Microsoft’s exclusivity train shows no signs of slowing down. After wowing us last month with the insanely good Titanfall, it’s now Rare’s turn to step up to the mark and deliver the first essential Kinect game for Microsoft’s new console.
The biggest aspect of Kinect Sports Rivals is, you know, the whole rivals thing. It serves two important points, acting as a way to make up for the disappointing lack of proper online multiplayer, but also introducing a brand new story mode, something not seen in the series before. It’s a nice idea and serves as a good way of introducing you to the six available games. The story is fluffier than a sheep wearing a woolen cardigan, but it does play up to the rivalry that the game promises, as you go about playing for the three island teams; the noble Eagles, loyal Wolves and sneaky Vipers, before finally selecting the one that will hopefully lead you to island victory. Think Lord Of The Flies, but without the dystopian background or pig sacrifices.
We eventually sided with the Eagles, simply because they were the least annoying team to listen too (plus we’re rather noble ourselves). Ultimately, while the idea of a story mode is sound in structure it does need work going forward, as its filled with poor acting, annoying stereotypes and unskippable cutscenes. We’d still like to see it return if Rare does do a sequel though.
No one is really going to be playing Rivals for a twee story though; it’s the games that are the big draw here. Realising this, Rare has… Well it’s made three new games and simply revisited three old ones – something that immediately feels like a missed opportunity.
There’s a reason why Wake Racing is currently being used as a demo on the Xbox One marketplace. It’s simply brilliant fun. The controls feel wonderful, allowing for very subtle movement that ranges from steering with your arms, to stamping the floor to activate power-ups. It can be played standing or sitting, but sitting feels more natural (the brrrrmmm effects we add while playing are entirely optional though). There’s an argument that could be made to say that it’s the least taxing of the games on offer, but we’ve no time for arguments when the five available courses are as fun to race on as these ones are. Add in some truly astonishing visuals and some lovely convincing physics and Wake Racing stands out as the future of Kinect, something that Rare should be commended on.
Climbing is another impressive use of Kinect’s tech, showing off how well it can pick up individual hard movements. You’re given some inventive walls to climb (an upraised abandoned cruise ship being our favourite) and must simply race to the top before your opponents. There are plenty of handholds on your climb to the top and it really is impressive how you can reach out and grab on to each one. You’re usually competing against other players (as well as the ever present clock), and it’s highly satisfying to grab their backs and ankles and fling them earthwards, while you continue your dizzying ascent. Despite the fun it’s not perfect and we occasionally found ourselves caught in awkward nooks, particularly on the higher difficulty levels. There’s nothing more frustrating than slipping to fourth place because Kinect decides to suddenly throw a wobbly instead of letting you have fun.
The last new event on offer is Target Shooting and while it’s decent, it lacks the fun factor of the other new events. Using your hand you simply point at targets and shoot them, while a rival attempts to do the same. You can earn additional points for shooting your opponent’s targets, while shooting specific colours or sequenced numbers also scores highly. It works well enough, but Kinect’s lag becomes a lot more noticeable on the higher difficulty levels and it became quite laggy when sharing the playing area with a friend, particularly young children. In fact, local multiplayer on the whole remains rather hit and miss, once again requiring an ample sized lounge to get the best out of your play experience. Microsoft may have actually realised that not every Xbox One owner has a lounge the size of an aircraft hanger, which may explain why all events other than bowling caters for just two players (Bowling manages four, but everyone takes it in turns).
Joining the three new games are Tennis, Bowling and Soccer. Tennis is arguably the most frustrating of the trio, because its difficulty curve is so steep. We played several games where we continually lost matches on the return serve, and came very close to quitting the event, so rage inducing was it. Suddenly though it clicks and you realise that you have to take Kinect’s lag into account in order to return those seemingly impossible shots. It feels unnatural at first, but it does work and you soon start to appreciate the clever little lobs and slices that extended rallies offer.
Soccer is largely unchanged to previous iterations, meaning you’re shooting past immobile and moving targets, before taking a shot on goal. There’s a fair amount of strategy involved as hitting certain players build charge that creates a stronger shot that’s harder to save, but there’s very little depth to it. As with past versions you don’t have as much control over the ball as you’d like, meaning you’ll often stay away from the more difficult shots, even if the payoff of a easier goal is there. The same can be said for Bowling. There’s a big deal made about how there’s more control than ever, but you need to make really exaggerated movements in order to put any sort of spin onto the ball. Having said that, while they are clearly not the improved head turners Rare was hoping for, all three updates are fun to play (well eventually in the case of Tennis).
You may have noticed by now that we haven’t really mentioned any of the fun mini-games that appeared in past versions of Kinect Sports. Well there’s a good reason for that. There aren’t any. Instead every event other than Tennis and Bowling has progressively tougher stages to compete on. They do add greatly to the longevity, but there’s still a concern that you’ll burn through the game all too quickly.
This becomes even more apparent when you realise that for a game based around rivalry there’s actually very little of it. There’s no traditional online multiplayer to speak of, with Rare opting to use ‘the power of the cloud’ to allow for synchronous play. Games are played over two rounds with you attempting to get the best scores, with draws being settled on whoever played most stylishly. We also saw a general improvement when playing the same people, so there’s definitely some justification to all this cloud nonsense Microsoft has been talking about for the last year.
Most of Rivals’ main online activity is via a useful hub that lets you compete in challenges, check scores and accept online challenges and we can see it creating a nice sense of community going forward, but it does feel undercooked, as if Rare had a good idea of combating the problem of playing Kinect games online, but didn’t really know how to fully implement it. The core base of Rivals is sound though, seeing you earn experience points, coins and fans through play, which in turns unlocks extra vehicles and power-ups and funky new clothing. It’s also strangely compelling to see your fan base grow, which does spur you on.
While Rivals’ games are a mixed bag, the whole package is wrapped in tremendous presentation. Rare has some of the best tech people around and its none more apparent than when you create your champion for the first time using the scanning techniques found in Kinect 2.0. Set-up takes five minutes and the results are seriously impressive. Visually it’s great too, with lush locations all built around a stunning tropical island hub. Hell, Rare has even persuaded David “Doctor Who” Tennant to narrate the whole shebang, which adds a little bit of weight to the flimsy storyline. There’s no doubting that Rivals is an enjoyable game, but it’s not the next generation leap over its predecessors we were expecting.