To say that Kinect Sports Rivals is a high-profile title for Xbox One would be something of an understatement. Being the only game (barring the violently bad Fighter Within, which barely passes as a game) available that’s been designed for the much-maligned Kinect device that’s included with every console, people were looking to developers Rare to come up with something that persuaded gamers that Kinect was still relevant, and that including the sensor in the box was a worthwhile move. Everyone was looking for the game to be the console’s version of Wii Sports – a title that arguably single-handedly pushed the original Wii into the stratosphere, sales-wise. On the back of two relatively solid Xbox 360 versions of the title that more or less successfully worked around the limitations of the first iteration of the Kinect hardware, there was no reason for missed steps.
Kinect Sports Rivals gives you the ability to take part in wake racing, rock climbing, and target shooting events, as well as taking to the soccer pitch or tennis court, or going to knock down a few pins at the bowling alley. As is always the case, some of these games work better and have been more comprehensively thought out than others, but the main problems that crop up in Kinect Sports Rivals aren’t with the events themselves, generally. Rather, they’re with the game’s interface.
You start out by using the much-ballyhooed Champion Creator to create the stylized version of yourself that will be used during your time in the game. David Tennant talks you through putting your face in the right place to be scanned, and tilting your head about so that Kinect can get all the data it needs to recreate you in-game. Then, the game creates your model with the apparent possibility of billions of combinations. We’re not sure if we’re just unlucky, or whether our two test subjects are secretly long-lost brothers, but the first two characters we created were absolutely identical, barring the fact that one of them was wearing glasses. In real life, one of them has a ginger beard, which was rendered in the same way as our first tester’s five-o’clock shadow, and tester two’s mousey brown mid-length wavy hair was deemed to be the same as tester one’s six-inch-high jet black spikes. Not the best start, if we’re honest.
You can tweak your champion to correct issues such as this, but that’s hardly the point.
Once you’ve created your character, you need to take part in training events for each of the available sports. The training involves watching a series of unskippable tutorial movies featuring your Coach, as he barks and bellows his way through controls that will be somewhat obvious to most. If you’ve got a bit of local multiplayer going on, secondary players have to switch to being the lead profile in order to change costumes or equipment, or to buy things from the in-game store with their earned coins. This leads to much switching and back-and-froing when there’s more than one person around.
Other local multiplayer issues are abound, too. Using a 10ft wide by 8ft long space in front of our Kinect sensor, two people couldn’t play rock climbing without the game losing the plot. At one point, it switched control of the two players mid-event. A second attempt saw the first player not being able to climb as the game couldn’t recognise that he had closed his hand to grip a hand-hold. Soccer is just as rough with two players. One takes a shot, the other has to save it. The amount of space you need in order to be able to reach the corners of the goal as a goalkeeper means that you’ll be running into each other all day long.
But, single players or players who fancy taking their game online are generally well served by Kinect Sports Rivals. An XP system that isn’t just a number next to your name (as was the case in previous titles) works well enough in providing new equipment and power ups as you play through and build up your champion’s fanbase - even if all the metrics are somewhat overbearing at times. You’ll be forced to watch unskippable cutscene after unskippable cutscene if you’re to play through the game’s single player mode though, all featuring the thoroughly unlikable members of the three teams that make up the cast of the game – Eagle Legion, Viper Network, and Wolf Clan. When you consider that the loading times between events vary from barely acceptable to utterly atrocious – we clocked nearly a minute and a half between pressing “play again” and being asked to raise our arm to indicate that we were ready when retrying a rock climbing challenge - forcing you to watch a minute-long cutscene before and after an event seems a little harsh.
But if history proves anything, it’s that excellent gameplay can pretty much usurp any structural problems that rear their heads. So, let’s break the sports down one-by-one…
Kinect Sports Rivals Soccer is strange, in that it takes away a lot of the movement and skill that was required to do well in the soccer game that was featured in the original Kinect Sports. When attacking, the only skill you need is timing, as defenders are robotic and stuck on paths that occasionally puts them in the way of the ball. You have to get the ball to your striker before the shot clock runs out, and then kick or head the ball past the keeper. When defending, you just need to wait until the opposing team takes a shot, and then save the ball as the goalkeeper (or punch it away to start a rapid counter-attack, which we could not get to work even once, despite many, many tries.)
It feels watered down and lazy compared to the first game in the series, and that’s because it is. The timing indicator when shooting is off, and you feel like you can pretty much just lazily swing your leg a few times and score a goal. The challenge intensifies as you unlock matches in stadiums featuring faster defences, but it still isn’t a massive amount of fun.
Target shooting is an event that sounds like it should be dull, but actually isn’t. All you do here, is point your hand like a gun, and aim at targets as they appear. Your opponent is facing you on the other side of the field, and a blast shield prevents you from hitting each other. Targets that lose you points, or that need to be hit in numerical order provide an extra challenge above and beyond being the fastest on the draw. Simple and fun, but with some nice twists that’ll keep you coming back for more. This works and is a great addition.
