Given the incredible commercial and critical response to the original Kinect Sports, it was inevitable that a sequel of some description would occur. What was slightly less predictable was the news that the legendary British code house Rare would be co-developing a follow-up with Kinect Joy Ride studio BigPark.
Despite the predictable misgivings fostered by some hard-line Rare fans, the union seems to have paid off handsomely. We were recently invited to Rare’s HQ – set in sprawling, idyllic English countryside – for a taster of the new events and play modes being offered up in Kinect Sports: Season Two. The day was packed with fun, surprises and – possibly most notably – plenty of sweat, grunts and competitive play.
The biggest news regarding this sequel is obviously the fresh events. Kinect Sports Season Two offers up new challenges that push the Kinect hardware more than ever, illustrating perfectly that the guys at both Rare and BigPark have become more and more adept at exploiting Kinect to its fullest.
One of the big advancements this time around is the introduction of voice commands within the game itself. In some events, the use is subtle; for example, in tennis you can shout ‘Objection’ to dubious line calls (sadly, no bonus points are dished out for performing a Phoenix Wright-style finger point), and in Skiing you can choose to start your run by shouting a command.
Elsewhere, speech becomes more powerful and intuitive. In Golf, you can beckon your caddy with a ‘Change club’ command, and select the appropriate tool with a further shout. American Football offers an even more involving experience; an ‘Audible’ bellow permits you to change the play on the fly, without any need to press a button or summon a menu via a gesture.
It’s clear that Rare and BigPark have been thinking an awful lot about how to make Kinect Sports Season Two more immersive than its predecessor. This is illustrated perfectly during the aforementioned Golf event; before taking a swing you can bring your hand to your brow and enter observation mode, where the camera swoops over the course showing you exactly what you’re aiming for. Similarly, when you’re on the green and weighing up the putt, crouching down gives you a worm’s eye view of the hole.
Rare and BigPark are clearly looking for other ways to break down barriers and use Kinect to tie the player even more strongly to the virtual world. During a single-player Darts game, half of the screen is devoted to showing your computer-controlled rival lining up their shot. Your avatar is stood in the background, and mimics your movements.
You can dance around in an effort to break your opponent’s concentration, and this results in an hilarious number of missing shots, followed by your fellow player turning around to remonstrate with your cheeky on-screen persona.
It’s hard to communicate just how much these little touches add to the experience; it’s something you have to witness for yourself to truly comprehend.
Kinect Sports Season Two also has more physical challenges ahead, too. Skiing is especially demanding, taking inspiration from Kinect Adventures with its jumping, leaning and ducking. American Football and Baseball offer moments of pause punctuated with bouts of frantic running as you attempt to make up yardage and reach first base respectively.
However, the game isn’t all about bold, aggressive movements. The developers have stated that they’ve moved beyond the broad, sweeping movements of the first game and have aimed to show off just how precise Kinect can be when it comes to small gestures. Darts – possibly the most unusual new addition to the roster – is all about the wrist.
It’s genuinely amazing the first time you experience how subtle arm movements are picked up on-screen, but what’s more striking is the scope for skill and the manner in which different play styles are accommodated.
You can choose to fling the dart quickly at the expense of accuracy, or you can pull your arm back to lock the target cursor. The latter method may seem like the one to go for, but even with the target locked there’s still the chance that your dart will miss its intended location due to the trajectory of your eventual throw - moving your arm in an arc-like gesture will result in a looping shot, for example.
Online play (both head-to-head and co-operative, depending on the event) is supported in Kinect Sports Season Two and is likely to prove just as addictive and compelling as it was in the original game. However, this time around it is accompanied by an asynchronous 'challenge' system similar to the Autolog seen in Criterion’s Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit. It’s possible to set a high score challenge which is then sent to a friend, allowing them to tackle it when they’re next online. They have to attempt to better your score in order to keep pride and dignity intact, and should they succeed then the revised challenge is batted back to you.
In an era where everyone seems to be going mad for online head-to-head or co-op play, this system is refreshing. It’s a cruel fact of modern life that not everyone has the chance to be online at the same time, and with Kinect Sport Season Two’s new challenge mode, you can interact with players on the other side of the globe; time differences mean nothing when you’re taking turns.
Despite the fact that they lack real-time competition, these score-based objectives remain just as compelling as their online equivalents. How can anyone ignore a challenge when pride is at stake?
Even if you’re ignoring online in favour of local or even solo play, each event in Kinect Sports Season Two offers an amazing amount of playability; for example, Golf is set over nine different holes, and depending on which difficultly setting you’re playing on, the hole can be found in a different location on the green each time.
When you add in the unpredictable nature of the wind (which is neatly represented by flowing, semi-transparent lines) it makes every single hole a new experience, no matter how many times you’ve played. To buttress this astonishing depth, Rare and BigPark have also included ‘activities’ based around each event. These take the core concept of each event and apply a fresh spin.
We weren’t able to sample many of the activities during our preview session but one we did try was an amusing take on the age-old knife-throwing circus act – an activity based on the Darts event. You’re presented with a rotating circular board with an absurdly-dressed mascot suspended in the centre. You have to use your darts (rubber-tipped this time – the mode’s lead designer commented that throwing proper darts at the on-screen characters would rob the game of its family-friendly rating) to pop a series of balloons dotted around the board before the time runs out.
As the activity becomes harder, the balloons get smaller and the board rotates faster. During the preview session this particular activity proved to be immensely popular, largely due to the potential for high score challenges.
There are probably a great many people out there who naively assume that the original Kinect Sports did everything that could possibly be done with Kinect – at least in the concept of sporting events. From what we’ve seen of this sequel, we can attest that such a view is entirely wide of the mark.
It would have been very easy for Rare and BigPark to simply take the gameplay mechanisms honed in the first game and apply them to new events, but what the developers have done is push the Kinect platform in exciting new directions.
Voice control is an oft-ignored feature of the hardware, but here it is used in a way that makes the games more immersive and ultimately more enjoyable. Events such as Golf and Darts also prove that Kinect is more than capable of picking up tiny movements, destroying the myth that motion control is all about swinging your arms about as aggressively as possible.
Kinect Sports was arguable the must-have Kinect title last Christmas, but with the exception of the dignity-sapping Dance Central, it could be said that it had the market all to itself. Its successor has more Kinect-ready titles to contend with, but on the evidence we saw during our pleasant visit to the Warkwickshire countryside, we’re pretty confident that Microsoft, Rare and BigPark have another commercial smash hit on its hands.