Admit it. The concept of a horse riding simulator isn’t instantly appealing. When you consider that the medium of video gaming allows us to explore unlikely fantasies and pretend to be characters we could scarcely dream of becoming in real life, it makes you wonder who in their right mind would want to step into the grass-soiled clothing of a professional jockey?
As ridiculous as it sounds, it’s clear that there’s a sizable market for this kind of game – in Japan, at least. Champion Jockey is based on a long-running franchise that's shifted countless units in the Land of the Rising Sun, and now we’ve had chance to sample the delights of this 360 version, we’re beginning to see why.
To say that Champion Jockey is the most exhaustive representation of the sport of horse racing we’ve ever seen isn’t actually much of an accolade, given that we’ve personally witnessed no other examples of the genre. However, even a person who is entirely indifferent to the notion of animals with diminutive Irishmen on their backs riding very fast over hedges can see that there’s a tremendous amount of depth on offer here; not only do you have individual race events and challenges, but also a fully-fledged career mode which follows your progress from rookie all the way up to the position of titular champ.
Indeed, the scope of the career mode is likely to be what keeps you coming back for more. It not only serves as a handy grounding in the mechanics of the game, but also offers the chance to get involved in some horse breeding, too.
The objective is to produce a thoroughbred capable of out-running the competition, but there’s more to it than just creating the most powerful steed. You’ll find that certain types of horses are better at certain courses, requiring you to keep a well-stocked stable and experiment with each breed. This aspect of the game is especially well-handled and highly addictive; it’s a genuine thrill to see a horse you’ve reared become a a potential Grand National winner.
When you’re actually on the back of one of these beasts, you’ll learn that Champion Jockey’s controls are equally deep and rewarding. Success in each race not only comes from finding the right rhythm and knowing when is best to give your horse an encouraging whip on the rump, but also understanding the personality and traits of your humble four-legged beast. The screen is packed with gauges and status messages, all of which give vital information on the current state of your steed. Riding the horse within an inch of its life as soon as the race commences is foolhardy, as your poor animal will almost certainly run out of stamina before the finish line is in sight.
Of course, the reason you’re reading this review is because Champion Jockey is one of an increasing number of games which purports to be ‘better with Kinect’. You’ve no doubt seen the chuckle-worthy promotion videos online showing an increasingly embarrassed Tecmo Koei employee demonstrating Champion Jockey’s Kinect-related powers. The good news is that the reality is just as amusing, if not more so. The bad news is that you’ll probably want to install some thick curtains in your living room, because you won’t want the outside world seeing you whip a nonexistant horse.
When played with Kinect, you have to adopt a riding stance with your hands held out in front, as if you are holding the reins of your virtual horse. Moving your arms forwards and backs simulates the gallop, and just as is the case with the pad interface, it’s vital that you match your arm gestures to the trot of the on-screen horse. Although it’s not required, it’s all too tempting to bend your knees in time with each movement, simulating the movement of the horse.
Turning is achieved by ‘tugging’ at the reins with one arm; pulling right will cause you to go right, pulling left will cause you to go left. There are numerous other commands to master — Kinect controls have six pages of different gestures within the game’s options menu — but the basics will get you through most races and will allow pretty much anyone to get up and have a go.
Amazingly, despite its accessibility, this method of control works very well indeed. The lack of a physical horse betwixt your legs robs it of some authenticity, although surely it’s only a matter of time before some savvy peripheral manufacturer releases an inflatable steed to accompany the game, but it’s one of those concepts that really benefits from the additional level of immersion that Kinect offers.
Unfortunately, like so many games that offer Kinect as an optional extra, the need to transition from pad to motion control is irksome. We also noticed that the Kinect sign-in system within the game is occasionally a little touchy: it sometimes takes several goes to actually get into a Kinect-controlled session, with the on-screen prompts repeatedly informing you that you need to move away from the sensor and come back again so it can verify you’re an actual human being.
Online and local multiplayer modes round off what is likely to be a very attractive package for horse riding fans, but we’re not entirely sure that outsiders will be sucked into the drama and tension of the professional jockey’s world. The career mode is packed with cutscenes featuring some toe-curlingly woeful dialogue spoken by characters so dashingly handsome it’s pretty clear that none of the development team have ever laid eyes on your typical ruddy-faced rider. Still, if you can penetrate this barrier then there is potentially weeks of gameplay on offer.
Champion Jockey is certainly one of those Kinct-ready titles that requires you to leave your self-esteem at the door. Despite the excruciating embarrassment on offer, the motion controls are reasonably intuitive once you master them, and when playing alongside a friend the entertainment levels skyrocket.
The Kinect controls are backed up by a robust career mode which digs surprisingly deep into the world of professional horse racing – the only question is how long such a world will hold your attention, should you not have the faintest interest in the sport itself. It’s also a shame that the developer didn’t have the guts to make this an entirely Kinect-driven affair, as we can’t imagine many people will want to experience this using the comparitively boring joypad setup.
Champion Jockey isn’t quite the sleeper hit we were anticipating then, but it still offers an interesting diversion from what we’ve seen on Kinect thus far. We can’t shake the feeling that the inevitable sequel will provide a more polished experience, but for now this is the closest thing there is to become a real jockey – assuming there’s anyone out there that actually holds onto such a dream, that is.