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Does Kinect Sports Rivals fly the flag for Xbox One's next-gen camera?

By Andy Robinson on Monday 17th Mar 2014 at 1:00 PM UTC

During a recent tour through the famous halls of Rare's Twycross headquarters, what quickly becomes apparent is that the studio is willing to adapt to the demands of modern game development.

The telltale signs of evolution are everywhere; the firm's spacious demo room displays evidence of its past as an N64 mo-cap studio; In IT, the corners of the walls remain padded - remnants of its former life as a company cresh. Even the iconic development barns have had their ceiling beams hacked off in order to prevent over-enthusiastic developers headbutting them during Kinect tests.

The Rare of today is very different from the one that fans instantly think of. Evidence of that bygone era has been stripped off the walls and put into storage; pre-2002 memorabilia is replaced with wall-sized Xbox Avatars and the odd Piņata on a desk.

Rare's Twycross HQ

The corporate cleansing may seem like overkill, but in truth the studio bosses knew the studio's identity and culture - and not just its decorations - had to change in order to move on with Microsoft.

'Old Rare', with its track record of inefficiency and lack of collaboration (during the Nintendo era, staff weren't even allowed to see projects unassigned to them), stumbled through the early years of its Xbox employment as its old methods proved ineffective within its new corporate housing. Something had to give.

Today, the company seems more relaxed and confident with those shackles removed. On a guided tour, we're offered virtually unrestricted access to every corner of the studio - a pleasantry that would have been unthinkable in the past.

Now at the heart of the studio is a near-unparalleled mastery of Microsoft's Kinect sensor; an understanding that informs policy across the entire company.

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Rare's latest game, Kinect Sports Rivals, was developed in tandem with Microsoft's motion-sensing peripheral, and both projects helped inform each other.

More intriguing for fans of old, the game itself recaptures some of the depth and personality that was lacking from the first two Xbox 360 games. Playing Rivals in Rare's demo hall, you get the feeling that this is a game that could appeal to the core in the same ways as Mario Kart straddles the demographic fence, and the game's exec producer, Danny Isaac insists this is a "very deliberate" move.

"When you look at the franchise previously, one of the challenges we had making a title that was quite broad was that it had to be... some people would say, 'bland'. It can't really be like Marmite; some people can't love it, some people can't hate it.

"It had to be something that everyone could get, and I think sometimes you can get into a difficult situation with that where everyone thinks it's OK but nobody loves it."

"Rivals recaptures some of the depth and personality sorely lacking from its predecessors."

In contrast to Microsoft's other first-party offerings, Isaac said Rare wanted to create a title that "celebrated gaming" instead of demonstrating new benchmarks in graphical sophistication.

"We looked at some of our sister products like Forza and Ryse, which were more photo-realistic, and decided we weren't going to compete with that. We decided to make our game over the top, with power-ups and a vibrant world.

"Everything we were seeing was beige and brown and we wanted to show people we were making a game that was fun and that celebrated gaming."

Most of Rival's six sports are designed around the increased fidelity of the Xbox One's Kinect (other than Wake Racing, which is the weakest of the package's offerings). The new sensor has the ability to track individual finger movements, thus inspiring the Rare team to build sports such as Shooting, which has users point their hand out like a gun, and climbing, in which players have to reach out and grasp wall grips.

The six playable sports in KSR are wake racing, climbing, football, target shooting, bowling and tennis

Football, meanwhile, shows off the sensor's ability to track the rotation and movement of players' feet, while Tennis does the same for hand motions.

The game's Achilles' Heel again appears to be the sheer amount of space required to play, which, despite the new Kinect's ability to detect users at a reduced distance, appears to be larger for most sports when compared to the 360 games.

What's promising though is the level of depth on display; we played Soccer for over an hour and as the game progressed our ability to pass and shoot on target improved as we learned to subtly adjust our movements. That might sound obvious, but rarely have motion titles offered much beyond their initial, often shallow mechanics.

Essentially, the amount of smoke and mirrors required to replicate player movements on screen has been reduced by the fidelity of the new Kinect sensor. The resulting experience is accessible yet competitive, and local multiplayer was more entertaining that previous Kinect Sports instalments.

Whether that's enough to win back some of the core audience Rare left behind remains to be seen, but the studio seems prepared to wield the flag for the publicly unproven peripheral.

"A challenge we're going to always have is that some guys just want to grab a beer, put their feet up and play," Isaac told CVG.

"But the one thing we do do is enable players to get their friends and family involved. I still think there are a lot of ways we can innovate in core games with the sensor.

"Do we carry a weight? I think we do, but that's us as first-party. We want to show the world what this sensor can do and hopefully you'll see that there are some really fun and cool experiences that you can have with it."