So, does Kinect Sports suck, or what?

We're seeing, embodied in Kinect Sports, how some of its capabilities can be stretched, but can't be made to fit all physical activities.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor

No, as a matter of fact, it doesn't. At least, not much. But it also may not be what you expect -- especially if you're an American player.

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Kinect Sports was created by Microsoft subsidiary Rare, based out of the U.K. The European influence shows, because the game includes what we Americans call soccer, but not real football or baseball. Or basketball for that matter.

Instead, you get a selection of games that include table tennis (good), boxing (not bad), bowling (meh), soccer (dumb, but fun), volleyball (sort of stupid), and track and field (ugh).

Before we go into the individual games, I wanted to discuss how Kinect Sports integrates into the full Kinect environment. It does so, but loosely.

For example, although Kinect Adventures can tell by scanning a player's face and body that a new player had joined, Kinect Sports actually required us to fully quit the game to switch from me as a player to my wife. In 8 reasons you might NOT want to buy a Kinect, I talked about the surprising modality of the Kinect environment, and it's in full force here.

Looking at a few games now, it appears apparent that while there are interface capabilities provided by Microsoft's Kinect API, each developer will interpret those capabilities differently. While I'm always beating on Apple for its Gestapo application approval processes, I'm a little disappointed that the Kinect games don't feel fluid, especially for an interface that's designed to be so interpretive of the player's actions, and especially from Microsoft-owned game studio to Microsoft-owned game studio.

I suspect this will improve over time.

One more note. I'm including some images provided by Microsoft for a few of the games. These are not really of game play, but more of the incredibly annoying cut scenes. As I'll describe below, some of the actual game play images had some clipping problems and could be confusing, particularly in the volleyball game.

So let's move on to the games, starting with table tennis.

Kinect Sports table tennis

Disclosure: I have played a heck of a lot of ping pong in my life. Prior to getting married, I had a ping pong table in my apartment. I really like table tennis. A lot.

While I've played tennis in Wii Sports, I didn't like how inaccurate it seemed to be. Forehand responded relatively well, but Wii Sports tennis just couldn't interpret the backhand properly.

Table tennis on the Kinect rocks and rocks hard. I actually found myself first picking up the Wiimote and then a hair brush that approximated the feel of a paddle in my hand, so I'd feel like I feel when playing the real game.

The game was responsive, played well, and I was almost able to suspend disbelief and immerse myself in the game (although I'm convinced the Mii, er, Xbox avatar opponent) cheated at the end with a barely-doable slice off the side of the table for the win.

If you like table tennis a lot, it's almost worth spending the fifty bucks, just for this one sport.

Update (12 days later): I originally "rented" this game from GameFly and decided to buy it, solely because of the Table Tennis. My wife and I have played the Table Tennis game three or four times each, per day, every day since we set this thing up. At higher levels (pro and champion) you can actually break a sweat and it's proven to be a quick hit for a little extra exercise.

Downside; my shoulders hurt and for the first few days, my legs hurt considerably (there's a lot more stretching and lunging than you'd think). My normal exercise these days is a lot more power (lifting about 10,000 pounds a day), but a lot slower than ping-pong, so the quicker movement was a nice increase to my workout regimen.

I haven't touched any of the other mini-games since I bought it, but they're certainly worth looking at on the following pages. One major annoyance: user switching is completely brain-damaged. There's no apparent easy way to say "let me play" and switch to the other player without restarting the game.

Oh, and I now play with an actual ping-pong paddle. Yeah, it's that good.

Next: Boxing and bowling »

« Previous: Intro and table tennis

Kinect Sports boxing

Kinect Sports boxing was fun, and I worked up a sweat. In fact, you can probably still smell me after that particular workout.

Unfortunately, the analog to real life wasn't as tangible as it was with table tennis and was pretty much on a par with Wii Sports boxing.

Punches seemed a little more nuanced, but I could still stand there and easily pummel my opponent into KO with a simple, repetitive move.

Cardio: yes. Nuance: no.

I liked it, but I wouldn't recommend buying the game just to play boxing, especially if you have Wii Sports already.

Kinect Sports bowling

My wife likes Wii Sports bowling a lot, so I asked her to try out Kinect Sports bowling and give it her take. Even though the Wiimote is strapped around her wrist, she's always nervous that she'll fling the Wiimote into the TV.

With Kinect Sports bowling, there's no such problem. In fact, she was able to swing her arm, and even open her hand at the end of the throw, and score consistent strikes.

She liked Kinect Sports bowling. I did not.

When I've played Wii Sports bowling, I found I couldn't play unless I did the three step foot move that you do when really bowling. I've bowled a lot over the years and it was hard separating out that component of the step. With Wii Sports bowling, the Wii generally ignored my fancy footwork, but registered my swing.

Not so with the Kinect. At one time, I simply raised my hands (with the ball) in front of my chest to what is essentially the bowler's home position, and the Kinect assumed I'd tossed the ball. The Kinect, because there's no button, has to interpret when it thinks you've released the ball, so if you have any style in your pre-throw game, it gets very, very confused.

I have a great deal of style. Less skill, admittedly, but much style in my bowling throws. As a result, Kinect Sports bowling and I didn't really get along. I probably won't play that again.

