It isn’t hard to picture the glee that must have filled the offices of Microsoft Studios when the deal to produce Kinect Star Wars was inked. Kinect has always been about removing barriers thrown up by physical controllers and letting players filful their fantasties, and what better advert for the tech than the tantalising opportunity to ‘be’ a Jedi Knight? It’s no exaggeration to say that this game represents Kinect’s biggest moment yet, both in commercial terms and in terms of player expectation. The fact that it fails to live up to the hype is both crushingly disappointing and depressingly predictable at the same time.
Less a cohesive whole and more a disparate collection of stand-alone mini-games, Kinect Star Wars makes no attempt whatsoever to stitch together a convincing narrative, or make use of the rich universe afforded to it by the lucrative licence. It clumsily pulls together fan favourite sequences — such as pod racing and lightsaber duels — and lumps them with all-new experiences, such as controlling a Rancor monster on a destructive rampage or dancing your way through famous scenes from the movies.
The glue that attempts to hold all of these elements together is a flimsy plot overseen by C3PO and R2D2; you are a Jedi master tasked by Luke Skywalker with exploring the dusty Jedi archive, and the resultant mini-games are apparently important documents drawn from the vaults for research purposes. It’s hard to believe that Yoda and his chums are in any way concerned with dance offs set to modern music, and the menu segments featuring the two droids end up feeling more like a hindrance than a help.
Of course, Kinect Star Wars was always going to succeed or fail on how well the mini-games played and how effectively they utilised Kinect’s unique features. The Jedi mode is arguably the centrepiece of the entire package, and was shown off extensively at last year’s E3. It looked ropey back then, but the prospect of getting to grips with a lightsaber made many fans hope for the best. Sadly, those hopes have been dashed like a Womp Rat on the front of a T-16 Skyhopper.
While it unquestionably feels cool to hold out your hand and use The Force to pull your lightsaber towards you during the initial training sequence, the actual gameplay is cripplingly limited. You’re expected to parry blows, push enemies away using your Force powers and generally leap around the environment. The issue here is one that has impacted many Kinect titles since the system first hit the market: a worrying lack of accuracy.
During these sections, it’s not uncommon for your gestures to be totally misinterpreted by the game, and even when your cautious swipes and pushes are recognised, the on-screen replication is slow and ponderous. Thanks to the lack of precision and abysmal lag, the lightsaber sections never permit you to add any finesse to your fighting style. Those dreams of replicating Obi-Wan’s balletic brawl with Darth Maul at the conclusion of The Phantom Menace evaporate pretty quickly after spending a few minutes in the company of Kinect Star Wars.
Pod Racing is slightly more forgiving, yet is still afflicted with control problems. Commanding your racer is actually quite straightforward; just like a real pilot, you push two levers (imaginary, in your case) forward to accelerate, and steering is achieved by pulling back the hand which relates to the direction in which you wish to turn. Where this portion of the game comes unstuck is gestures; to spice up the racing, the developers have included various distractions which keep you on your toes. Drive through a cloud of steam and your vision will be impaired by moisture on your goggles — this can be removed by making a swiping gesture in front of your face. Similarly, when rival racers send droids to sabotage your engines, you can bat them away with a flailing limb.
The problem here is that by making these gestures, your connection with the racing is broken and you no longer feel like you’re in control of your pod. To make matters worse, the game isn’t great at detecting perhaps the single most important gesture of all — the rapid movement of your arms to trigger your boost power. The final nail in the coffin is the fact that your pod is actually being guided by the game itself to a certain degree, Kinect Joy Ride-style; dropping your arms down mid-race illustrates this fact perfectly.
It’s ironic that the mini-games which take themselves the least seriously — Rancor Rampage and Galactic Dance Off — actually offer the least frustrating player experience when it comes to controls. The former is more fun than it has any right to be, as you stomp around various locations crushing buildings and gleefully picking up and chewing hapless humans.
The infamous dancing section has possibly attracted the most attention of all of the modes in Kinect Star Wars, and with good reason. Like an elderly relative grooving along at a birthday party, Galactic Dance Off feels wrong on so many levels, yet it works better than all the other mini-games in Kinect Star Wars put together — although that in itself isn’t much of an achievement. Clearly inspired by the brilliant Dance Central, this portion of the game does an above-average job of recognising your movements, and the spectacle of seeing Han Solo wipe the floor with old friend Lando Calrissian is one that old-school franchise fans will savour — even if they’re crying on the inside at the same time.
Much of Kinect Star Wars is sheer novelty, and you only need to spend a few hours with it to realise that there’s very little meat on the bones here. The mini games never become compelling enough for repeat play, and the dancing section — which is arguably the most engaging feature of the whole package — doesn’t actually stand up that well when you remove the characters and the licence. Even the presentation feels inconsistent; some sections look rough, while others — the Galactic Dance Off in particular — pack in loads of graphical detail. Another disappointment is that with the exception of Greg Proops, who provides the voice of the commentator in the Pod Racing section, all of the other voice parts are supplied by new actors, rather than those from the movies.
Ultimately, Kinect Star Wars can be seen as nothing more than a squandered opportunity. We’re used to bad Star Wars games now — heck, we’ve endured enough of them over the past two decades — but this one cuts especially deep, because it promised so much, yet delivers so little. Rather than provide the perfect advertisement for the technology, this awkward collection of totally detached mini-games merely highlights Kinect’s shortcomings.