Kinect for Xbox breaks new videogame ground

22 Nov

November 22, 2010

By Geoff Meeker

In July of 2009, I told you about Project Natal, the first videogame that doesn’t use a controller. It was still in development at the time, and ‘Natal’ was just a working title, but clearly the peripheral – a Microsoft product – had the potential to revolutionize the game industry.

Back then, the Wii had pioneered motion-sensitive game play, with a handheld controller that recognized player’s physical movements and incorporated them into game play.

However, based on the previews I saw, Project Natal was going to knock the Wii on its proverbial butt. The Wii controller was held in one hand, and was thus limited in the movement it could detect. The new device, however, deployed a full body sensor, recognizing movement of every major joint in the body, and accurately reproducing those movements through an on-screen avatar.

Well, Project Natal became Kinect, a peripheral for Xbox 360, released on November 4.

Coincidentally, our old Xbox 360 was giving up the ghost – a perfectly valid excuse, er, reason to buy the new Xbox, with 250 Gb hard drive, Kinect, and a free game, for $399.

Yes, they are expensive toys.

Knowing the free game was probably more of a demo, with some cutesy activities for all ages, I also picked up ‘Fighters Uncaged’, a kickboxing game that would test Kinect’s responsiveness, while giving a good workout.

The Kinect is easy to use. You plug it into the Xbox, and it does the rest, coaching you through a brief set up process. You control the game by using your hand as a cursor, positioning it over various game play options, or through voice command, which works surprisingly well.

You need to stand about six to eight feet from the screen, in order for Kinect to function effectively, so you need a large room. Seriously – this game requires a lot of space. I had to rearrange my rec room, just to get it to work. If you live in a small apartment or dorm room, don’t bother!

The free game, called Kinect Adventures, is a good introduction to the technology. It has you jumping, dodging, grabbing, spiking, ducking, blocking, and more. It would be great fun at a party.

Comfortable with the game interface, I moved on to something more challenging: the fighter game. And I have to say, I am sorely disappointed. I found more things wrong than right with the game. You stand ‘behind’ your avatar, which is transparent, enabling you to see your opponent’s moves. When you punch or kick, your avatar does too – except that, much of the time, it kicked when I punched, or vice versa, resulting in a major disconnect from the game. Sometimes, there was a lag between my punch and the avatar’s response. And it was difficult to gauge the distance between the two fighters.

Some of it, no doubt, would improve with practice. But mistaking a jab for a kick? Sorry, that’s not on. And I blame the game, not the machine, since the other title tracked my actions flawlessly.

Yeah, of the dozens or so games available for Kinect, I bought the wrong one. There are some good ones, and Dance Central – by the people behind the Rock Band franchise – has been getting rave reviews. If you are into dancing, it’s fun, great exercise and teaches some useful dance moves.

This technology is still new and works very well, but is it going to revolutionize the videogame industry? I don’t think so. At least, not yet.

With Kinect, game play is confined to a small area. Generally speaking, the action is linear – it comes to you, and you react. You can’t rush off and explore a ‘world’ the way you would in Call of Duty, Assassin’s Creed or Left for Dead.

This might explain why my boys, aged 16 and 18, show little to no interest in Kinect. The gaming experience is different, but not necessarily better. They want mystery-solving, shoot ‘em ups, and zombie-slaying action.

Kinect adds an important new dimension to the videogame experience, and will knock the Wii from its motion-sensitive throne. However, it is better suited for children 12 and under, who are more likely to enjoy the physical action, and adults, who want a fun way to exercise.

Geoff Meeker is a communications consultant with a soft spot for technology. He also writes a blog about the local media scene, which is hosted at www.thetelegram.com.

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