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Review: Kinect Sports Rivals is a personal best, if given enough space

By Andy Robinson on Monday 7th Apr 2014 at 1:00 PM UTC

The biggest compliment we can pay the new Kinect Sports is that, unlike its somewhat shallow predecessors, Rivals is a complete video game; there's depth and complexity here, challenge and reward, and systems which straddle demographics as well as any Mario Kart or Minecraft can.

If the first Kinect Sports games were pitched exclusively at the casual audience, then Kinect Sports Rivals offers motion gaming for everyone - core gamers included. Across its six sports, each multiplayer bout can be as elementary or complex as you or your opponent can muster - and you'll earn a plethora of unlockables and upgrades for your efforts.

What Rivals doesn't quite do, even despite its creators' unmatched expertise in the area, is offer convincing proof that games work better when hinged on Kinect. Much like before, Rare's exercise-em-up excels if played in living spaces the size of cathedrals, but struggles to offer an entirely flawless experience within normal and modest sized rooms. For most of us, unlocking the game's true potential means you'll have to move the furniture.

The Rivals package is comprised of six sporting events, each designed to utilise the enhanced fidelity of the Xbox One motion sensor. Mini-games such as Target Shooting and Climbing prove that Kinect 2.0 can track finger movement, allowing players to 'shoot' by making a gun shape with their hands, and reach out and 'grab' wall grips in the latter, pulling themselves slowly up the side of a cliff face.

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

Soccer meanwhile shows off the sensor's ability to track the rotation and movement of players' feet, while Tennis and Bowling do the same for hand motions. Wake Racing - which has been available since the Xbox One's launch as a free demo - has players reaching out to grip a virtual handle-bar and leaning forward or back to pull off flips and tricks.

Every event takes place on a island paradise occupied by Kinect-scanned avatars called Champions, and unlike previous Kinect Sports games - which too often felt like a collection of tech demos - it's an environment positively bursting with personality, resplendent with colourful, pulsating menus (narrated by David 'Dr. Who' Tennant), a thumping electro-pop soundtrack and - perhaps surprisingly - a cast of characters who aren't so easily loathsome.

The tropical setting is zestful and vibrant with vast sense of scale; climbing the side of a huge rock stack you can see a Wake Race track in the distance, and a neighbouring tower reveals the tennis court you trampled minutes before.

It's one of many touches that have built Kinect Sports into a more compelling package for gamers. Each match concludes with the satisfying clink of a steadily increasing XP bar (which translates into level upgrades and cash for virtual accessories) and there's even been the introduction of power-ups to each sport, activated after filling a cube-shaped meter. These range from powers that hinder your opponent (such as jamming their gun or shrinking their tennis racket) or improve your own skills (with faster movement or a more venomous shot) and add much needed variety to multiplayer battles.

"Where Rivals really excels is in the depth of its mechanics"

Like the previous Kinect Sports titles, Rare removes the complications from each event to make them as accessible as possible. In tennis, your character moves automatically, allowing players to concentrate on the timing and aiming of your swings. Likewise, Soccer is a turn-based mutation of the real game, tasking players with aiming passes at static teammates on a grid, while avoiding opponents. If you manage to pass your way to the striker you can take a shot on goal, but hit an opposing player and you'll end up playing the part of the goalkeeper.

We Are The Champions Central to Rival's aesthetic package is the Champion Creation System, which promises to scan players into the game as exaggerated toon athletes. The whole process takes just a few minutes, with Dr. Who talking you through which position you should stand or point your head, and the results can be impressive.

The flaw in the system is that Kinect only really scans your face, missing out more subtle but equally important facial traits such as hair, freckles or the specific design of glasses. Instead you have to pick your hairstyle or specs from a gallery of premade assets, which is modestly stocked.

Hand movements are something the Xbox One Kinect does well, and thus Tennis, Climbing and Bowling prove the highlights of the package. Soccer is less intuitive, but still entertaining, while Target Shooting and Wake Racing, though mechanically solid, are the weakest of the bunch, the latter in particular feeling like it'd actually be improved by the addition of a controller.

Throw a short campaign story into the mix (which has three island factions vying for your signature), a lengthy levelling system and an entire hub dedicated to online competitive play, and Kinect Sports Rivals works out at a surprisingly bulky package for what was previously seen as a simple party game series.

The campaign story has three rival factions fighting for your signature.

Where Rivals really excels beyond its predecessors though is in the level of depth present in its mechanics; play Bowling for an hour and you'll discover the subtlety of spin bowls (achieved by twisting your wrist); Wake Racing veterans will shed seconds off laps by tilting their bodies during corners and in Soccer you'll eventually learn to adjust the height of your foot swing to aim for the corners of the goal.

That might sound obvious, but rarely have motion titles offered much beyond their baseline mechanics. Tennis in particular develops into a genuine game of wits in two-player mode; Because Kinect tracks the spin, power and accuracy of your shots, skilled players can send balls down the line and force their opponent around the court - as in real tennis - and finish them off with a skilful lob or punishing smash.

It's tactical and brilliant, knackering fun, even if you're playing against AI. There are still some smoke and mirrors employed by Rare to accurately translate player movements to screen - in Soccer particularly, it becomes apparent that Kinect is tracking whether you've moved your foot side on (for a ground pass) or straight (for a punt) - but they're less rigid and thus, result in a more immersive experience.

"The game's Achilles' Heel is the sheer amount of space required to play."

The game's Achilles' Heel again appears to be the sheer amount of space required to play. Despite the next-gen Kinect's ability to detect users at a reduced distance, Rivals requires a play area larger than what it asked for on the 360 games. Soccer matches will have you diving across the room for last-ditch saves, Tennis will often demand long stretches to reach the ball and even Target Shooting and Wake Racing requires players to stand.


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And despite the impressive degree of accuracy it demonstrates, the new Kinect sensor still struggles to operate smoothly in a modest living room space, occasionally missing or misinterpreting actions and inevitably leading to frustration.

If you want to experience Rivals at its best, you'll need to be prepared to move furniture. If you do, the game's few inconsistencies will subside, and this masterful and surprisingly deep sports package will truly begin to shine. If you don't have the space, it's probably not worth the full price.

The verdict

Rare has overcome nearly all preconceptions of motion control - Rivals is responsive, accurate, deep, reliable and well integrated. It just needs the space.

  • Deep, tactical gameplay
  • Reliable motion controls
  • A cohesive and charismatic game world
  • Kinect still requires a large space to operate smoothly
  • Wake Racing feels better suited to controller play
Xbox One