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Kinect Star Wars fails to live up to its potential (review)

Kinect Star Wars has been in the works for a long time.

When Microsoft first demonstrated the Kinect motion-sensing system in June 2010, it showed off the Star Wars game as a work in progress. The game made another appearance in a live demo at E3 in June 2011. Kinect Star Wars drew a lot of attention because it had mainstream appeal across generations and was also something that the hardcore gamers could latch onto as a final test as to whether Kinect could really work as advertised.

In the game, you can wield lightsabers by swinging your arm around in faux combat with evil Sith warriors, Trandoshan lizard men, or combat droids. The aim is to make you feel like a real Jedi Knight. Developers Terminal Reality, Good Science, and Microsoft Studios worked hard on this game for years to fulfill the promise of motion-sensing gameplay.

Like many other fans in the galaxy, I was willing to overlook little problems. After all, I grew up with Star Wars, and I share the common fantasy of one day becoming a Jedi Master. Unfortunately, Kinect Star Wars wasn’t worth the wait.

This flagship game confirms what I already knew about Kinect: It just doesn’t work good enough to be as fluid and magical as it should be. Kinect isn’t accurate at sensing your movements and translating them into precise controls. The sad thing is that this title had a lot of potential for a mass audience. Who wouldn’t want to swing around a lightsaber and pretend to have Jedi powers? But the game just tries to be too many different things — a fun party game, a casual kids title, and a serious game for hardcore players and adults — and doesn’t deliver on all of them.

WHAT YOU’LL LIKE

Good exercise

If any game forces you to get off the couch, this one is it. Playing Kinect Star Wars for hours at a time is physically taxing. I recorded a few thousand steps on my counter after playing for a couple of hours. I was sweating profusely by the end of it, and that was even with the frequent breaks that come with load screens. In fact, I was never so pleased to see load screens in my life so that I could get a break. It is fun enough to keep you in constant motion.

With Kinect Star Wars, the control that works the best is jumping; you can vault up into the air, do a spin, and then land behind your enemy. That’s a lot easier to do than picking up an object and tossing it, and the animated result is far prettier than what you actually do in your living room.

The exertion is considerable. In the middle of a fight with a lot of battle droids, you don’t get a break. That exercise may be good for gamers, but it may turn off some. And even the gamers who like it need a break. It’s better to trade off players if you can. I got my 12-year-old to substitute for me when I was out of breath. But when she got winded, I had to take her place.

The good thing is that I was motivated to continue playing because it was good exercise and because the exercise seemed like fun. The problem is that not everybody is going to feel the same way about saying goodbye to the couch.

An easy user interface

Kinect Star Wars is relatively easy to learn how to use. You stand in front of the TV and camera, wait for it to recognize you, and then you jump into the game. If you want to pause at any point, you simply walk out of the camera’s view. The game pauses and then waits for you to return. The only problem is that it takes a while for Kinect to recognize you when you walk back in.

When you go into battle, everything is intuitive. If you want to swing at an enemy, you swing at them. If you want to kick them, you kick with your foot. To drive something, you hold your arms out forward. You don’t have to go through an endless tutorial or wade through a manual. A five-year-old could pick it up quickly.

Entertaining mini-games

Kinect Star Wars justifies its existence through its mini -games. You can play two-player or single-player games in short bursts of time. These fun distractions include podracing, which allows you to race through the canyons like Anakin Skywalker did in Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. Another mini-game is Duels of Fate, where you can battle with imperial foes one-on-one with your lightsaber, working your way up to Count Dooku and Darth Vader. You can also play Dance-Off, a Dance Central clone game where you try to match the moves of dancers. And you can rampage through a city as a Rancor monster on the loose.

I had the most fun in the Rancor Rampage mini-game (pictured above). You are a monster who has escaped from the pit under Jabba the Hutt’s fortress on Tatooine. The Rancor stomps over to Mos Eisley and wreaks havoc, destroying everything in sight from Imperial troopers to buildings. You pull on the ground in a crouch to make the Rancor run. You bring your arms down to smash the ground. You can pick up civilians and toss them around. It is extremely bad behavior and a lot of fun if you have a frustrating day. Eventually, the Imperial forces will close in on you and take you out, or the time will run out. You can destroy Naboo, Mos Espa, Mos Eisley, and Felucia with one of four different Rancors. If you want to sweat and go crazy, this is your mini-game.

