Kinect Star Wars review: Needs Force feedback

Let's just get this out of the way: in its current state, the Kinect can't deliver a true lightsaber experience. The device's input lag combined with the hardware's finicky nature simply won't allow it. That's not to say that Kinect Star Wars isn't without its merits. There are a few decent ideas hidden in its sub-games, even some fun to be had, but the overall package is lacking.

I suspect some Star Wars fans (or parents of Star Wars fans) will find its Force pull irresistible, but even the most dedicated Jedi is likely to find it underwhelming.
%Gallery-146706% Kinect Star Wars takes the "grab bag" approach to Kinect game design, offering up numerous game concepts, as opposed to one single, cohesive experience. Of all the selections available, "Jedi Destiny: Dark Side Rising" comes the closest to being a full experience, featuring a rather lengthy campaign that serves as a side story to everyone's favorite part of the Star Wars saga, Episode I: The Phantom Menace.

As a young Jedi-in-training (or Padawan, if you speak nerd), you team up with your master and another Padawan (player two) to stop a nefarious plan to attack the Galactic Senate. The plot throws in plenty of fan service, including obligatory Yoda, Obi-Wan Kenobi, Mace Windu and Chewbacca cameos. The biggest fan service of all might be Jedi Master Mavra Zane, who bears some resemblance to Bastila from Knights of the Old Republic, largely thanks to the fact that both were voiced by Jennifer Hale (meaning you might also experience a few Commander Shepard flashbacks).

The story hits all the expected notes, reminding fans of their favorite Star Wars moments without actually being their favorite Star Wars moments. There's a handsome rogue, a daring space mission to destroy a ship's core, a battle on a floating barge over a Sarlacc pit. I remember these things mostly because they are familiar, whereas the rest is generally forgettable.

That is, however, except for the part where you kill droids and Trandoshan lizard people, which you do a lot. With the exception of a few powerful characters that must be dueled one-on-one, every enemy in Kinect Star Wars is either a droid or a Trandoshan. While there are several classes of each, the strategy for battling them is always the same: close distance, hack to death.

Using the Force with your left hand is genuinely satisfying when it works, whether you're pushing foes away or lifting them into the air and launching them in a direction of your choosing. Unfortunately, many enemies are inexplicably immune to the Force -- at least they were on the higher difficulty I played. Also, picking up an object to slam into a foe can be very tricky, with the game often attempting to lift the enemy instead of the object. In my experience, the game consistently targeted Force-immune enemies instead of the objects I thought I was targeting. As you can imagine, it's pretty frustrating.

With Force powers out of the picture, the majority of conflicts boil down to the same thing: rush the droid/Trandoshan and slash away. Of course, dashing straight in leaves you vulnerable to blaster fire, so the best strategy is almost always to Force jump, which conveniently places you behind the enemy and allows you to dole out a special, unblockable lightsaber attack. Since these tougher enemies block most of your attacks, and the fiddly Kinect controls made blocking theirs a chore, repeatedly jumping and slashing was consistently the most effective strategy.

One-on-one duels fare a little better, requiring players to block incoming attacks and then follow up with their own attacks. Even then, you're left with an unrealistic exchange in which your opponent attacks you for a thirty seconds, and then you retaliate for thirty seconds. Still, anticipating the direction of an attack and deliberately blocking by moving your arm feels good, though actually attacking feels mostly like semi-directed flailing.

Surprisingly, the best parts of the campaign are the space combat missions. Holding an imaginary yoke, you aim your craft's guns by tilting your arms and body (ironically reminding me more of The Last Starfighter than Star Wars). Your ship goes along a predetermined path, but taking down fighters and turrets comes naturally and makes good use of the Kinect's abilities. It's one of the areas I wish was explored in more depth, and it's strangely absent from the remaining mini-games.

The games that are available include Podracing, Duels of Fate, Rancor Rampage and ... Galactic Dance Off. Podracing works well enough as an arcade racing experience. Players control the left and right engines with the appropriate arm, allowing them to turn, brake and boost, while quickly raising an arm will activate a power-up. Duels of Fate offers more one-on-one battles similar to the campaign, although you'll have to battle nameless soldiers to unlock the duels you actually want to play (i.e. Count Dooku and Darth Vader). Rancor Rampage puts players in full-body control of a Rancor beast and tasks them with destroying a city, eating its citizens and generally creating havoc. It's surprisingly entertaining to stomp on droids or topple buildings with a two-handed smash, and the intuitive controls make it fairly easy. In fact, I'd go so far as to say Rancor Rampage is better than any of the other games (and makes me think someone should dust off the Rampage license).

Which brings us, oh so reluctantly, to Galactic Dance Off. This mode has you dancing to parodies of popular songs with the lyrics rewritten to include ridiculous Star Wars references. "Genie in a Bottle" becomes "Princess in a Battle," while "YMCA" becomes "Empire Today," and so on. Suffice it to say that it's a poor, desperate man's Dance Central and its inclusion in the package is straight up baffling. Honestly, the depiction of a Han Solo as a dancing dreamboat could very well drive Harrison Ford to commit suicide just so he can roll over in his grave.

One of the venues is Jabba's Palace, which seems appropriate enough given the Hutt's penchant for debauchery. What is not appropriate -- and this will be the nerdiest thing I've ever written -- is that Princess Leia is his reigning dance champion. You know, Princess Leia, Jabba's personal slave, who happily removes her chains to take the floor and show off her sexy moves. I know it's a joke, but really? No one else thought of this? Couldn't she dance in the Mos Eisley cantina or something?


But maybe I'm taking it too seriously. After all, the above screenshot represents the sum total of the "Help" section for Galactic Dance Off. If that's all the explanation the developers think it needs, I guess I'm done writing about it. It's a family Kinect game, and thus requires a dance mode; I get it. It's goofy, and at least some of the songs are funny.

Kinect Star Wars has some good concepts, a few of which are actually well-implemented, but the overarching experience doesn't hold up. Lightsaber play feels disconnected -- especially in the same generation as The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword -- and the Kinect just isn't able to do it justice. Like many early Wii titles, the sub-games feel more like activities than actual games. There are some enjoyable bits here and there -- notably the flying sections and Rancor Rampage -- but for the most part, the Force pull of Kinect Star Wars far exceeds its Force grasp.

This review is based on a retail copy of Kinect Star Wars, provided by Microsoft.

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