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Kinect Star Wars preview: Pod (racing) people


At the Comic-Con panel for Kinect Star Wars earlier this week (the same panel where that R2D2 Xbox was announced), Microsoft's head of Kinect Jorg Neumann told the story of how the game itself came about. Back in 2008, when Kinect was still called Project Natal, and basically consisted of just a camera in a back room at Microsoft, Neumann and his colleagues found an engineer playing with game prototypes on the system, and one of those was a lightsaber simulator. That alone convinced Neumann and his division that Star Wars needed to be on the interface in some format.

And it turns out LucasArts didn't need much convincing either. Lead producer Craig Derrick described flying out to the Microsoft campus to see the proposal for the game, and saying among his own colleagues that all they planned to do was hold out their hand and see what happened. As soon as they pushed a hand out to the Kinect unit, said Derrick, "it knocked over a bunch of droids, and we were like, 'OK, we're in.'"

We saw the game's Force-driven droid pushing and lightsaber waving at E3, but Microsoft and LucasArts introduced a new mode to the game this week: pod racing. Anakin Skywalker's motorsport of choice is in the game as well, and I got to take a pod out for a spin later on in the week at a Microsoft preview event.

Gallery: Kinect: Star Wars (Pod Racing) | 4 Photos

The pod racing mode played surprisingly well. I've never really been a fan of pod racing in general (either in video game format or in the prequels -- don't get me started), but the Kinect interface turns out to be a pretty capable metaphor for controlling a pod's two throttles. It's a little more complicated than that -- a Microsoft rep said that your body's lean also plays into the controls of the vehicle -- but especially on the "expert" of the two control settings, there was lot of precision in moving both hands forward and back, as if actually gripping the two levers.

There are over 20 different pods to race in the game, and the player has a campaign to go through that will take them from the standard Mos Eisley track all the way up to Coruscant, where they'll race against Sebulba for a title. Derrick said that LucasArts "didn't want to recreate scenes from the films," but the Mos Eisley race plays out pretty close to the film's portrayal, with the same turns and canyons as other pod racing games, and the same arena start and finish.

Aside from just driving your pod around the track, you can also push both throttles way forward to hit a boost mode, which zooms the camera to a different points of view and gives your racer a nice burst of speed. The effect of actually moving forward while the screen zooms in works really well, and playing along, you'll find yourself looking forward to the next open stretch where you can really tear up the track.

There are other motions while racing, too -- occasionally various sci-fi vermin will attach themselves to your couplings, requiring you to make a throwing motion to simulate throwing a wrench at them. Those motions feel silly, though, and actually distract from the race itself. It would be nicer to have some more complexity in the actual race -- maybe a separate braking gesture, or some way to quick-turn when needed.

In the end, most people will buy Kinect Star Wars for the lightsabers. As Derrick said in the panel, "we've all acted out being Jedi at some point," and that's the real draw here. But pod racing is a nice extra mode to play, and a few players might find it's one of their favorite things to do in the game. There were some people who loved Phantom Menace too, remember?

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