The Podracing game is a basic racer. You hold your arms in front of you and then drive the Podracer. You raise an arm to turn one direction or the other. The canyon speeds by at a fast pace, but the visuals don’t look that good. You can compete in six races across five planets: Tatooine, Felucia, Utapau, Bespin, and Coruscant. You can unlock multiple pilots and Podracers including a secret pilot, Sebulba. It’s not a particularly deep experience and qualifies much more as a part of the casual game than the hardcore racing simulation. I found it boring after just a few minutes of play.

The Duels of Fate lightsaber fighting could be a lot of fun, if the Kinect controls worked better. I had a hard time getting the gestures right. In the duels, you can’t just swing in free-form combat. You have to block your opponent’s moves and then take your turn attacking. It’s an incredibly rigid and repetitive form of combat, and it takes all the art and magic out of being a Jedi.

I was able to block overhead and right-hand strikes easily. But Kinect rarely got it right when I was trying to block a low strike or a strike coming in on my left side. When you lock swords, the natural thing to do is a Force push with your free hand. But you can’t do that. Instead, you have to push back with your body at the enemy, forcing them to step back. After ten minutes, you will know all the moves and get bored trying to do more.

Galactic Dance Off turned out to be a refreshing surprise as a mini-game. In it, you are a performer, dancing for your life in front of Jabba the Hutt and his palace entourage. You start with a funny song, I ain’t no Hologram Girl, which is a parody of Gwen Stefani’s Hollaback Girl.

“I heard you were doggin’ ships, and you didn’t think that I would hear it. People hear you bragging like that, get the engine binders fired up.”

The hilarious lyrics made me laugh, and it was amusing to see Princess Leia strut in her slave girl outfit. You have to compete against Leia for the most points scored while dancing. As with MTV’s Dance Central video game series, you match the moves of the dancers as accurately as you can. You can dance in Jabba’s palace, in Bespin (the Cloud City), Coruscant, and on the Death Star. It’s cute to see the Star Wars family of characters strut to the music. This is one of those rare intersections where both kids and adults can have a lot of fun. Accuracy helps in this part of the game, but Kinect does a good job recognizing your whole body’s movements, so bad controls don’t hamper you here.

Because these mini-games are fun, the title lives up to the goal of being entertaining for family or party players. Kids will probably like it a lot.

Variety of combat

Another thing to like about Kinect Star Wars is the variety of experiences it offers in terms of gameplay. You can swing a lightsaber, pick up enemies with the Force and push them into walls. You can drive podracers, landspeeders, and speeder bikes. And you can be a gunner in a Millennium Falcon-like spaceship, shooting down Trade Federation fighters. Whenever you get close to being winded by doing one form of combat, the game’s story changes course and forces you to learn something new. That keeps you from getting too tired from physical exertion.

Of all the different ways of fighting, I liked the space combat the best. It was easy to do. You simply hold your arms out and move the target reticle over an enemy. Firing is automatic. You can wipe out masses of enemies simply by sweeping your arms back and forth. One part where you had to dodge different closing doors was pretty cool, and it actually took some skill. But space combat was a relatively short part of the game, and it wasn’t enough to make the whole experience memorable.

The problem with the space combat was that it was entirely on rails. You had no freedom to maneuver or fly yourself. That’s a pretty limited experience, and I’ve seen it done better in many other places. The developers clearly had to dumb down the controls because of the Kinect’s limitations. Piloting vehicles is clearly not one of Kinect’s strengths. Still, it works well enough and rewards you with cool explosions.

WHAT YOU WON’T LIKE

Inaccurate Kinect controls

The heart of the game is swinging a lightsaber. If you are right-handed, you use your left hand to wield The Force, picking up enemies and tossing them aside. You swing at enemies with your right hand. You can also kick enemies or jump up in the air. When you jump, your character does a flying leap over an enemy and lands on his or her feet, ready to attack from behind. If you play in cooperative mode, then you can pick up an enemy and someone else can take it out. As I mentioned, the easiest move for Kinect to recognize and get right is the jump.

When Kinect first appeared, I cut it some slack. Games such as Dance Central were so cool that I tolerated a lack of accuracy. But this deep into the cycle, the developers still haven’t mastered matching the Kinect controls with player ability. The system rarely recognized my gesture when I tried to kick. In any given fight, the system will miss one or two of your strikes. In combat, that’s pretty bad. It could cost you your life if the game weren’t so forgiving.

Since this game took so long to make, I expected Kinect to work flawlessly. I guess we’ll have to wait for Kinect 2 for that to happen. If you couple the inaccurate controls with some tasks that aren’t so easy, the result is frustration.

