Kinect Star Wars (XBOX 360)
Since the launch of Kinect for Xbox 360 it has become clear that Microsoft created the best motion controller of this generation. The accuracy and flexibility of the system far exceeded that of Move for PlayStation 3 and was in a completely different league to the Wii equivalent. Over that time we have seen a number of games use the controller successfully with early examples such as Kinect Sports and Kinect Adventures giving hints at what direction gameplay could take. More recently Forza 4 took a stab at a stab at bringing a driving experience to Kinect, Dance Central 2 pretty much perfected that genre and Tiger Woods 13 took sports, and more specifically golf to a new level for motion control.
Always looming large in the release schedule was Kinect Star Wars and games like Rise of Nightmares with some interesting full body motion controls (running, swimming, hacking/slashing etc) showed us that the possibilities for a successful Star Wars game may just be there. Now, after a delay to add further polish, Kinect Star Wars has reached release and today we find out if Microsoft Studios (as well as Terminal Reality and Good Science) have been able to successfully transition the Star Wars universe to motion controls.
Kinect Star Wars differs from most games from the same franchise in that it offers a wide variation of game styles within the package. This isn't just a case of running about being a Jedi in an action game as many might expect. That aspect is present but from the main menu, featuring interactive C-3PO and R2-D2 we also get to access to pod racing, duel, destruction and... dancing... modes.
Starting with Dark Side Rising we have the main story element of the traditional action Star Wars gameplay. Set after the events of The Phantom Menace we take the role of a Padawan (with a choice of avatars), newly recruited by the Jedi council in the face of an ever growing threat from The Galactic Republic. A short tutorial introduces us to the main gameplay elements of lightsaber combat, close and against weapon fire. It is reminiscent of the scene in A New Hope where Luke begins his training against the floating orb. Following this we move to a second tutorial which teaches us movement and force powers before the game drops our character into a full scale battle on the Wookie home world of Kashyyyk. Making an appearance throughout the storyline are familiar characters from the Star Wars timeline, appropriate to the game setting, such as the main droid army from The Phantom Menace, a Samuel L Jackson/Ewan McGregor-esq Mace Windu/Obi Wan Kenobi (more like their Clone Wars equivalents) and even Yoda.
As well as jumping around the room with full body motion controls which include various saber swings, kicks, jumps, crouching and dodging we also have the use of force powers with our empty hand. This takes the form of the ability to grab items by outstretching our arm and then throwing/moving or pulling close to our body to create a charge before pushing towards the screen to send out a burst of power or force an enemy away. Moving forward in non-combat is generally automatic but in battle we lean forward to move our character towards the next enemy which works well. In addition to these on foot segments the gameplay is varied by vehicle use, on some occasions that see's us stand on a moving unit being piloted by a NPC, on other occasions we take control such as the speeder section early in the campaign. In this mode we stretch out our hands to take controls of the speeder, pushing forward to accelerate and pulling back to brake. Steering takes the form of leaning left and right as we travel at speed through the forest.
Closely related to the Dark Side Rising campaign is Duel mode where we take control of a Jedi character and battle with Lightsaber in an extended battle. In this mode our enemy has a health bar and stamina bar combined with the aim to deplete both in order to win, in the fastest time possible. Beat each opponent and another unlocks, once again including characters from the films with this mode including Count Dooku and Darth Vader.
Moving to pod racing it would be reasonable to assume that the gameplay mechanic is identical to the speeder section of the main campaign but this proves not to be the case. The pod's feel completely different to the speeders with more freedom to move, and steering has been completely changed. We still raise our hands to grab imaginary controls and push/pull to accelerate and brake but rather than lean our whole body we move our hands out to the left or right to steer. The races are offer varied locations and difficulty levels which also vary the length with a basic story involving Sebulba and Watto. As with many other areas in the game progress also brings us unlocks, including the ability to play as Sebula.
In Rancor Rampage mode the gameplay changes completely again, there are no Lightsaber battles, speeders or pods this time. Instead we take control of various large Rancor's and our aim is to run around and cause as much destruction as possible while completing tasks that flash up on screen. For example finding a droid and squishing it, throwing a character a set distance to their death or smashing up a particular building. To move we run on the spot, sometimes combining this with an arm movement for additional speed, or jump to jump but essentially it is a case of flailing our arms about to cause maximum carnage for a few minutes.
So that brings us to Galactic Dance Off. The format will be familiar to anyone who has played the various dance games on any of the current consoles. Pick a song, match the moves shown on screen and accumulate points to beat the opponent. Dance battles take place in familiar locations such as Jabba's Palace against familiar faces such as Han Solo or Princess Leia (in THAT costume). Songs are a take on familiar tracks with a twist, one example being Britney Spears Stronger.
As with other modes in the game Galactic Dance Off also includes unlocks, drop in multiplayer and dotted throughout the game are achievement awards which add to our gamer score. Then rounding off the Star Wars experience we have the option to buy a branded hardware bundle including console, Kinect and matching peripherals.
Graphics and Audio
The graphics in Kinect Star Wars are decent and often impress, mostly when lighting techniques are used. The locations are rendered well, appearing familiar to those who have seen the movies and the animations of our main characters are smooth, or in the case of the racing, the action is fast and frantic. Each aspect of the game has a Star Wars feel to it but there are a few issues. Most obviously the game suffers from framerate issues, especially in the main campaign where even the cut scenes can show slow-down. Hit a section of battle with a wide range of enemies in a confined space and again it happens. Elsewhere there are shadow bugs and in a rather strange move the developers have rendered some characters in an animated style similar to The Clone Wars series where as others, sometimes in the same frame, are more realistic in their appearance.
