Kinect Sports Rivals Review
I think it’s safe to say that just about every self-professed Rare fan dislikes (if not outright despises) the Kinect Sports series, and it’s not hard to see why. A studio once known for making worlds and characters that have left an impression on many a gamer years after they first played them, suddenly deciding to make an uninspired Wii Sports clone? Anyone would be disappointed by that. It’s not even the fact that the games blatantly chased after the success of the motion sports craze, because Rare is nothing if not an opportunistic developer. Banjo-Kazooie was quite obviously an answer to Mario 64, Diddy Kong Racing to Mario Kart, Battletoads to TMNT, Starfox Adventures to Zelda… the list goes on. The thing is, Rare would take these games and put their own twist on them, and usually make a game that was at least on par with (or better than!) its inspiration. With Kinect Sports, there was no originality, no innovation, nothing to make you take note and say “hey, that looks pretty neat”. The worst part was, it was never even really Rare’s fault. Former devs there such as Gavin Price have outright stated that the directive to make a Kinect party sports game was directly handed down from the big bosses at Microsoft themselves.
“No, see, ours is better than Wii Sports because like REAL tennis, you don’t have to hold anything while playing!… wait”
So yes, it’s no secret that just about everyone hates that era of Rare, including myself. But the interesting thing is… I’ve never actually played Kinect Sports! It seemed counter-intuitive to buy a peripheral just to try out a game that I thought looked terrible, so I never got roped into buying one of the original 360 Kinects. When the Xbox One rolled around with a mandatory Kinect bundle though, I was finally forced to check out what the chunky camera could do. And to my surprise… it was just as much of a gimmick as I thought it was. Within a day I had tossed it in a drawer, never to be touched again – until today! I have 30 bucks kicking around on an Amazon gift card, I see a digital code for Kinect Sports Rivals costs just that, and now that we have Rare Replay, Sea of Thieves, and maybe more cool stuff to look forward to on the horizon, I thought it might be interesting to review the game removed from that biased “Rare is dead” mindset. How does the game hold up on its own terms, without a string of disappointing titles permeating the air around it? Let’s find out.
The game makes a very strong first impression. Using some pixel-y sparkly Kinect-y magic, the game scans your face and turns it into your virtual avatar – and I gotta say, it was actually a reasonably good likeness of me (if a little overly chiseled and buff, but hey, you’re supposed to look like an athlete). I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I actually kind of hope Rare uses Kinect again for Sea of Thieves to perfect this technology. Most online multiplayer games let you customize an avatar, sure, but how many can say they really let you look like you? But alas(?), now that Kinect has been all but dropped from the Xbone, this is unlikely.
Sadly, this is where things take a nosedive. After creating your character and getting lessons in how to flail your arms from an extremely unfunny sports instructor, you’re dropped into a menu where you can choose from 6 sports, all exclusively controlled by your body.
Bowling: Have you played Wii Sports bowling? Then you’ve played this. You pick up a ball with either hand, then toss it at the pins, twisting your wrist a little at the end of your throw to give it some spin. It’s simple and it mostly works, and that’s about all there is to say about it.
Rock Climbing: This was the one sport I had trouble playing as the Kinect insisted on seeing both my lower body and my outstretched hands at all times, an impossible feat given that I couldn’t get any further back than where my couch meets the wall. It’s pretty presumptuous of the Kinect to expect players to have such a spacious area to play in. Not that it’s any big loss – rock climbing is fairly dull. You reach your arms out as and pretend to grab onto rocks, occasionally jumping to clamber up the cliffside quicker. There are multliple walls to climb, but the moment-to-moment gameplay still feels the same regardless of what surface you’re clambering up.
Wave Racing: Thankfully you can sit down while playing this one, though it’s the only sport in which you can do so. You pretend to commandeer a jetski by holding onto invisible handlebars and leaning left and right to take sharp turns. Tricks can be performed off of ramps and big waves by leaning back and forth, and stamping your foot (or awkwardly screaming “SPEED BOOST!” in the middle of your house at 10 AM) will give you a quick burst of speed. Honestly, the only thing this event instilled in my was a deep desire to be playing it with an actual controller, as the wave physics are pretty fun but difficult to properly navigate when forced to wiggle your limbs around aimlessly.
Seriously, with a little tweaking this could have made for a great Cobra Triangle reboot.