For instance, as you fight on Kashyyk (the Wookiee planet), you have to deal with these giant, spider-like machines. As you pass by them, you have to toss a bomb that attaches to the spider’s metal leg and blows it up. The problem is that, with Kinect, you have no idea exactly when and where to throw the bomb. You have to die over and over again and guess at the appropriate moment. The game has many sequences like this.


A lousy story

The story is entitled Dark Side Rising, and it involves a group of Padawans, or youths who are training to be Jedi. They arrive on Kashyyk to learn how to use the Force. The training session is mercifully brief, but it exposes many of the flaws such as inaccurate Kinect controls and relatively primitive animations of characters. The campaign goes on for maybe four hours, but it’s mostly action and not a lot of fun.

The Padawans, led by the trained Jedi Master Mavra Zane and Yoda, are thrown into combat as the reptilian Trandoshans invade the planet. The youths unravel an evil plot to draw the Galactic Republic into a war. The fighting moves from the forests of Kashyyk to the jungles of Felucia, into space, and then the Core World Coruscant. Along the way, you take out a million combat droids and Trandoshans, and the boss fights range from Sith lords to blowing up reactor cores.

There was absolutely nothing entertaining or moving in this story. You had to follow Master Zane. But your character, a Padawan customized to your own choosing, has no lines of dialogue. That’s right, your character doesn’t speak. By default, you are the central player in the game, and you don’t talk. It’s a silly design choice, and it shows just how half-hearted an attempt at a story this is. Your fellow Padawans also say nothing during the game.


Dull enemies

In casual mode, the enemies are incredibly easy to kill. Since the game is aimed at kids and adults, there usually isn’t a satisfying kill scene when you do finish off your opponent. (You’ll have to wait for the R-rated version of Star Wars to come out first). When you run into a tougher battle droid, you can usually finish it off by jumping and then slashing repeatedly.

When you finally have to deal with some Sith lords, the battles gets harder. Still, they don’t really taunt you. These boss fights are frustrating because of the constrained Jedi duels and the inaccuracy of Kinect. The only thing that stops you from pounding the enemies into complete and utter submission is that the game tires you out. One of the silliest missions is when you have to pick up some objects and toss them at something. The process is so inaccurate that it slows down the pace of the combat to a crawl.


Bad animations, bad dialogue and nondescript characters

The animations of duels are augmented so that you look a lot more heroic than you otherwise would. And it’s true that the Jedi do move in cool ways, and that makes you feel like you’re moving around a lot more than you really are. But every few moments, a horribly bad animation of a character in motion will remind you that you’re in a game and not a true Star Wars fantasy. The faces of the characters are cartoon-like, and they’re so bad that they make the somewhat lousy faces in Mass Effect 3 look truly amazing. Very few of the characters in the game actually say anything.

Mavra Zane is the main character of the story part of the game, but she is simply a bossy Jedi with no real personal nuances. She leads you into battle and tells you where you have to go next. In that respect, she’s nothing more than a hotel concierge. Her lines might as well be, “This way to your next battle sir. I would say something interesting but my developers have prohibited him from doing so.” The character with the next-largest number of lines is a C-3PO-like character who is exceedingly annoying.

The game has some glitches. I once jumped over a barrier and got to a spot where I wasn’t supposed to be yet. That was because there was a battle droid waiting to be killed on the other side of the barrier. I had to maneuver my way back to the other side of the barrier, kill the droid, and then move on.

3D viewing

You can watch the game in a stereoscopic 3D mode. But this part is a gimmick. Don’t spend your money on it if you don’t already have either a 3D TV or 3D glasses. The 3D makes the whole experience blurry and disorienting.

CONCLUSION

Kids may be happy with this game. And if you want to break it out for a party, the Dance Off game is funny. It’s so rare to find a game with a sense of humor in it these days. The Rancor Rampage is quite entertaining. And so this Star Wars title has enough redeeming qualities to satisfy people who are in love with the George Lucas property.

But the writing in the main story put me to sleep. And the Kinect controls are so inaccurate that they take you out of what should be a magical fantasy experience. Clearly, more time wouldn’t have helped this game. Better writers might have salvaged it, but it amazes me that no one told the team to start over and get it right.

Score: 70/100

Kinect Star Wars was released on April 3, 2012 for the Xbox 360. A copy of the game was provided by the publisher for the purpose of this review.



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