Xbox Kinect: the Wii's casual gaming, all dressed up

The new Kinect add-on for the Xbox 360 sounds like the future. It allows you to play video games without a controller, using fancy cameras and sensors to see where you are and what you're doing. It has microphones and voice recognition to hear your commands. It's like virtual reality, from the movies! It's the future! But is it any fun?

That's the main question, isn't it? A new gaming technology can be incredibly impressive and do things that have never been done before, but if it doesn't make games more fun, what's the point?

My experience with the Kinect was mixed. While the idea of a sensor knowing where you're standing and what you're doing has a lot of potential, Kinect has two main drawbacks at launch: the limitations of the sensor and the weak initial lineup of games.

Hello, Kinect? Are You There?

First, bugginess. Now, I live in New York City. I have an apartment, and while it's not tiny, it's also not a McMansion in the suburbs. My living room is big enough to fit all of my furniture comfortably, and I've never considered it small. It's certainly far from the smallest living room I've seen in the city.

But my living room is too small for Kinect to really work well. Microsoft says you should stand between 6 and 12 feet away from Kinect to get it to work properly. But if you want to play with two players, you need to be 8 feet away. I could only stand a little more than 6 feet away from the sensor, so I couldn't play with two players, severely limiting how I can play these games.

And even at close to the minimum distance, I was clearly too close for the Kinect to really work properly. Kinect Adventures has a minigame in which you're floating around, popping bubbles in space. The field of play has depth, with bubbles showing up in front of my character. In theory, I was supposed to move forward to pop them, but every time I did, the game stopped recognizing me. So even in Microsoft's safe distance range, I couldn't play some games.

Furthermore, the sensor often had trouble seeing me. During the initial setup, it took well over 10 tries to get it to see my face, despite the image on the screen (showing what the camera was seeing) clearly showing my face right smack-dab in the middle. During games, it would often pause and ask me to step back into the sensor's range, even though I hadn't moved at all.

In sum, dealing with the sensor could be incredibly frustrating at times. I was playing with the backs of my legs up against my couch, and I often felt like I was fighting with it to do what I wanted it to do.

Would the experience be different if I had all the space in the world and could stand 10 feet back? Certainly. But how many people have that much space? Buying a Kinect will require you to really measure your gaming space. If you live in a large home with a game room in the basement you're willing to dedicate to this, you're probably fine. But if you live in an apartment in a city, in a dorm room or if you just don't have a huge living room, you're not going to be getting what's advertised. And that's a serious chunk of the population. I think there will be a lot of disappointed kids on Christmas morning who hook up their new toy only to discover that their space just doesn't support it.

Jumpin' and Flailin'

But let's assume that you do have the space, you're willing to move your coffee table out of the way every time you want to play video games, and it's the optimal setup. What about the games?

The hardware comes packaged with Kinect Adventures, which is a set of minigames that have you hitting balls at targets, riding a raft, plugging leaks and the aforementioned floating around. The games are very simple, as are the graphics, and it tells you a lot about what this first generation of Kinect games are going to be: casual. Microsoft saw how many Wiis Nintendo sold on the back of Wii Sports, a collection of casual minigames, and it wants in.

This is most obvious with Kinect Sports, which is essentially a Wii Sports clone, albeit one with some different and new sports. But the core games are here: bowling, (table) tennis, and boxing. There's also track and field, volleyball and soccer. What's striking about this game is just how Wii-like it looks. Both it and Kinect Adventures use your Xbox Avatars as characters, much like how the Wii uses Miis as characters. The graphics are extremely simple, and if it weren't for the games being in HD while the Wii is stuck in SD, they could be mistaken for Wii games.

But are they fun? They're fun enough. Bowling feels imprecise, and I missed having a Wiimote for a bit more precision on my spins. Half the time I would go for a throw and nothing would happen, and when I did make a throw I felt like where it went was random. Table tennis is more fun, although not being able to play with another player due to the constraints of the sensor made it decidedly less fun than the Wii version.

Really, if you've played Wii Sports, you know what you're getting here: very simple games meant to be played with friends. It's going to be the same basic thing over and over again, with no real complexity. But because these games are really meant to be played with friends, the necessity of you having a large living room or game room is even more clear. After all, how long do you think you're going to be entertained by playing virtual bowling by yourself?

