CHARLESTON, W.Va. — It’s no secret that Microsoft thinks very highly of Kinect. After all, why else would the console maker package a Kinect sensor bar with the Xbox One if it didn’t feel strongly about the potential of the redesigned motion-sensing peripheral?
The early days of Xbox One, however, have shown little of what the new and improved Kinect is capable of, outside of helping navigate the various screens of the Xbox One dashboard with its impressive voice recognition capabilities. From a gaming standpoint, the Xbox One launch lineup didn’t exactly push Kinect to the forefront, with the exception of the obligatory dance and fitness games.
“Kinect Sports Rivals,” the sequel to one of the Xbox 360’s most enjoyable Kinect games, changes all of that. With a collection of activities designed to not only provide players with some exciting co-op gaming opportunities, but showcase the true power of the new Kinect, “Rivals” delivers the kind of fun, frenetic motion-based gaming experience that validates Microsoft’s faith in its fancy add-on.
Before jumping into the action, “Kinect Sports Rivals” performs a body and facial scan that helps it create an in-game avatar that is a reasonable-albeit-stylized facsimile of the player. After being unimpressed with a similar gimmick on the original Kinect sensor, I was pleasantly surprised by the results here. After further customizing my avatar with a pair of glasses and a new haircut, I was ready to begin.
I had hoped to jump right in with my avatar into a spirited game of tennis, but instead I was put through a series of jet ski racing tutorials. One of the new additions to “Rivals,” this event shows how sensitive the camera within the new Kinect is as it interprets gestures as subtle as opening and closing your hands, which is how you accelerate on your water craft. The same gestures are used in the new rock climbing game, in which you reach up with an open hand to grab a ledge, close your hand and pull down to lift your body up. The controls are incredibly intuitive — something I rarely said about any first-gen Kinect game — and most important, the Kinect was consistently able to detect my movements.
After getting acquainted with the wave runner course, the island playground that serves as the backdrop for “Rivals” opens up, allowing you to partake in any of the various events. Other games include bowling, tennis, soccer, target shooting and water skiing. Tennis and bowling are, unsurprisingly, the highlights as the Kinect is adept at tracking fine movements like the turn of your wrist when applying spin to a bowling ball or hitting a slice on the tennis court.
As a single-player game, the goal here is to simply climb up the global leaderboards. But “Kinect Sports Rivals” hits its stride when you invite a friend to join the action. Tennis and rock climbing are the standout multiplayer events, even though the Kinect did struggle somewhat keeping track of two players flailing away with virtual tennis rackets. Still, despite the occasional misstep, the good far outweighed the bad during my experience — again, something I hardly ever said about any first-gen Kinect game. The rock climbing game provided the most fun as I raced up the side of a climbing wall, keeping one eye out for my next hand hold and the other on my opponent, who could grab my avatar’s ankle and pull me off the wall, sending me back to the bottom. It made for some extremely fun and extremely tense moments that the original “Kinect Sports” never began to approach.
With any luck, “Kinect Sports Rivals” is only the tip of the iceberg where the new Kinect is concerned. The power of the device is unquestioned, but developers still seem to be struggling to find ways to incorporate that power into the framework of traditional Xbox One games. Hopefully with more time, that will change. Because as “Kinect Sports Rivals” shows, there’s plenty of potential inside that little black box.
“Kinect Sports Rivals”
Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
Available for: Xbox One ($59.99)
Rating: E for everyone