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Microsoft Kinect — first impressions

By: 26 December 2010 6 Comments

Our kids must have been good this year because Santa brought them a Microsoft Kinect for Christmas.

The Kinect, of course, is Microsoft’s attempt to introduce that motion-based gaming that’s been enjoyed for years by people who own the Nintendo Wii. Apparently, the whole “jump around in front of the television to control the action” craze has gained in popularity. The Microsoft Xbox 360 has it now and the Sony Move controller makes it possible on the Playstation 3.

While I don’t have any comment on the Move because I don’t own one, I can speak a bit about the Kinect and the Wii as we’ve got both of those around the house. Well, I’ll not mention just a whole lot about the Wii because this article isn’t about that, but there will be a brief comparison of the two systems at the end of the post.

My initial reaction to the announcement of the Kinect was, I suspect, similar to what a lot of people thought when they heard about it — does it actually work? Microsoft has a long history of promising a lot more than it can deliver. The company has more than a bit of the “little boy that cried wolf” syndrome in its culture — if you’ve been burned by one Microsoft product, you’ll likely be wary the next time Microsoft hypes its next invention as the greatest technological advance, like, ever.

Well, rest assured that the Kinect actually does work and even better than I expected. Furthermore, the device doesn’t feel clunky, primitive, stolen from another company or, well, much like a Microsoft product at all. Yes, I know I’m picking on Microsoft, but the company does rather deserve it. The company started making junk operating systems with DOS 4.0, got things write a couple of decades later with Windows XP, messed up again with Windows Vista and got back on track (evidently) with Windows 7. Furthermore, Microsoft has released a slew of underwhelming consumer products — Zune MP3 players and more than a few cell phones over the years, for example.

Ah, but the Kinect is a different breed of cat and is as slick as the Xbox 360 to which it attaches. Connecting the Kinect is simple enough — just plug the thing in, find a suitable spot for it (centered above or below your television set), let the Kinect dashboard download to your Xbox over your Internet connection then run through a brief setup utility. In less than 10 minutes, you’ll be up and running. I’ve felt like a beta tester rather than a customer with a good number of Microsoft products, but getting the Kinect up and running was a breeze.

And, here’s the thing — the Kinect actually works. It works well, in fact. The heart of the system is a 640 x 480 camera that views the playfield and keep up with players in three dimensions. In other words, the Kinect can see the player and the player can navigate through Kinect dashboard and game menus through making motions and speaking a very few voice commands.

Navigating through menus is one thing, but how does it actually work in games? Very well, actually. First of all, anyone thinking of buying a Kinect needs to know that the thing requires a lot of space. You’ll need a minimum of six feet between the sensor and the players and most games require at least eight feet for two players. That’s no problem in my house as we’ve got a pretty large living room with our television set on one end and our furniture on the other. Space isn’t an issue in my house, but it certainly will be for some people. In apartments of furniture-filled living rooms, having enough room to play on the Kinect could be a problem. Oh, and you do need a rather large play field (another eight feet across or so) to have room to run around and play those Kinect games. Here’s some advice — measure how much space you’ve got around your television before you get a Kinect.

Oh, and thanks to the one reader who pointed out something very important — this unit is both somewhat fragile and it moves. Do not put this somewhere where it doesn’t have any breathing room or you may regret it. If the unit moves as it’s scanning, rubs up against the side of someting and falls to the floor, it may break and that would be a drag. The Kinect isn’t exactly cheap, so protect it.

Second, get used to the fact that there is at least one minor issue with the Kinect. We’ve have no problems getting the Kinect to see us moving around so we can control our characters in games, but the recognition features of the system leave a bit to be desired. In theory, the Kinect will recognize you and associate you with your Xbox profile after identifying you once. In reality, the recognition feature doesn’t work all that well and you’ll wind up manually selecting your profile/avatar. That’s a minor problem, really, and one that may require me to fine-tune my Kinect setup or wait for a Microsoft update to take care of that problem.

One thing worth mentioning here is that Kinect games take photos of people while games are running and that’s an absolute hoot. Scrolling through those after a game has ended is always a hoot, and some of those photos can be uploaded through your Xbox live account to KinectShare.com.

Having said all of that, the best way to describe how the Kinect works is to mention how it interacts with the games we have for it.

Kinect Adventures

Guiding a raft in "River Rush."

Yes, it’s the pack-in game which is designed to show off the capabilities of the system. Kinect Adventures is a collection of mini games that are great with one player and better with two.

Kinect Adventures calls on players to guide a raft around obstacles and collect points (River Rush), float around in three dimensions and pop bubbles (Space Pop), play a souped-up version of Breakout (Rally Ball), engage in a competitive track and field like competition (Reflex Ridge) or plug leaks in an underwater box (20,000 Leaks). Players can either choose to engage in a linear set of contests in “adventure” mode or simply engage in a “free play” mode in which folks run events pretty well as they see fit. The contests are short and an absolute hoot. The gameplay isn’t particularly deep, but that’s not the point.

