KSR begins with a tutorial that is quite user-friendly. It uses the cameras and some head tilting to make a composite, and does come with some caveats. You’ll want as much lighting as possible, so if you don’t have a lot of artificial lighting in the room, try to open some shutters or windows and get some natural light in there. The activity selection is a bit lean, with an offering of bowling, rock climbing, target shooting, soccer, tennis, and wake racing. Fortunately, Rare focused on delivery a higher-quality version of events instead of going for sheer quantity like before.
Wake racing will be a familiar event for those who grew up loving Wave Race 64, as this is basically that but with power-ups. However, unlike the Mario Kart setup of finding them on the track, they’re tied to the crafts you’re on. Each one has a different power-up, and they’re activated by stomping down on your foot. In a fantastic callback to Rare’s past, there’s even a green and yellow one that pays homage to Battletoads — much like the Kremland sign in Donkey Kong Country 2. Basic movement is done by you holding your hands at three and nine and grip your right hand when you want to accelerate, and then shifting your body around.
Some of the movement-related frustration with the game as a whole can be alleviated by using the controller to navigate menus or activating voice commands. When it comes to selecting items for your character, you’ll definitely want to go with the voice commands because it will respond to your verbal command much faster than your hand navigation and then hand grip to confirm your selection. You have to maintain proper hand alignment while tilting, so if you’ve got coordination problems, you’ll want to use a prop to keep your hands in place. I went with a little door jamming bar and that worked really well — although for multiplayer gaming, this kind of thing would not be recommended. Since this game requires foot recognition, that means you’ll have to stand fairly far back for it to see you. This means that if you have vision problems, it will be tough to play this game — and others for different reasons.
Whenever a required appendage is out of range, the screen goes dark and the bottom right-hand corner is obscured letting you know that the Kinect can’t see everything. If you’re like me and have eye problems, then you have to move forward to see the message and then deal with worse controls since less of you can be seen. Fortunately, moving forward just tends to make it harder to boost. The core racing action and tilting around will still be recognized, and as long as you maintain a healthy lead on your opposition, a victory is still within your grasp. Still, you should prepare to move at least one or two pieces of smaller furniture around to get the most out of the Kinect.
Rock climbing is greatly-affected by this problem as you need to have your whole body recognized for jumps, while target shooting and bowling are minimally-affected. The rock climbing game was the most exciting one when the game was first announced at E3 since it seemed to have the most potential. While it’s the one hurt the worst due to how precise your body movements have to be for diagonal movement, it’s also the most exciting entry in the game. It’s got a bit of a fighting system in place that is very much like Road Rash, only on a rock climbing mountain. You can knock rivals off and help ensure a victory, and jump around to get a boost up the course. You’ll need to be careful with this though, since you have an energy gauge and messing up the jump will burn you out and lead to you falling. Fortunately, checkpoints are common, but at that point, you’re looking at a last-place finish and just wanting to finish the climb for the sake of pride more than anything else. The warning message and screen-darkening really hurt this mode since it can block rivals from your line of sight, and it’s much harder to see which color-coded cue you’ve got for your grip with a darkened screen.
Target shooting suffers a bit as well since the targets are color-coded. However, the colors are so extreme on them that even if the screen is darkened, you can still see what’s what. The biggest downside here is that the screen-filling message obscures your view of a lot of targets and will force you to either miss shots or risk taking some that cost you points. The core shooting game is a breeze though, as you just use your open hand to guide the reticule and shove it forward to shoot — it’s far more responsive for shooting than it is for menus. One might expect a shooting mini-game to be like Duck Hunt, but it’s not. It’s more of a shooting gallery, which is probably for the best until motion-tracking technology gets more accurate.
Bowling suffers the least from the missing appendage issue. The text in the corner just covers up the ball as you pick it up, and doesn’t effect your aim. I was still able to get a few strikes on my first game despite it being there, and it clearly caught enough movement to work well. Unlike the first two Kinect Sports games, there isn’t much lag between movements. It’s still noticeable, but it’s not so bad that you can’t play the games well. Motion controls aren’t quite 1:1 like a regular button press, but they’re getting closer, and this is easily the best-looking and playing motion-controlled bowling game yet.
Tennis and soccer are simplistic, and aren’t hurt too much by the sensor not seeing your feet. That may seem odd for the soccer game, but it winds up still recognizing your movements. The key for any movement with it to put some force into it for it to really connect. It will register just fine by lifting your foot up, but if you want to win, you’ll need to throw yourself into it. As a result, this will require a lot of space to play accurately. Tennis is finicky when it comes to throwing the ball up and serving, but once you get it going, you’ll be able to enjoy a rousing game of tennis that kind of lacks the appeal of Wii Sports’s props enabling you to more accurately simulate the fake sport, but it’s more responsive. KSR as a whole makes use of the new Kinect’s more responsive technology to deliver a more accurate, yet also more aggravating experience due to the screen-darkening.
There’s a team campaign that allows you to go through the tutorial and then check out a series of events for its type. XP and finishing well are required to unlock campaign events — so you don’t have all of the event campaigns opened at the start. It might seem like a rip-off, but since they’re all available to play whenever you want in quick play, this is fine. The requirement for a tutorial on each event means you would need to devote a health amount of time to each event anyway, so if you want to play with friends, that wouldn’t really work out well. It’s a good idea to either have everyone go through the tutorial to get used to things, but since you also have to unlock each event to make that happen, and they’re fairly time-consuming, that’s unrealistic. Most players will probably just stick with the quick events setup to go to any event when they want to, and just have a fun night going from game to game. The campaign is there to give the game’s owner an advantage, get some achievements, and take part in more kinds of events overall. It definitely offers a more robust experience, but the quick events are just as rewarding.
KSR’s graphics aren’t quite on par with the dazzling stuff shown off in official trailers and TV advertisements — but they’re still very good. Character models are particularly impressive, and most of the texture work is excellent. Unfortunately, the rock climbing sections bring out some flaws with muddy textures that definitely don’t feel next-gen, even if the overall presentation does. The bowling alley looks superb, and the wake racing portion is stunning. It’s probably the best-looking activity in the game, with a lot of bright lighting and smooth animation. The soccer and tennis games will dazzle you with their lighting effects as well. The animation as a whole finds a nice balance between silly and realistic, which adds to the light-hearted tone of things.
Rare’s European roots are evident in the game’s soundtrack. Rivals is chock-full of dance and dubstep that pumps you full of energy the second it starts. It’s easily my favorite part of the actual experience, and has me hoping for an official OST release at some point. It’s definitely something you would want to have in your regular rotation while going for a walk, or just to have it to listen to during a workout. There’s some voice work as well, but it doesn’t really stand out beyond being perfectly fine for the razor-thin characters people are given. Like the overall graphic style, the sound effects blend realistic stuff with a cartoony twist.
As someone who enjoyed the first two Kinect Sports games, but felt they were held back by the limits of the technology, I’m impressed by how good Kinect Sports Rivals turned out. The responsiveness is much closer to 1:1 now than it was then, and other than the issue with the screen being obscured, everything works quite well. It would be nice if there were more things offered up, but I think I’d rather have a higher-quality execution with fewer activities than have a bunch of things executed relatively poorly. The exaggerated visuals aren’t as pretty as they appear on TV, but are still pleasing to the eye. The soundtrack is the greatest surprise, exuding fun from every pore and makes the game more fun to play as a result. The increased emphasis on delivering a high quality game makes Rivals the definitive entry in the series to date, even though it lacks the plethora of modes in the second installment.
Platform: Xbox One