Kinect vs. Wii

There are definitely cool elements that elevate the Kinect above the Wii with these casual games. Being able to see your avatar match your every move onscreen is really cool. You can do things like raise your hands up over your head to get the crowd cheering before you go for a javelin toss, and just dancing around and moving your body and seeing the avatar match it is cool. The camera also takes pictures of you as you play and shows them to you at the end of a game, which is fun, although the pictures almost always turn out grainy, dark, and a little blurry.

But not having a controller also has a lot of drawbacks. There's a good reason controllers have lots of buttons: games need to know what you want them to do, and there are often lots of options.

Setting up the workout game Your Shape: Fitness Evolved requires you to create a profile. This includes putting in your weight using a couple of arrows that you need to raise your hand to manipulate. In the process of doing this, it accidentally confirmed an incorrect weight. Had I been doing this with a controller, I would have hit the B button, gone back, fixed it, and moved forward. With the Kinect, there was no clear way to go back or fix anything. You had an extremely limited number of things you could do, and you basically had to go along with what the game was doing rather than having control over it. Frustrating, to say the least.

The one game that showed the real potential of the Kinect beyond very basic casual games is Dance Central. Published by MTV games, it's the most polished game of the bunch of launch titles, and it actually looks like an Xbox 360 game rather than a Wii game that's been upconverted to high-def. It's essentially like music games such as Rock Band and Guitar Hero, but rather than use plastic instruments to play along with the music, you use your body to dance along with it. The game teaches you a boatload of specific moves and then senses how well you're doing them as it plays a number of songs.

It's a huge upgrade over older dance games like Dance Dance Revolution, which could only sense where you placed your feet. People playing DDR were doing something when they played, but it sure didn't look like dancing. Dance Central actually has you dancing, and it's pretty awesome. It's the only game that feels like it's using the Kinect to make a big step forward rather than just copying what the Wii has done.

On the one hand, Dance Central shows that the Kinect can power games that have more to them than Kinect Sports. But how many games can use your body movements to power all gameplay? This is a dancing game, so it makes perfect sense. But what about a shooter? An adventure game? A role playing game? A football game? A basketball game? A platformer? A flight sim? Sure, Dance Central is awesome, but it's a game with mechanics that are essentially custom-tailored for the Kinect. How many other genres will be able to use the hardware so well?

Summing Up

So, bottom line: should you get a Kinect? Well, it depends. The Kinect seems to be made for a very specific audience. First, it's for casual gaming, not hardcore gaming. If you're the type of person who bought an Xbox 360 for games like Modern Warfare, BioShock and Super Meat Boy, you're not going to find much to like in the initial lineup of Kinect games. Maybe down the line developers will figure out how to use the Kinect with more complicated games, but until that happens, save your money. It's certainly not a foregone conclusion that developers will integrate the Kinect with lots of games. After all, how many amazing Wii games can you think of that weren't made by Nintendo?

And if you are into casual games? Measure your living room. Really, you should have a good 12 feet of space between the front of your couch and the Kinect sensor. Any less, and you will be playing with your backs up against the couch or by yourself. You also should be cool with moving your coffee table every time you want to play, which can be a pain if you have a heavy coffee table and are playing alone.

On top of that, you'll need to be really sold on this controller-free way of playing compared to the controller-based motion gaming that Nintendo and Sony offer up. The cheapest Xbox 360 with Kinect included is $300. A Nintendo Wii, on the other hand, is $200. And that's the cheapest version of the Xbox, the one with a 4GB hard drive instead of the 250GB drive that comes in the $400 bundle. If you want to do anything but play casual games, you'll really want that larger storage drive. So if you really are just interested in casual games, the Wii is a cheaper option, even if it's more limited with its controller-based system and standard-def graphics.

So who is the Kinect for? Well, I think if you have a family with people who like to play casual games as well as people who want to play more serious games, the Kinect is a great option, provided you've got the room for it. It delivers a lot of the fun that Wii Sports popularized, and the Xbox 360 is still the best choice for hardcore gamers. But if you don't own an Xbox 360 already and don't have much interest in the first-person shooters, RPGs and action games that make up the bulk of its catalog, buying one just for the Kinect will probably leave you feeling a bit cheated.

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