You can read this review in full in our print edition.
Our January 2012 issue, which is on sale December 20, also features full reviews – including in-depth Post Scripts – of Minecraft, Mario Kart 7 and Need For Speed The Run.
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Beneath the pleasant, polished façade of Kinect Sports: Season 2 is mainstream gaming’s identity crisis writ small. What once seemed like a simple Wii Sports copycat is now perched somewhere between the sheeny glitz of Saturday evening TV (once again, Peter ‘The X Factor’ Dickson is on menu duties) and the quirky leaderboard-chasing sensibilities of an iPhone app. The overall package is as slickly realised as you might expect, but with the drawn-out headline events themselves on one side, and the brisk, minigame variants on the other, you can see subtle signs of a design that’s quietly lacking in direction.
The six sports on the menu this year provide relatively little that videogames – and motion control – haven’t seen before, so it’s up to Rare and Big Park to distinguish the package through a mixture of style and focus. The two safest offerings are golf and tennis. The former is as good as you’d hope, and the latter is a little wonkier than you might expect, largely thanks to weak, weightless animation, and collision detection of such comical leniency that instant replays can make it look like you’re using the Force as much as your racquet.
Fortunately, there are more interesting games available elsewhere. Darts, for example, features a neat pull-back-to-lock aiming mechanic that makes up for ?a bewildered announcer (who likes to suggest that a game’s getting interesting just after it’s finished) and some shockingly unsubtle rubber-banding when playing against rookie opponents. It’s full of good-natured humour, too, allowing you to psyche out your rivals ?by making gestures over their shoulders. Skiing, meanwhile, ditches any of the sport’s alleged intricacies in favour of a smart emphasis on the simple pleasures of bombing across the snow at frightening speeds. It’s as arcadey as Season 2’s main events get, with a racing line strung between a fluttering sequence of time-extend flags, and a neat jumping mechanic is in place ?to provide occasional bursts of very mild drama.
Baseball and American football complete the package in an energetic bid to win over US audiences who may have been confused by all the yelling about the oche. Both sports wisely cut the clutter from some potentially complex rule-sets, offering involving, if rather primitive, caricatures. Football manages to retain the game’s tactical heart despite a severely limited range of available plays, while baseball is particularly successful at turning each of its distinct elements into entertaining events in their own right. Racing for a base borrows a little of Gears Of War’s roadie run momentum before terminating in an excellent carpet-shredding slide, and pitching is transformed into a very simple puzzle game as you’re informed of your opponents’ particular weaknesses – an inability to deal with slow, left-handed balls, say, or panic in the face of a fast curving shot – and then have to play to them.
Neither sport, however, is without its problems – almost all of them due to the technology sitting underneath the television. Kinect ensures that ?baseball manages to fluff batting – surely something that should’ve been high on the list of must-get-it-right priorities – with noticeable lag and an awkward invisible avatar that makes judging the timing and angle of a swing unnecessarily troublesome. Football has its ?own motion-sensing irritations, struggling to correctly interpret left, right and straight passes during crucial plays, and sometimes gluing the ball to your hand ?while vital seconds tick away and the rival team ?powers ever closer.
Voice integration makes the leap to Kinect Sports’ menus with this second instalment, and it’s one of the motion-sensing peripheral’s more welcome additions. The outstretched palm can make for a sluggish mouse pointer at times, so it’s nice to be able to sit back and imperiously command your console to hurry up with a game of tennis. The spoken word occasionally crashes into games, too, a succession of “Hike!” shouts serving to put even the shyest of players into the end zone. It’s another reminder that, where Kinect is concerned, the little ideas are often the best.
The minigames, tellingly, are often better ?than the main events themselves, with pleasing spins on the likes of target-practice golf and a simple darts maths challenge in which you complete a series of ?sums and then tag the correct answers on the board. The selection tends towards the predictable, and there are plenty of signs that the developers know their way around the App Store, too, with Fruit Ninja’s bombs bringing a little welcome chaos to the baseball diamond, while a field goal punting mode invokes memories of Flick Kick Football as you move around your target taking shots. There are several moments, however, where you glimpse what must be Rare’s distinct sense of humour peeking through. A balloon-popping twist on circus knife-throwing has you narrowly avoiding ?the tender limbs of a bound mascot as it rotates on a wheel, while a feisty tennis aside keeps the torturing theme in play as you smack a series of bright rubber balls at mascots’ heads.
There’s a sparse but engaging asynchronous challenge mode available alongside both local and ?online multiplayer options for all sports, but Xbox Live activity for the game is already worryingly thin on the ground. That’s not entirely surprising given the obvious couch-bound focus of this family package, but it still hints at a central problem with the whole production. Mildly charming but fiercely superficial, Kinect Sports remains undermined by the lingering inconsequentiality that tends to gather around all but the very best compilation titles.