Me: thumbs down. My wife: thumbs up.

Next: Soccer and volleyball »

« Previous: Boxing and bowling

Kinect Sports soccer

Let me be clear. Soccer is not football. I don't care if most of the world calls the stupid white ball football, it isn't. Go cry in your world cup, I don't care.

Soccer. Is. Not. Football.

Actually, this was a little disappointing. I was hoping for actual sports, like baseball, football, and basketball, as opposed to the stuff the girl teams would play because the rules wouldn't let them play the real games.

Volleyball? Really?

Soccer? Seriously? Not a real game. What's with this dumb rule that only one person on the team can touch the ball. It's like interpretive dance, only done by players wearing shorts. Sheesh.

Okay, now that I've riled up seven eighths of the world, let's get on with Kinect Sports sucker, um, soccer.

Here's how you play. You move left and right. You swing your left leg or your right leg. Sometimes you tilt your head. That's it.

Let's be clear: Madden this is not. First, as I said, it's that silly soccer thing. But second, Kinect Sports soccer is not exactly a strategic game.

When it's time to kick, you can only kick to the left or the right, with no real options as to the degree of direction. The kick either goes to the goal or instantly goes to another player on your team, at which time you kick again. Kick style and strength don't appear to affect the result.

If the opposing team intercepts the ball, a line is drawn on the field showing the path it'll be kicked. Your job is to move left or right and stand on the line.

Once a game or so, a yellow dot will show up. You tilt your body to stick your head in the way.

Easy peasy.

Even though this game has no real depth, it was actually surprisingly fun. Not a winner on its own by any means, but fun for a few minutes.

Kinect Sports volleyball

This is the game where my wife and I differed in our opinions most. I thought Kinect Sports volleyball was unfinished and sucked, and she enjoyed it.

Here are my gripes. I found that it was quite difficult to tell where your Mii (er, avatar) was in the game. Quite often, it looked like the Mii (avatar) was on the other side of the net.

This proved very distracting when trying to figure out how to hit the ball.

My other major complaint is that volleyball is a vertical sport, in that you need to lift your arms above your head often as part of game play. First, this is a problem in a smaller room, where you might bang a light fixture.

Second, every time I raised my hands over my head, the Kinect couldn't read it. So when I tried to make selections using the little hand icon or, especially, do an overhead serve, the Kinect was completely at a loss.

I don't know if this is a limitation of the Kinect hardware, or just a problem with the game itself. Either way, it got in the way of the game.

If you want an Xbox volleyball game, go for DOA Extreme Beach Volleyball. The scenery is also better.

That said, my wife really enjoyed Kinect Sports volleyball and won her round. I simply walked away after a few minutes, growling under my breath.

Once again, though, this may be because I have a lot of experience playing volleyball, and so I've got some muscle memory that conflicts with what's required for Kinect game play. In any case, she liked it and I didn't.

Next: Track and field, and recommendations »

« Previous: Soccer and volleyball

Kinect Sports track and field

Let's get this part out of the way. I do not run. I do not jump. So, from my perspective, Kinect Sports track and field is dead to me. It does not exist. It is blocked from my mind and my awareness. Its mere existence is an affront to my sensibilities.

My wife liked it quite a lot.

Kinect Sports track and field actually had a bunch of mini-games, from just running in place (track) to the javelin throw (running, plus almost dislocating your shoulder) to hurdles (running, jumping, and trying not to hurl), to discus (trying not to dislocate your shoulder without running).

All told, it was a fine little game and she worked up a good sweat. If you want cardio and you don't mind doing unmentionable things like jumping and running, then you'll like Kinect Sports track and field.

Like whipped cream and vanilla ice cream, I consider Kinect Sports track and field a blight on mankind. But, well, you know...

Overall conclusion

Like Kinect Adventures, Kinect Sports provides a good demonstration of the Kinect's revolutionary capabilities. Unfortunately, Kinect Sports also shows some of the limitations of the technology with far more clarity than was visible in the adventure game.

Table tennis proved to be the best fit, because in real table tennis, the player moves his or her body physically only along one axis: left and right at the back of the the table. Likewise, arm motions are relatively apparent and distinguishable (and generally never range below the waist or above the neck).

Because of these physical parameters, the Kinect was able to determine game movement with quite excellent accuracy.

On the other hand, to represent highly mobile games like soccer or even bowling and volleyball requires that the Kinect make some judgment calls without enough data. For example, it's clear the sensor can't differentiate between an open or closed hand while bowling, so it simply releases the ball when the arm appears to be in the proper place for a bowler to release (and it gets this wrong more than I'd like).

With soccer, despite my underhanded mocking of the entire sport, the game play is complex and nuanced, and the Kinect doesn't stand a chance of representing an active game, with so many moving parts, in a simulation space.

The Kinect is a brilliant idea and there will be some exceptionally well-done applications for it. But I think we're seeing, embodied in Kinect Sports, how some of its capabilities can be stretched, but can't be made to fit all physical activities.

In answer to the opening question, does Kinect Sports suck or what? No, it doesn't. It's a worthwhile buy. But don't expect it to break much ground beyond other motion control systems we've seen.

Not yet, anyway.

Did you buy a Kinect? Discuss your experiences below.

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