Rock-Climbing Ray and the Great Kinect Adventure

The first two Kinect Sports games helped pave the way for casual gamers on the first Kinect, and while it won’t be available at launch, Kinect Sports Rivals aims for a similar success when it releases in spring 2014. At Gamescom, I went hands-on with two of the six sports Rivals will feature and got a firsthand look at the new Kinect facial-recognition technology.

First, it was time to create an avatar. While the goofy, kiddie fare of the past has been mercifully scrapped here, the new avatars in Rivals are still meant to be somewhat unrealistic—in theory, they’re supposed to match enough of your actual features so that you feel like you’re truly in the game.

Before I took control of the demo myself, I watched several others go through the face-scanning process and saw some amazingly accurate scans courtesy of Kinect 2.0—and also some that got everyone laughing. A bald man whose avatar was graced with wavy, flowing locks was probably the most humorous…at least until I took the podium.

The system immediately had trouble with my face. Usually, it can sense when you’re wearing glasses and will ask you to take them off (they’ll add some generic, Drew Careystyle black frames later). My frames were too thin (the game must have a “hipster” setting that I didn’t trigger), so Kinect scanned my face as if my glasses were actually the areas around my eyes. This led to several other mistakes, and in the end, I wound up appearing as a bald black man instead of an Italian-American from Jersey.

Allegedly, the customization in the final game will be robust enough that you can go in and fix anything you want—or give yourself ridiculous features like a blue Mohawk—but those features weren’t in the demo. So, I changed my skin tone, gave myself some hair, and threw on a beard, since goatees weren’t in the game yet, either.

The six sports featured in Kinect Sports Rivals include returning games like Bowling, Soccer, and Tennis, along with newcomers Target Shooting, Rock Climbing, and Wake Race. I was able to try two of the newest offerings, Wake Race and Rock Climbing.

Wake Race will immediately remind gamers of the N64 era, since it’s a pretty blatant copy of that system’s Wave Race 64. You race watercraft around a course, and the person in the lead after three laps is the winner.

The controls are simple, and I was surprised to find that the Kinect sensor followed me perfectly. You reach out and grab imaginary handlebars to let the game know you’re ready to go, and you control the throttle simply by opening and closing your right hand. Yes, that’s right—Kinect perfectly recognized when I made a fist or had my had open.

You tilt left or right to steer and stomp your feet to use a speed boost, which you can earn by doing tricks off ramps. Speed boosts can also be triggered via voice commands, but due to the noise level at Gamescom, this option was disabled for the demo. You can also perform tricks simply by leaning forward and back while your character’s in the air.

Once the game actually launches and your friends start creating avatars, you can, in theory, populate your friends’ games with your avatar—and vice versa. This actually reminds me a bit of Forza 5’s Drivatars, since the better you play, the more challenging your avatar will be if your friends download you into their games—making the challenge personal, even when you’re not doing split-screen in the same room.

Next, I got to try out Rock Climbing. Again, this wasn’t a very strenuous activity—maybe Rare learned their lesson from the exhausting running in place during American Football in Kinect Sports 2. All I had to do was reach above my head with open hands, grab when near a handhold, and pull downward to lift up my in-game avatar.

If I felt adventurous, I could jump up to put some distance between me and my rivals—of course, this also risked falling to a previous checkpoint in the race. But that wasn’t the best part: I could even reach out and grab rivals who were ahead of me and throw them off the course. They could do the same to me, but this actually incorporated some strategy into the experience and made it less of a blind race.

Overall, the Kinect detection wasn’t as sharp in Rock Climbing as in Wave Race, and I fell several times when the system failed to register my closed hand. I also got thrown off by a competitor when Kinect didn’t sense that I’d moved. That actually gave me the chance to see how fun Rock Climbing could be, though—I ultimately returned the favor on my competitor later on the climb.

Like with most Kinect-oriented titles, this one’s going to boil down to how well Microsoft’s motion sensor performs. Still, Kinect Sports Rivals is shaping up to be a fine continuation of the casual gameplay of the first two games, especially if the developers smash the few bugs seen at Gamescom.