Despite posting impressive sales figures and delivering some engaging titles, Kinect has arguably struggled to find that elusive ‘killer app’ that is capable of convincing both casual and hardcore gamers of its worth. While the original Kinect Sports was a fantastic grounding in Microsoft’s brave controller-free world, it was clearly a case of a developer carefully exploring what is possible, rather than pushing boundaries.
Thank goodness then for the industry’s love of sequels. Kinect Sports: Season Two is no exercise in experimentation; it’s a game that feels assured and genuinely takes Kinect gaming to the next level, managing to harness all of its possibilities — including the oft-ignored voice control element.
Season Two features six brand-new sports, some of which might be surprising to those of you who honed your skills on the original. The obvious ones are American football, tennis, golf and baseball. However, there’s also skiing and darts, two pastimes that come straight out of left-field but end up being just as addictive and compelling as the others.
American football is one event that is going to be popular with US-based players, and focuses wisely on the role of the quarterback. It mixes throwing with running, and works well when played co-operatively. Another American favourite is baseball, which again manages to combine brisk running with stationary bat-swinging action.
Tennis plays exactly how you’d expect it to, although the on-screen replication of arm movements means that it mercifully avoids the fate of the Wii Sports equivalent, which could easily be spammed just by flicking your wrist.
Golf is one event we were initially unsure about, giving the generally sedate pace of the real-life sport. However, in a surprise twist it actually ends up being one of the package’s most alluring and captivating elements, and boasts so much depth and complexity that it could easily constitute a stand-alone release. Immersion is at the forefront, with gestures such as bringing your hand to your forehead (to get a bird’s eye view of the course) and crouching down (to judge the putting distance on the green) really bringing the experience to life.
Golf also shows how voice control can be thoughtfully introduced into games. Using speech commands you can bark instructions at your virtual caddy and switch clubs before taking a swing. This manifests itself in other events, such as calling the snap in American football or objecting to the umpire’s decision in tennis.
Downhill skiing feels very much like an event taken from system pack-in title Kinect Adventures, but that’s not an entirely bad thing in itself. It’s a sport which requires plenty of room space and lots of jumping, and is one of the more challenging sections of the game.
Darts is possibly Kinect Sports: Season Two’s most controversial inclusion. While many will argue that it’s not really a sporting pastime in the strictest sense of the word — when did you last see a thin darts player? — it adds an additional dimension to the game. As you might expect, there’s little physical exercise in darts, at least not when compared to the other events in this package. Despite the general lack of bodily movement, it nevertheless shows just how drastically the large, exaggerated gestures used in the first game have been toned down here: darts requires delicate, almost dainty movements, and the fact that the sensor is able to pick out the most subtle twist of the wrist is stunning.
Each sport offers enough variety to keep solo players contented, and health-conscious individuals will love the fact that the game keeps track of how many calories you’ve burnt off during your current session, as well as your all-time total. However, the party doesn’t really hit full swing until you investigate the impressive range of multiplayer options.
Local modes are supported for those with especially spacious living rooms, and online play is also possible. However, it’s the asynchronous ‘Challenge’ feature that’s almost guaranteed to soak up the vast majority of your time. Using this mode, you can set high-score challenges across Xbox Live by playing an event, recording a score and then submitting it to your friend, who then attempts to better your achievement.
The beauty of this system is that players don’t need to be online at the same time. You can send a challenge to someone on the other side of the world, and they will respond when they next switch on their machine. Although there’s no denying that Kinect Sports: Season Two has longevity in its other modes, the addition of this Challenge feature could potentially push its lifespan into the stratosphere.
The presentation of the the game is typically high, hardly a shock when you consider the experience and talent of those involved in its production. Kinect Sports: Season Two pulls in your avatar character, granting an even greater connection with your on-screen achievements. Visually, the light-hearted 3D visuals look fantastic, and while we’re loathe to make the comparison, you get the impression that a HD version of Wii Sports wouldn’t look a million miles away from this.
If we were to lay any criticism at the feet of Kinect Sports: Season Two, it would be that occasionally the game struggles to pick out certain movements. This is more apparent in tennis than in other events, purely because the game is having to quickly track the position and direction of your arm in relation to the ball. Because you can switch from a backhand to a smash in a heartbeat, it’s perhaps unsurprising that Kinect sometimes becomes confused. Once you adapt your motions to suit the game, this issue is swiftly forgotten.
As any perfect sequel should, Kinect Sports: Season Two takes the core concept of its predecessor and refines, augments and improves it. While some may feel annoyed that the original events haven’t been included, the six new sports offer a wide mixture of different styles, moving from the intense running of American football and baseball to the more laid-back approach of golf and darts. It certainly can’t be said that the game lacks variety.
We’re also very impressed with how the developers have enhanced the controls; for once, Kinect feels just as happy picking up bold, sweeping movements as it does acknowledging smaller, less exaggerated gestures. Baseball and darts couldn’t be more different when it comes to the movements involved, and this just goes to show how well Rare and BigPark know the hardware. The addition of voice control is also a bonus; it could be argued that it’s a throwaway inclusion, it adds another layer of immersion to the game.
As much as we loved the original, there was a feeling that it would take another year before we really got the Kinect Sports game we all hoped for. Thankfully, that gut instinct has proven to be entirely correct; Kinect Sports: Season Two is bigger, bolder and even more enjoyable than its illustrious forerunner, making it arguably the title of choice for Kinect players this holiday season.