No, there are a lot of “deep” games for the Xbox 360, but the Kinect is aimed squarely at the “casual gamer” market that flocks to the intense, “get up and run around” play featured in titles like Wii Sports. In that regard, Kinect Adventures succeeds admirably. Hopping around in front of the sensor like an idiot with my daughter in order to make a raft jump up in the air and grab a few icons is the kind of thing that simply couldn’t be done on an Xbox 360 before, and it’s an absolute hoot.

The most innovative title in Kinect Adventures, however, has to be Space Pop. It is something that would be hard to replicate on the Wii because it picks up on both motion and dimension. Players can move side-to-side and back-and-forth in order to pop bubbles and one can’t help but think that this type of game will be a kick should three-dimensional sets become the norm. Space Pop is feels pretty darned immersive for a two-dimensional game. If you move forward or back, your character tracks right along with you. Pretty slick.

Kinect Joy Ride

Kinect Joy Ride is a kart racer and a pretty good one. The game takes care of the speed of your vehicle for you, allowing you to concentrate on driving.

It is a bit difficult to get used to the idea of holding out your hands like your grasping a steering wheel, but you get used to it in a hurry. Obviously, motions control the direction of your vehicle, but they also allow you to charge up and activate “turbo boosts,” drift to corner better, activate stunts while jumping through ridiculous heights, etc.

Some have criticized the fact the game controls the speed of your vehicle, but that’s not entirely fair. Think of Wii Sports, for example. That game controls the position of your player in its tennis game, allowing you to concentrate on shot placement and the like. Again, keep in mind that this is casual gaming — those who want realism and complete control will find plenty of titles on the Xbox 360 allowing for just that. Believe me, you’ll have plenty to keep you busy in Kinect Joy Ride and it, in fact, is my favorite game made for the controller so far.

While the standard, competitive race mode is great, the “battle mode” is the thing that will keep kart racing fans busy. The cool trick here is that you get the expected power-ups, but you have to activate them by reaching up and touching them — that action become automatic after a time, as do a lot of things that come with manipulating games through no controller.

Kinect Joy Ride offers a great sensation of speed, a “barely in control” feeling, tracks and cars to unlock and a lot of other great things that make for a good casual racing game. If you have a Kinect and you don’t have this, you’re missing out. Yes, some better games are on the horizon, but this is a very entertaining one for now.

Fighting for first place...

Dance Central

I’ve never played this one and probably won’t. My 10-year-old daughter, however, loves it and it is a hoot to watch. Dance Central has players mimic moves on the screen in hopes of completing a complete dance routine. The routines, of course, range in degrees of difficulty.

Now, here’s the fun part for spectators. The game has players go through a rigid set of dance steps and then allows them to “freestyle” for a bit. The freestyle portion, once it’s over, is shown on the screen in fast motion to great effect. Believe me, watching a 10-year old make up her own steps and watching her freestyle routine splashed on the screen for a couple of seconds is hilarious every time.

Again, I’ve not played Dance Central, but my daughter raves about it. That has to mean something.

Conclusion

The question that is on everyone’s minds, of course, is this — is the Kinect better than the Wii? I honestly can’t answer that and won’t try. My initial impression of the Kinect has been very positive, but there’s simply no way the thing can touch the Wii’s game library at this point.

And the games are what these systems all come down to in the end. The Kinect allows for a very immersive motion gaming experience and is an admirable controller. That much is certain. How that hardware will be used is, at this point, up in the air. I’m glad we have one, however, as one can’t help but think some solid developers will want to put out games for it.

About: Ethan C. Nobles:
Benton resident. Rogue journalist. Recovering attorney. Email = Ethan@FirstArkansasNews.net.

6 Comments »

  • Chris said:

    We gave our grandson an XBOX 360 and Kinect bundle for Christmas. He loves it but after one evening of play (Christmas night) the kinect sensor fell off the shelf under the TV as it was scanning the room and now no longer works. What a disappointment for our grandson. We have been unable to find any solutions to this at Microsoft. It fell maybe 2 feet onto a soft carpet and is caput!

  • Ethan C. Nobles (author) said:

    That is a disappointment, indeed. We’ve got those huge tiles in our living room rather than carpet, so our unit would likely shatter if it fell and hit the floor.

    Perhaps I should amend the article to mention that the unit does move, so giving it plenty of breathing room is important.

    Good luck!

  • Audrey said:

    I was in such a tug of war trying to decide whether to get my son the Playstation Move or the Kinect this year..And I got him the Move, I was worried he would not take to it..But he absolutely loves it! Our family has not put it down first, I am glad I didn’t go with the Kinect.

  • Ethan C. Nobles (author) said:

    Audrey — I know nothing about the Move. I hope y’all enjoy it — love to see all three major console manufacturers attracting fans with their motion devices. Competition means better games for all of us, regardless of what systems we own.

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