Kinect Star Wars: Not Half-Assed! …but not quite good.

As you may or may not have noticed, I haven’t posted in a few days. There is a reason for this: I was recording a weekend long picture-in-picture playthrough of Kinect Star Wars (video coming soon!).

I rented the game because, let’s face it, I had no faith in the product. From the shoddy E3 demos to the lackluster reviews, I knew paying $50 for the game would be a waste of money. However, as a self proclaimed “Motion Control Aficionado”, it was something I had to play. I couldn’t just take everyone’s word that the game was crap, I had to play it myself. I’m glad I did.

The experience was odd as my opinion of the game wavered drastically as I played it. At times it was jaw droppingly disappointing and yet at other times it legitimately impressed me! But one thing was certain:

Kinect Star Wars is not a half-assed game.

This might come as a surprise to some. With the announcement of the eyebrow raising dancing mini-game, many quickly wrote the game off as yet another casual family friendly mini-game collection with a Star Wars theme. But this is not the case.

The core game, Jedi Destiny, wherein you play one of a variety of Padawans and engage in light saber battles with a variety of foes, is interesting to say the least. The game legitimately tries to provide 1:1 full body motion control and does indeed deliver some of the most impressive weapon control I have seen on Kinect! However, impressive though it may be, it’s not exactly “functional”. Part of the problem is lag, but most of it is that there are too many actions you will want to do at once. The core game is very fast paced and as such you will find yourself frequently dodging, charging, and slashing all at once and the Kinect just can’t keep up. It doesn’t take long for the game to devolve into a sloppy mess of random maneuvers strung together.

It seems like Microsoft recognized this problem though and it was at that point that it began to turn into a mini-game collection. They did the best they could to make it a serious gaming experience and it fell flat on it’s face. They couldn’t cancel the game though as it was perhaps the most anticipated Kinect game of all time! If they did cancel it, what would people say? How would that reflect on the Kinect? No, they had to find a way to make the game work and that meant figuring out other Star Wars related things the Kinect could do.

This, of course, leads to the podracing. The Kinect can, kinda sorta, do racing games and with a bit of work, they were able to make the podracing quite playable. Well…as long as you turn off the auto steering (yes, seriously) and don’t try to use any items. If you do that though, it’s very playable! Heck they could have just sold the podracing part as it contains a decent number of tracks, plenty of racers, and even it’s own campaign mode!

Rancor Rampage, on the other hand, is interesting. See, playing the Jedi Destiny mode it’s clear they wanted to make the game off-rails but couldn’t. I have a feeling that Rancor Rampage was their experiment in off-rails gameplay. In it you are given full body control of a Rancor and get to smash a city. It’s completely free roaming with players twisting their shoulders to turn, walking in place to move, and doing practically whatever they want with their bodies. Shoot, I made the Rancor dance quite a bit. However it’s very clear that this experiement did not work. The Rancor is a clunky and cumbersome mess that is very difficult to control. Turning in particular is insanely difficult. A part of me legitimately thinks they tried to make Jedi Destiny like this, realized that you look like a stumbling out-of-control monster, and thus turned it into Rancor Rampage. Honestly, it’s a clever idea and I found it to be an enjoyable mess. Partly because it’s so ambitious, and partly because it’s so bad it’s good.

Of course, once you realize you have two modes that don’t really work and one mode that does, you have to balance it out. Yes, it’s here that someone had to ask “What can the Kinect do well?” and the answer was “Dancing”. Thus, the dancing mini-game was included. With 12 Star Wars-ified cover songs and an interface that’s a fusion of Dance Central and The Black Eyed Peas Experience, it’s pretty decent. It’s written off as a “corrupted file in the Jedi archives” that “could prove amusing”, so it’s not like it’s canon or anything and it is indeed quite fun.

I mean, let’s be honest here people, there are tons of fanmade dancing Star Wars joke skits and songs. Just take a look at Robot Chicken! Considering, again, it’s not even really canon; there’s nothing much to complain about…except that they didn’t do the obvious. Where are the Weird Al songs? Where is The Star Wars Gangster Rap? Where is MC Chris? No, seriously, if they had just included one of these things then the dancing mode would have instantly gained “street cred” and no one would be complaining about it! It almost makes me wonder if their exclusion was intentional and that the dancing mode was thrown in to make the game look bad so that it doesn’t make the Kinect look bad.

That probably sounds like a crazy theory, until you look at the credits. The sheer number of people involved in this game is astonishing! Seriously, these are the longest credits I have ever seen in a video game and they couldn’t even fit them all in! It actually gets to a point where they just start listing full companies rather than individual people! It makes one thing glaringly obvious: Microsoft really wanted this to work. They tried their best and threw as much money at it as possible. I can’t even begin to imagine how much this game cost to develop. But, when all is said and done, it didn’t work as well as they would have wanted.

In fact, thanks to this game, I realized a flaw of the Kinect I had not noticed before! You see, as I’ve often stated, assigning actions to gestures is not a good way to do motion control. The actions are pre-programmed and thus can be done with regular buttons and the sensor can often have difficulty telling what action you are trying to do. The best way to do motion control is to just use the sensors to give the player 1:1 control over an object. Kinect Star Wars attempts to do this, but runs into a snag. With no buttons, no definite tracking points, and no tilt sensors, it can’t track movement very well. As such, you can’t merely swing the lightsaber and have the game translate your actions on screen because it can’t tell how the lightsaber is tilted. It needs to actively determine if you are doing a horizontal or vertical swing then turn your motion into the appropriate swing. This is not only a massive headache to program but it means that once again you need to rely on some degree of pre-programmed action. The entire game is an odd mix of these almost 1:1 but kinda pre-programmed actions. You can’t just press a button to have the Rancor grab someone, the game needs to see if the hand is near a person or droid and then automatically have the Rancor grab it. You can’t merely press a button to release said person, the game has to read your arm movement and try to tell if you are just moving your arm or trying to throw someone (leading to people often sticking to your hands). It’s quite a mess to be honest, but without buttons or tilt sensors, there’s nothing they could do.

The worst of these would have to be the lightsaber duels. Since the game can’t tell how the lightsaber is tilted, it can’t tell if you are trying to defend or attack! As such, duels are actually divided into attacking and defending segments. You can only defend when it says you can and you can only attack when it says you can attack. It was, disappointingly, the only somewhat viable solution.

So, is it a good game? Well, how much do you like pod racing and dancing? Because yes, those are actually good. The rest of the game, however, is a noble experiment. Kinect Star Wars pushes the Kinect to it’s limits and shows everything it is capable of. The problem is, the Kinect just plain isn’t a good game peripheral. An incredible piece of technology, but not a controller.

But, you know what? I’d probably pick this up when it drops to $30. The podracing is worth about that much and it does serve as an interesting tech demo of sorts.

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