Target Shooting: Though it’s not saying much, this is the best of the bunch. You hold your hand in front of you like you’re gripping a pistol and aim it at various targets that appear onscreen, and automatically fire when your cursor hovers over them. Your opponent is on the opposite side of you, and sometimes you’re able to steal some points by aiming at their targets as well. Finally, you have a turret at the bottom of the screen that slowly charges up, and once shot at it will begin firing energy blasts at the opponent. They can do the same to you, and you must lean left or right to avoid shots lest you lose some valuable points. The varied ways in which targets can appear give this one slightly more longevity than the rest, but having to hold your hand in front of you with your finger sticking out can get a bit tiring.
Tennis: Wii Sports set the bar for simple motion controlled tennis, so there’s a lot to live up to here. Unfortunately, it’s less than satisfactory. You raise one hand in the air to simulate throwing a ball, and then you wave your other arm around to swing your tennis racket. It seems like it should be simple enough to get right, but nope – some slight input lag means that you’ll often totally miss the ball, and having to unnaturally keep your body facing forward when physics dictate you should turn your body when performing a swing often leads to a disconnect between what feels natural and what the game wants you to do.
Soccer: Easily the worst of the collection, this mini-game can barely be called “soccer”. It’s more like foosball than anything else, with holographic cardboard cutouts moving back and forth in an attempt to stop you from passing a ball between stationary players across the field. Once the ball is near the opponent’s goal, you make one final kick to seal the deal and score a point. Afterwards, your opponent passes back down the field (no control is given to the defending player, so usually they’ll reach you unopposed) and you’re left to try and block their shot with any part of your body you can contort far enough to reach the ball. Now, none of these sports are particularly deep, but this one in particular has no nuance whatsoever. The holograms move in predictable back and forth patterns so the only real challenge comes from hitting the ball into the goal, and even then the result is generally up to chance thanks to the spotty controls.
None of the minigames in KSR are truly godawful or totally unplayable, but they’re the definition of “easy to play, easy to master”. Once you’ve played them once or twice there’s no reason to want to go back. In an attempt to add some variety the game includes a story mode where vaguely amusing caricatures try to convince you to join one of three teams, but ultimately you’re still just watching a short cutscene before playing the same events over and over. There are also “rival challenges” that allow you to go up against friends (or AI that attempts to match the skill level of your friends) in any given sport, but these are also quite useless since it’s unlikely that you’ll know anyone who owns this, and if they do they certainly won’t want to play it again.
This has nothing to do with the review, but what the heck happened to Snakes in Space™? No, Sneaky Snakes doesn’t count.
Not even the presentation manages to save the game. The graphics when playing an event consist of generic “tropical island” fare but do the job and look pretty good as expected of Rare. The main menu on the other hand is incredibly cheap-looking for an Xbox One game, with a cartoony island hub that wouldn’t have looked out of place on last-last-gen hardware setting the backdrop for the experience. It doesn’t help that navigating it is a hassle as you must slowly drag your hand back and forth to scroll to the menu option you want (or just pick up a controller to do it… but as this is Kinect Sports, doesn’t that sort of defeat the point?). The soundtrack is mostly comprised of licensed music that makes for nice background noise but not much else, though there is one song that I suppose counts as an original track (“Collide” by Youngblood Hawke) since it was never released outside the game. I’ve had it on loop the entire time I was writing this review, and I haven’t yet decided whether I regret that decision or not.
With Wii Sports, the ease of use and the simple novelty of motion controls made it fun to come back to. With Kinect Sports Rivals, it feels like a waste of time to start up the game, sit through a ton of menus and loading screens, and fiddle around with custom gear just to play a few mediocre minigames with spotty controls. And of course, there’s the fact that Wii Sports was free with the console. Kinect Sports Rivals cost 60 dollars at launch, for an experience that doesn’t even rise to the level of a complimentary pack-in from 2006! Even years removed from the dark age of Rare, I can’t recommend Kinect Sports Rivals. There’s nothing on offer here for the seasoned gamer and casuals will quickly grow bored of how limited the sports are. Rare fans might get a slight kick out of the 6 DLC challenge packs based on series like Perfect Dark and Battletoads, but that’s about it. For as much as people hate this game, it seems to have been exactly the wake-up call Microsoft needed to realize that Rare is best left to its own devices making original and innovative games that people love, so we can at least thank it for that.