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Kinect Sports Rivals proves the Xbox One Kinect still isn't serious gaming hardware

Kinect Sports Rivals is the game that should show off everything the Xbox One Kinect sensor can accomplish. It’s a first-party game, it offers a combination of sports that should be able to communicate the flexibility of the hardware and it’s a chance for Microsoft to show that it learned from the earlier mistakes of the first-generation Kinect.

We have a full review of the game ready if you want to look at the entire package — and the game does many things well — but the hardware, or quite possibly the software driving it, was not up to the task of producing a fun, working game.

I’m lucky enough to live in a house with a spacious living room, complete with hardwood floors and windows that let in plenty of natural light, but the sensor still complained about the lighting conditions. The hardware was able to accurately pick up my motions between 80 to 90 percent of the time and, while those numbers are a vast improvement from earlier Kinect games on the Xbox 360, the number of errors was still way too high for the Kinect to position itself as a reliable gaming device.

Widespread issues

I went looking to see if I was the only person with this issue; it was possible there was something about my living room or house in particular that gave the Kinect trouble. It turned out issues with precision were widespread.

"When it worked, getting the timing right and scoring a goal in soccer was exhilarating. But I wanted to throw my Kinect out the window every time my arm mysteriously bent akimbo instead of making a crucial save," our review stated. "Even after I recalibrated my Kinect multiple times and rearranged most of the furniture in my apartment to get the best results, I encountered the same problems over and over."

"The new Kinect sensor still struggles to operate smoothly in a modest living room space"

Other outlets also had issues with the soccer game. "The problem is that even with a calibrated Kinect in a spacious room, several of my kicks completely missed, and it felt like it wasn’t my fault," IGN’s review stated. "It's frustrating when I just want to kick a ball, but my character's on-screen legs are flailing around like limbs possessed. Other sports perform so well, it’s surprising that this one is so unreliable."

My issues with imprecise controls and random movement in the target shooting game were also shared by others.

"Some targets need to be shot in sequence, and other targets have skulls on them; hitting these costs you points. Even if this worked perfectly, pointing at a screen would hardly be a thrilling way to spend your time, but it doesn't work perfectly," GameSpot wrote. "Crosshairs sometimes jitter around, which is a big problem in an event that's supposed to be entirely about precision."

Other reviews noted more widespread issues. "The Kinect interruptions are frequent enough to be frustrating: At least one motion in each game was broken or at least inconsistent," Joystiq said. "In tennis, Kinect had trouble sensing quick dives to return the volley. In soccer, the on-screen goal kick lagged behind the real-life swing. In multiplayer target shooting, the pointed-finger reticles jittered around, making it difficult to get a bullseye."

One more, for the road. "...despite the impressive degree of accuracy it demonstrates, the new Kinect sensor still struggles to operate smoothly in a modest living room space, occasionally missing or misinterpreting actions and inevitably leading to frustration," CVG's review said.

This is bad news. If Microsoft itself can't get its hardware functional enough to power the sort of sports minigames that Nintendo made popular when the Wii launched in 2006, developers who want to create more ambitious gaming experience don't have a chance.

Moving forward

It's not that the game isn't fun; the climbing minigame by itself would make a fun download or an inexpensive purchase, but the number of times I lost an event due to the hardware's inability to sense my movements was frustrating. I fought the camera more than I was fighting the opponents, and that's the definition of a troubled control scheme.

This is the sort of thing that should be great for households with children, but trying to get the kids to stand in the optimal range of the sensor while explaining the sort of controlled, deliberate movements the camera needs for the games to function feels like herding cats. Kids want to play and move around, and the Kinect can only deal with that sort of interaction in an incredibly narrow way. Kids will find more frustration than fun, and that's a shame.

The new Kinect works better than the original hardware, but it's still not good enough for the sort of precise, casual fun this game wants to deliver. If an interaction as simple as holding your arm out and aiming at a target doesn't functional properly, I'm scared of what's going to happen when someone has to model the act of actually pulling a trigger.

First-party games have a responsibility to show the way forward, to really sell the capabilities of the hardware. Microsoft has set the high-water mark for Kinect games, and sadly it's left at "just barely good enough."

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