Kinect Sports Rivals review: The crowd goes mild

Kinect Sports Rivals looks like a mobile game for the new, hit reality sports show that all of your friends will be watching, according to its prime time commercials. The game is crowded with bright colors, an excitable narrator, a hard-ass trainer, prompts to buy perks for your character and ads for State Farm.

It differs from a tie-in mobile game in a couple of important ways: It's on the big screen and is designed to use Xbox One's Kinect for every interaction. The entire game can be controlled with voice and hand motions, in theory. That theory breaks down if your pets are running around and confusing the Kinect as you play, or if your friends all want to sit on the couch behind you, or if you happen to be 10 years old, like my little brother, and miss important instructions among all the banter and color explosions.
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Kinect Sports Rivals (Gamescom 2013)

Coach, the militant trainer who refers to himself in the third person, is the embodiment of Kinect Sports Rivals' balance issues. He's loud, sarcastic and pops up to yell instructions at you in the training session before each new mini-game: water racing, rock climbing, target shooting, soccer, tennis and bowling. Kinect Sports Rivals focuses on these training exercises with lengthy cut-scenes (featuring Coach) explaining every Kinect-specific move you'll have to make in the game to come.

It's important to learn how to play, obviously, but the delivery is inelegant, and this forced training grows tedious once you realize that, yes, you do know what a kick looks like. I wanted to start playing right away, and I certainly didn't need to be yelled at first. At one point in training, Coach said he didn't want to give me a hint because he's not an advice column. I didn't even ask for a hint, but this is training.

My 13-year-old sister's assessment: "The coach is rude."

Kinect Sports Rivals is a collection of mini-games. Each sport offers one map and one way to play, though there is the single-player campaign (starring Coach) and a local multiplayer, quick challenge mode. Quick challenge mode unlocks after completing the first game in campaign, water racing. In quick play, all of the games are available, but none of them come with instructions. They're easy enough to figure out – these aren't new ideas – but the lack of instructions in this section only highlights how heavy-handed the training is when you encounter it. This hits on a larger issue of balance in Kinect Sports Rivals. The presentation, the character creation sequence and "how to use Kinect" training lessons seem more important than the gameplay itself.

Instead of a full game of soccer, Kinect Sports Rivals offers a few static opponents that slide back and forth on the pitch, and your avatar teleports to each new position as soon as your foot swings vaguely in that direction. It takes little skill to move the ball down the field, but the shoot function feels broken. You must kick when the ball enters a glowing circle near your avatar, but the actual kick lags on-screen, making a successful goal more luck than anything.

On the other hand, the character customization screen, which offers a bevy of hairstyles and facial reconstruction options, has a "Champion Gallery" button that sends you to a separate app, the Kinect Sports Rivals Hub. There you can share your stats, outfits and pictures with the online world.

This contrast speaks to Kinect Sports Rivals' priorities: There's an entire secondary Xbox app for social sharing, but there's hardly a fun game of soccer.

Other areas feel like afterthoughts: The adult and junior avatars are identical, even though you choose specifically which one you prefer. My 10-year-old brother's junior silhouette ended up with broad shoulders, muscle definition and a ridiculous jawline. My sister's adult avatar and my junior avatar have bodies so similar they could share wardrobes.

The focus in Kinect Sports Rivals seems to be on instructions and jamming in more stuff, rather than more gameplay. The games themselves are dull, relying on roughly two motions per challenge: Soccer is kick forward or to the side; tennis is swing right or left; target shooting is a pointed finger; rock climbing is hands up or down, plus a jump move; bowling is "bowl," with an aiming system that makes it nearly impossible to get a gutter ball.

The jet ski water race is the most complex activity. Players reach out their arms as if holding handlebars, making a fist with one hand to punch the gas. The course has obstacles, choppy waters, ramps and checkpoint archways to ride under, all of which takes less than a minute to clear on an average run. The course is tiny, and the intrigue fades quickly.

My brother didn't have a firm handle on his jet ski, and throughout his four-minute race, it barreled into a series of walls and at least five different bombs. He finished in first place ("That was too easy"). In my own game, I gave my opponents a 45-second head-start – by accident. Someone on the couch moved when the game asked me to signal that I was the one playing, apparently confusing the Kinect. My avatar spent those first moments spinning wildly in the water, running into walls and riding in the wrong direction. After retreating to the pause menu, I regained control. The invisible-handlebar control scheme worked fine, and Kinect recognized the small motions of my hand making a fist and releasing. That part was satisfying, and I enjoyed my first round of hitting ramps and doing tricks. I didn't crash as often as my brother, and even though I was in eighth place for almost a full lap, I soon shot to first, not seeing another competitor until the race was over.

Kinect Sports Rivals is too easy, but it has a saving grace – multiplayer modes. Playing against real people offers more of a challenge and is ultimately more entertaining, but it also makes it more likely that Kinect will run into issues.

The Xbox One Kinect is more responsive than its predecessor, but it still doesn't seem ready for this level of gameplay. My set-up meets the requirements – a clear, open floor and seven feet of playable space from Kinect to the front of my couch. Still, Kinect had trouble deciphering who was playing if anything moved in the background or just off to the sides, and it tracked motions inconsistently. It noticed whether a player was making a fist with her right hand, but it seemed to have trouble sensing the sudden reach and swing to hit an incoming tennis ball.

During a game, if Kinect can't see part of the player, the screen darkens and a red square appears in the corner with an outline of the player's body and surroundings, noting which motion it can't sense. The game doesn't pause when this happens, and the interruption doesn't go away until the player repositions or presses Y on the controller. Asking the player to focus on moving into Kinect's field of view is just as disruptive, and it all throws off whatever flow the game has going for it.

The Kinect interruptions are frequent enough to be frustrating: At least one motion in each game was broken or at least inconsistent. In tennis, Kinect had trouble sensing quick dives to return the volley. In soccer, the on-screen goal kick lagged behind the real-life swing. In multiplayer target shooting, the pointed-finger reticles jittered around, making it difficult to get a bullseye.

Kinect Sports Rivals feels cheap. A few of the multiplayer games – namely tennis and water racing – are fun in short bursts, but other games – bowling and target shooting – are duds, even with another person. The biggest challenge in gameplay is often hassling with the Kinect and, overall, the games themselves are insultingly simple. I dare you to get a gutter ball in the bowling arena. You'll spend a few frames trying, guaranteed.

As my sister put it: "I like Wii Bowling better."

This review is based on an Xbox Live download of Kinect Sports: Rivals, provided by Microsoft.

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