There’s a bobble-headed spectre looming over Kinect Sports Rivals. Rare’s latest cannot escape comparison with Wii Sports, and within minutes of starting up the game, the studio’s latest stab at justifying Xbox’s much-maligned camera serves only to show why Nintendo invented the Mii. As the David Tennant-voiced narrator walks us through a painstaking – and painful, given the position we’re forced to take up to align our face within the boundaries on our TV – Champion creation process, we realise the last thing we want to see in a videogame is an uncanny representation of our face. We remember EA Sports’ Game Face, after all. So as we stare at the undulating mess of voxels onscreen, we experience only a form of abject terror.
Thankfully, after the achingly slow tease concludes with the camera finally alighting on our in-game face, we’re relieved to find that we’ve been nipped, tucked and generally tidied up. The cartoon avatar in front of us may not exude the sort of charm with which Rare’s art team made its name, but all the facial features are in the right place, it’s got the hair right, and we are a picture of health and fitness. We’ll take that.
It wasn’t character creation that put Wii Sports in 80 million households the world over, however, but rather the simplicity of its design and the immediacy of its input device: you could pass the Wii Remote to someone who had never played a videogame before and tell them to just play tennis. The first time we play Target Shooting, one of Rivals’ six sports, we think we have our Wii Sports moment. We make a gun shape with our fingers, line up our crosshairs over a target, and squeeze an invisible trigger. The target shatters. Kinect suddenly feels worth every penny it adds to Xbox One’s retail price. Sadly, the illusion also shatters when we realise, after unintentionally shooting a few of the skull-bearing targets that dock points, that our itchy trigger finger wasn’t doing anything. All you have to do is line up your shots and the game fires automatically the second a target falls within the crosshairs.
Admittedly, that’s our own fault for not taking in the rules, but in a social setting it’s hard to maintain focus through excessive loading times, introductory cutscenes and, when you first play a sport, an overlong tutorial video introduced by the pun-loving but thoroughly charmless Coach.Kinect Sports Rivals only works as a party game if the party is in another room. You are chided for standing too close to the screen, or too far away. The Champion creator grumbles about there not being enough light. The action is prone to pausing when something unexpected comes into Kinect’s view. Kinect Sports Rivals is best played alone in a large empty room, which is just about as much fun as it sounds.
The new Kinect has a wider field of view than its predecessor, but rather than simply use that to better accommodate play in small spaces, Rivals also asks you to cover more ground. In Soccer, saving a shot heading for the bottom corner means scurrying a few feet to the side and likely knocking into the coffee table you thought you’d moved safely out of the way. Onscreen messages will often complain that Kinect can’t see your feet, suggesting you move further away or tilt the camera downwards. Minutes later, as you reach up for a handhold in Rock Climbing, you’re told Kinect can’t see your hands. And the game moans if you’re not entirely in view during sports that only require one set of limbs, such as Wake Racing and Target Shooting.
Even when Kinect can see all it wants, it still lets you down. While latency has been much improved in the Xbox One version, there remains enough of a delay between action and consequence for players to notice and feel cheated by, and for Rare to try to compensate for. At times, an AI tennis opponent will return a serve with such timidity that the ball moves impossibly slowly, as if on wires. It’s meant to make things easier, but it does the opposite: the faster the ball moves, the smaller the gap between when your brain thinks you should be swinging and when the game needs you to.
At least Tennis is a reasonable approximation of the real thing, with serve and swing motions eventually producing the correct results onscreen. In Soccer, curling a shot into the corner means putting your foot through the invisible ball and wildly following through to either side. You can boot the ball straight into the corners, but Kinect’s view of the goalposts is very different from yours, its new, wider field of vision meaning you have to aim your shot well wide of the onscreen post. At times like these, the required input is so disconnected from its real-life equivalent that it feels every bit as abstract as a button press, only with more latency and a dent to your self-esteem when a curled shot goes straight at the keeper or a carefully left-spun bowling ball veers rightward into the gutter.
Rivals’ biggest problem is that its chances of success are inexorably bound to the performance of the device around which it is designed. There’s plenty here to like, including a well-structured career mode with levelling, unlockable kit and power-ups to encourage offline replayability; a companion app with challenges and social features to sustain your interest online; and a stylised art design that makes it stand out from its host platform’s photorealistic crowd. Yet all the good work Rare has done on the trimmings counts for little when you must play with a device that is still too finicky and untrustworthy, that still requires too much space, and that asks you to make almost-real motions at almost the right time, then expects you to be satisfied. Chances are you won’t be, even if you have enough space to push back the sofa, move aside the coffee table and work around the white elephant in the room.