After more than a year of eager anticipation we finally have our hands on Microsoft’s newest piece of tech. Kinect is here and we’ve been giving it a thorough talking to (and waving at) all day. Here are my very brief first impressions on the hardware and a round up of some of the software that goes with it.
The box contains the sensor unit, Kinect Adventures disc, a couple of pieces of documentation and enough electrical cabling to moor a small sailing boat. It might seem an odd thing to notice but there is a lot of wiring here, a nice long lead from the power socket to the sensor and a long return to plug into the USB at the back of your Xbox 360. You’ve probably seen all this on one of the many unboxing videos that appeared in the days preceding release.
It was simple to set up physically, just place it on the same surface your TV sits on and facing in the same direction. If your TV is wall mounted you might have an issue but the actual footprint of the sensor is no bigger than the PlayStation Eye or many high-end webcams.
Setting up the sensor itself is also very easy thanks to the setup wizard that walks you gently through the process. Once you’ve run this setup and configured your own Kinect ID settings (so the unit recognises your face and voice) you will be fully in control of it.
Space requirements are not as strict as I had feared. You will need to be a distance from Kinect so that it can recognise you perfectly but I’m comfortably over six feet tall (getting on for two metres) and I can play comfortably standing only six feet away from the sensor (which is approximately four feet off the floor). If you want more than one player then you’re going to need a bit more room but a couple more feet should do it. My space constraints mean that I can only take one step in any direction (and it’s really only half a step backwards) but it hasn’t posed any significant problems with any of the software I’ve tried so far.
I have to admit, I’ve been a huge Project Natal/Kinect sceptic ever since it was announced with that sham Milo walkthrough and an awful lot of hyperbole. I have been trying to keep an open mind but the various rumours that have circulated about space, lighting and multiplayer issues have been a cause for concern. The marketing decision that Microsoft took to put this in the hands of mainstream journalists and celebrities rather than anyone who actually has experience and expertise writing about gaming was extremely worrying.
I was preparing myself to take delivery of my Kinect sensor, spend a few hours with it and then brutally tear it apart for the website. That is simply not the case. Once I had set up the unit to respond to my face and voice it has controlled seamlessly. I imagine it will have some issues with particularly strong colloquial accents but my fairly standard English accent works perfectly and the gesture controls are smooth and as accurate as they need to be. My first impressions of the hardware (somewhat disappointingly, if I’m honest) have been extremely good.
The only thing that remains to be seen is how well Microsoft and their third party partners continue to support the system and, dare I hope, tie it in well with some of the games that I would usually enjoy playing.
So what about the launch software? Well, Kinect Adventures is the pack-in game and it is a perfect introduction to the Kinect system and what it does. You’re started playing River Rush, the rubber dinghy game that has been the target of much derision, but it does work and it is fun. There is no perceptible lag here and the leaning and jumping warms you up nicely for the progression to the other previously demonstrated classic with the bouncy balls: Rallyball. There was a tiny bit more lag in the translation from our own lightning-quick reactions to the more lethargic on-screen avatar (which is actually your avatar). Or maybe we’re just slow…
Next up, we tried Kinect Sports. This is the go-to genre for motion controlled game. On first impressions, Kinect Sports seems to be an accomplished, if a little over-simplified, collection of sporting games. The football is well implemented, presenting every encounter as a little set-piece in which you pick a direction to pass towards or step into the passing channel of your opponent to intercept the ball. Track and field events involve running and jumping on the spot as well as throwing gestures for javelin and discuss. The package also includes Beach Volleyball, the obligatory Bowling and a very simplistic Table Tennis. The final sport is the stand out though: Boxing is simple to grasp but tiring and hints at a subtle depth if you want to push the difficulty levels up a bit.
We then moved on to Kinectimals, the title which is supposedly utilising some of that Milo tech that was demonstrated at E3 in 2009. You’re presented with a number of different big-cat cubs and you must choose one to befriend and train while you explore the island. It works well and the cutesy presentation and simplistic controls will probably be a huge appeal to the younger audience at which it is pitched. There is a certain adorable charm to these cubs that you can’t help but melt a little when you see them and we even put our wishes for a monkey character to one side for a little while.
Finally, for today, we played Kinect Joy Ride. This was the avatar-featuring karting game which was originally intended as a pad-controlled Xbox Live Arcade title but got switched in development to bolster the Kinect launch line-up. Speed is controlled automatically with the player seemingly just in charge of steering, jumping and turbo boost. Its controls are simplified hugely, necessarily, but the gameplay seems to be enjoyable enough in the brief time we spent with it. The controls certainly work and the avatars sit well in the stylised cartoon landscape. We were particularly pleased with being able to paint our car by holding up any colour to the camera but we’ll reserve proper judgement for after a longer play test.
Tomorrow we’ll be spending even more time with the Kinect first party launch titles and also possibly taking a closer look at Dance Central.