again or you’ll plunge to your fate below. There’s nothing more satisfying than storming to the summit having pulled back your rivals and taken the lead. Watch out for those damn grips that give off an electric shock though!
In fact, so adept was I at scaling cliff faces and vertically-suspended ships that I managed to climb the global league tables to a lofty 14th place… admittedly this was playing a review copy against only a handful of people in advance of the game hitting the shelves, but it still felt like an achievement! And that’s the point of this game – there’s a real desire to compete and be the best.
"Of the three Kinect Sports titles, I probably felt less physically drained after playing Rivals; there doesn’t seem to be as much movement or exertion required, which is a bit of a shame for those trying to justify this purchase for exercise purposes."
For me, shooting was initially the trickiest of all the sports – not because of its complexity but the concentration that was needed. Simply holding your arm out and pointing your finger as though holding a gun is all you really need to remember controlwise, but having eagle eyes and lightening quick reactions makes this a devilishly tough event. Play for any period of time and I’ll wager your arm will start to ache too…
Numbered, coloured and timed targets appear onscreen to shoot, while a turret – controlled by your rival – occasionally unleashes projectiles that need to be dodged by sidestepping. The concept is simple: gain a higher score than your opponent over a few progressively difficult rounds. Power ups – activated by calling out the relevant instruction for Kinect to pick up or stamping your foot – include a handy gun jammer, blind fire – which covers up your opponent’s targets and a bonus mulitplier to supplement your scoring.
After each event, a summary screen celebrates your achievement and rewards you with coins (to spend in the online store – to upgrade costumes and kit), XP and fans – increasing your fame rating and unlocking events and so on. At any time you can access the Kinect Sports Hub and share pictures of your champion with the wider community, take part in challenges and events, or check out the global- or friend-based leaderboards.
Finally here’s a title that can show off the enhanced abilities of Kinect and the improved accuracy is quite remarkable. The camera still has its foibles, however – occasionally getting confused and still requiring a decent amount of play space, while the voice commands to access the power ups can be a little temperamental – but many of the issues of past games seem to have been addressed.
I can’t help but feel that six sporting events is a still little miserly for a full-priced purchase but I’d imagine there’s plenty of scope for add-ons and DLC after launch.
Of the three Kinect Sports titles, I probably felt less physically drained after playing Rivals; there doesn’t seem to be as much movement or exertion required, which is a bit of a shame for those trying to justify this purchase for exercise purposes. Most games simply require one or both your arms to be outstretched for sustained periods – which can be a little uncomfortable after a lengthy gaming session (wake racing and target shooting are the worst offenders).
Still, each event is fun to play and there’s plenty to keep you coming back for more. Kinect Sports Rivals is the first game to properly show off the potential of the new Kinect and, as ever, Rare has produced a great game to play alone or with friends.
This game was reviewed on Xbox One.
Matchmaking is well done, pitting you against equally-skilled rivals. Events are varied – combining a few re-imagined favourites with all-new sports. Kinect performs really well, with the extra accuracy making a noticeable difference.
Sadly, only six sports included – and we’ve seen three of them before. Kinect can still be a little temperamental, occasionally having trouble picking up multiple players.
Dust off Kinect, do some stretches and get ready to compete. Kinect Sports Rivals makes you pleased to own the motion controller.