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Kinect Sports: Season Two review: Sports, kind of

Kinect Sports may have been little more than a tech demo for the fledgling Kinect hardware, but I'll be damned if it wasn't an enjoyable tech demo. It was the stuff of family gathering legends: A game which allowed you to interact with sporting events in a somewhat limited way, using rudimentary, instantly familiar gestures. It wasn't the most intricate or intellectual use of the device's motion-tracking capabilities, but for a launch title, it worked.

If anything, Kinect Sports: Season Two is an exquisite example of how far the Kinect's software has come over the past year -- only, not in a good way. After a few hours of mock-football, mock-baseball or, perplexingly, mock-darts, I was left with the overwhelming feeling that the Kinect can be (and has been) used for so much more.

Gallery: Kinect Sports: Season 2 (6/12/11) | 13 Photos

It's not that the game lacks ambition -- Kinect Sports 2 sets its sights high with its constituent sports, aiming its sights more on full-on games rather than one-shot events. The problem is the shortcomings which plague each of the five activities therein. Namely, players interact with the games in a fairly imprecise manner, adding a lingering feeling of disconnect between movement and response.

Take Skiing, for instance. Players can lean left or right to steer through slalom poles, crouch for additional speed or spread their legs for additional maneuverability. You'll need to jump to maintain speed as you come off the one or two ramps on the limited courses on offer, and ... that's it. After a couple runs down the slopes (or through obstacles in the sport's mini-game variation), you've seen just about everything there is to see.

Tennis doesn't fare much better. Timing is the most important factor when returning volleys from AI or human opponents, but aim is almost an afterthought. So long as you don't swat at the far opposite direction of an oncoming ball, you'll connect every time. Volleys continue like this until one player pops up the ball, and the other returns it with an impossible-to-return cross-court spike. Strategy and skill never really enter into the equation.

The mechanics behind Golf are somewhat more refined -- you aim your shot by moving around the ball, and swing by ... well, swinging. The problem is that there's no context for the power of your shot; even when the virtual caddie tells you that your distance from the hole requires a "medium" shot, there's no way of knowing how far back you should draw, or how quickly you should swing to hit the sweet spot.

Fortunately, that context becomes known after you've shot a few rounds, making Golf one of the two sports included which actually become more enjoyable with time. The other is Baseball -- two-player matches can actually become intense pitching duels if both players know what they're doing. Suggestions pop up to tell the pitcher how to throw the ball to prevent a home run; a left-handed change-up, a right-handed fastball, and so on. Once players understand how to control those pitches, the game becomes much more enjoyable.

Everything else in Baseball is a chore, however. Some hits throw the pitcher into a mini-game where they have to catch the oncoming ball, a task which frequently required me to extend my arm out of the Kinect's field-of-view. The rest of the hits task the hitter with outrunning the throw to first, which they do by running in place, which is Kinect Sports: Season Two's most infuriating chore: Even when you step with an intensity usually reserved for flashdancing, your Avatar still looks like its lazily strolling up the baseline.

Running also brings down Football, which is a shame, because most of the sport's other offerings work well. You pick your play from a book limited to short, medium and long passes, then drop back, hurling the ball to the closest open player. Once they make the catch, however, you have to flail to take them up the field. There's no dodging, no stiff-arming or spinning -- you just flail impotently, and watch your crawling avatar get helplessly pinned by a defender.

There's no reason why those options aren't afforded to the receiver, and there's no reason why the sport of Football has been delivered in such a truncated fashion. It's not just a lack of running plays: The AI opponents' drives are automated, meaning you have no influence on your own team's defense. Not only that, but there's no first downs whatsoever: Every play has to be a scoring play.

It's disappointing, but Kinect Sports: Season Two's absolute low point is Darts, by virtue of one major design flaw in the controls. You aim your shot by moving your throwing-hand, which is reflected by crosshairs on the screen. Once you've lined up your shot, you draw your hand back to lock the shot into place, and fling it forward to throw. Rather, that's how it's supposed to work: When you draw your hand back to throw, sometimes you'll move the crosshairs far, far from your intended target. Even with a practiced hand, aiming anomalies like that happen every few throws.

It's indicative of Kinect Sports: Season Two's biggest problem: The games included either demand precision which Rare simply hasn't delivered on, or require no precision at all.

It's frustrating, because the game has a lot of things to love. It's got production value out the wazoo, a licensed soundtrack which never fails to charm, and can, on occasion, be quite the party pleaser. The ability to do a celebratory dance (as reflected by the mimicked movements of your Xbox Live Avatar) upon even the most minor successes never, ever stops being entertaining -- if only there were more in Kinect Sports: Season Two to celebrate.

This review is based on a retail copy of Kinect Sports: Season Two provided by Microsoft.

Joystiq's review scores are based on a scale of whether the game in question is worth your time -- a five-star being a definitive "yes," and a one-star being a definitive "no." Read here for more information on our ratings guidelines.

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