The levels, and game modes, are also often a mixed bag with the initial battle on Kashyyyk moving between areas which are lacking in detail further back in the scene, combined with other areas which are teeming with detail. Rounding things off on the visual front are some great representations of Star Wars weapons with bolts and blades looking just like they do in the movies.
On the audio front it is hard not to be impressed, voice acting is good and during battles the score is decent. Where the game really captures the right tone is in the weapon sounds which are ripped straight from the movies and the main Star Wars theme is used during the game which is never a bad thing.
The first thing which will strike the player when starting Kinect Star Wars is that the game is very much trying to use Kinect as much as possible. The menu screens are fully controlled by motion or voice, unlike other Kinect titles which often rely on a traditional controller at this stage in the game. On the whole the menus work well and are simple to use, though we did notice that some mid game screens did have voice functionality disabled which seemed odd.
Looking at what many would consider to be the main campaign first we have the gameplay mode which most impresses. Dark Side Rising initially teaches us all we need to know about controlling our Padawan and while some of the moves can take longer than the initial tutorial to master, dropping us right into the action allows us to master them reasonably quickly. The action sections are punctuated by numerous cut-scenes which advance the (admittedly average) story and give us time to recuperate between fights, something which is required because it is possible to put a lot of energy into saving the galaxy. In fact we worked up more of a sweat in this than we ever have on Wii Fit.
The controls in sabre battles, both the campaign and duel mode, are responsive and accurate even down to the ability to jump and swing at the same time for a more advanced attack. Force powers are also easy to recreate with our movements and the flexibility of the controller also working well for vehicle sections. Where they do fall down a little is in the more task orientated aspects, for example trying to ride a vehicle while grabbing an explosive charge and using force to throw it and hit the legs of an enemy machine. Not a hard task with time but given the gameplay speed in sections such as this it can result in repeating the area over and over to successfully achieve the goal. That said the game does drop us back into the action immediately, a change to the pre-level loads which are a bit on the long side.
Moving to podracing we have a shorter game segment which on the whole is more successful than the single player gameplay as it is more focused. The story playing out between races again isn't great and adds limited value, mainly playing on the fact it will cause players to think back to the first film (or fourth, depending on how you look at it). When we actually get to race though the action is good, controls decent... though they will take a race or two to master and overall it is a challenging mode. We doubt anyone will jump into a pod and finish first in all the races, or even the first and easiest on their initial attempt. It is also worth noting that the slowdown which is present in Dark Rising mode is not noticeable here, thankfully. There is one issue though and that is the fact that no title has quite mastered completely comfortable race controls on Kinect, yet. We saw this in Forza 4 too where holding an imaginary wheel doesn't feel quite right, and arm fatigue is common whereas titles such as Mario Kart on Wii provide that fake wheel (which confuses Kinect, we tried) giving that title and format a more familiar control style. It doesn't ruin the game mode, far from it, we just think there must be a different approach that will take racing to the next level on Kinect though.
That brings us to Galactic Dance Off... a mode which will very much split opinion. Before Kinect Star Wars was released we had spoken to others and mentioned that we would be "dancing round the room pretending to be a Jedi"... which they took to mean a dance mode was in the game. Jokes were made that surely that wouldn't be the case, how bad an idea it was for the target audience and having read little about the game before playing which allows us to enter it with an open mind, we were surprised to see that a dance mode is included. Does it work? Well on some levels it does, the moves and speed are a lot more basic than the true dance games for Kinect and there is limited value in seeing key characters dancing to Star Wars editions of popular songs but there is really little to draw any adult gamer into the mode for long periods, especially if they have another full dance title for the console. In a way it looks like the developers themselves were a little unsure of the mode, referring to it as adding humour/laughs more than once in the on-screen blurbs.
Rancor Rampage might well have fallen into the same Great Pit of Carkoon as Galactic Dance Off but in fact turns out to be one of the more fun aspects of Kinect Star Wars. This is the mode that provides the fun and humour that dancing fails to achieve as we are made to run or jump on the spot while waving our arms and legs around to cause maximum carnage. There is just something great about being a massive destructive Rancor that is hard to put into words... it's like being a kid again really.
On the multiplayer front, drop in mode allows a friend to join us in battle, or dance, and the action moves to split screen as required but gameplay remains the same. It offers an added layer to the game and works well but interestingly, unlike many other 2-player Kinect games, Star Wars is probably better played Solo with plenty of room and fewer audience members to witness us.
The plots, when used, are reasonably basic but good enough to keep us playing, or give us some much needed rest between sections. The action can also be fast and frantic in Jedi, duel, pod and Rancor mode but some slowdown and visual issues do detract from some otherwise decent graphics. That said the main campaign is a lot of fun to play and offers a significant workout in the process for those who really get into the motion controls. Pod racing is also good, dancing not so much, but the real fun comes in the form of Rancor Rampage as we connect with our inner child.
Not the epic, must buy, Kinect title many had hoped for but a solid attempt which is worth investing in as it is one of the better motion controlled games available. A good basis for Microsoft to build on in a sequel which will hopefully offer an expanded story with more focused gameplay mode using Jedi and pod themes with the other aspects maybe appearing as unlockables along the way.