Any prospective Kinect sports compilation has a rough road ahead of it: Kinect Sports set the bar pretty high, and so far no competitor has been able to get close. That's why it's so surprising that Winter Stars is actually quite good.
For starters, it's not just a mini game compilation like Big League Sports or its associates: events can last a few minutes at a time and often stick closer to their real-life counterparts than other titles. That's not to say you need to learn how to figure skate to get a gold medal, but it's good to see a game that doesn't imply your attention span is only 30 seconds long.
Winter Stars emphasises that with a story-led career mode, not something you often see in a Kinect title, and while the character models are decidedly ropey — don't look at their dead eyes — and some of the dialogue a little cheesy, the chance to get stuck into a career mode instead of a series of short-burst minigames is a welcome one. It's a fairly lengthy career too, with 16 cups to win, experience points to earn and upgrades to purchase, all helping to keep things moving.
But what of the events themselves? With 11 disciplines there's quite a lot of variety, from snowboard cross to biathlon and bobsled to figure skating. Before you take on a sport you can make your way through an interactive tutorial, telling you what to do and then asking you to prove it; you can skip these if you so wish, as each event is preceded by a quick refresher on the key movements, though most will be instinctive.
Of course the disciplines still vary in quality: figure skating is a scrappy mix of grace and jerky movements, and paraskiing isn't quite as smooth and graceful as the real thing. Biathlon impresses, the mixture of physical exertion in skiing and concentration when shooting managing to replicate the event's tension, with both qualities required to make it to first place. Skiing isn't quite as responsive as Kinect Sports: Season Two, particularly when crouching, but steering is instinctive and satisfactory, as is the snowboard event, an accomplishment as you stand side-on to the sensor. Overall the events here are more hit than miss, a welcome change from the patchy offerings of other titles.
While the single-player career mode will keep you going for a fair while, there's also a multiplayer mode to contend with, both local and via Xbox Live. While you might struggle to find a game online — we certainly did — it's good to see that there's the option to match up against other players through Live.
Graphically the game is passable without impressing that much, with some important details lacking: the bobsled throws up no ice when it rattles through the course, giving the impression it's hovering just above the ice's surface, and the dead look in your characters' enormous eyes is enough to put you off human contact. It's not terrible by any means, but it does look a little less appealing than we'd like.
Overall Winter Stars is a surprisingly enjoyable and well-rounded package: whereas other Kinect sports games settle for short minigames and achieve little, Winter Stars goes for something a bit more long-lasting and manages to hold your attention in the process. In terms of scope it's in line with controller-based games; that may be damning with faint praise, but Winter Stars is worth a look if you're eager for some chilly action.