This is going to be a little hit-and-miss for some. On our first go-round, we hated it and swore up and down that it just didn’t work. We would grab for a hand-hold, pull ourselves up, and fall down. Then we’d grab the next one, and it would work. Then we’d fall down again. What you need to bear in mind whilst playing, is that you aren’t just controlling your reaching hand. If you let go of the hold that you have with your trailing hand, you’re going to fall as you’re not holding on to anything! It sounds obvious, but we’ve had a few people through to give it a test and they all had the same issue out of the gate.
Once you get used to the fact that the event actually works something like real life, you’ll find it to be challenging and rewarding. The local multiplayer issues that we mentioned are definitely a downer, but the different – and downright tricky – courses and ability to set and beat rival times will keep this one in the rotation for a good while. Great stuff.
This is identical to the version that everyone’s been playing for free in Kinect Sports Rivals Preseason, barring a couple of handling tweaks. That is to say that it works absolutely flawlessly and is great fun. The new more challenging courses are exactly that, and anybody that even cracked a smile whilst playing the free version will love it. Responsive, accurate, and awesome - wake racing is the absolute best event of the six, by far.
Tennis in Kinect Sports Rivals is surprisingly deep and rewarding, but could use a little polish. Drop shots, lobs, topspin shots and backspin shots can all be played based on how you move your arm when swinging at the ball, and both the forehand and backhand are used. Players move toward the ball automatically though, and sometimes are a little doddery about it. More than once, you’ll think that you’ve been beaten as your champion stands still, only to find that he or she actually does reach the ball and that you’ve lost the point due to not taking a swing. Also, the same timing reticule problem that’s seen when shooting in soccer is here. A hologram of the tennis ball appears, with a circle around it closing in to show the perfect timing for your shot. Often, you’ll swing at exactly the right time, only for your character to swing a second later and miss the opportunity for a beautiful passing shot.
This really is something that you’ll get used to though, and will learn to compensate for. When you do, the event is great fun.
We didn’t expect Rare to get the best event from either of the first two titles wrong, and they haven’t. Bowling in Kinect Sports Rivals is just as fun as it was in the first game, although again, some things are lost and some things are unpolished. Gone are the music clips that blared out when you hit a strike, and the ability to showboat. Unpolished is the fact that you still have to watch each CPU player bowl when playing against the AI, with no ability to skip.
In short though, stepping up to the virtual lanes has never felt more responsive or accurate. Just a smidgen of extra effort and charm would have pushed it way above the original.
So, the sports are generally pretty solid. There’s room for improvement, sure, but once you actually get into a game, there’s a ton of fun to be had. But the interface is the definition of confusion. We took on a rival challenge against one of our US-based team, and won at wake racing. Awesome! Then we dropped back to the main menu and decided to play him again, this time at rock climbing. He beat us by a hair’s breadth, dagnammit! At that point, we were dropped back to a screen stating that we’d won the first leg and the he’d won the second. But…wait…what? Heading into a third match, we won at soccer. Now, we’re told that we lost the first leg and won the second, but that we’ve gained enough fans to boost our level in the individual sport and gone up a division thanks to our overall fan count but we’ve also won some coins and unlocked some new outfits and game modes and…it just gets confusing, to the point of getting in the way of the fun.
With regard to the rival challenges, our scores were reflected on the rivals’ league table in terms of the number of fans we have – which you have to drop out of the game and into a separate app in order to see. That's fine. What isn't immediately obvious is that rival challenges consist of two matches. The person sending the challenge plays against a CPU representation of their opponent - much like you'd race someone's Drivatar in Forza Motorsport 5. This gives them a score for the first leg. The person receiving the challenge then plays against a CPU representation of the person who sent the challenge. This sets the second leg score. It isn't explained AT ALL in game that this is the case - you just figure that you're setting a time or number of goals or whatever for the opponent to beat - which would have made more sense, but this system will lead to much confusion.
Fortunately, things like this – whilst annoying – don’t confuse things to the point of making the game into a chore, but its a close run thing. Some players will be disappointed that the mini-mini-games from the first titles are missing, though. There's no hitting targets in tennis or saving hundreds of shots in a penalty challenge in soccer. All you get are the events, served straight up - well, straight up once you've navigated your way through the bizarre arrangement of menus, that is.
Kinect Sports Rivals is far from the definite article that was required to show off the difference between Kinect's generations. The fact that Kinect recognises the opening and closing of your hand with startling accuracy in wake racing and rock climbing is an undoubted high point, and shows that the potential for the device is still there in spades. A lack of polish and thought in other areas throws doubt on whether that potential will truly be realised, though. The package as a whole is good enough to not be an embarrassment, but there are far too many times where the interface gets in the way of the entertainment that the generally passable gameplay provides.