A Kinect skeptic's take on Ubisoft's first offerings

CNET's Josh Lowensohn gets his hands on some of the first games coming to Microsoft's Kinect motion-control platform from French developer and publisher Ubisoft. Find out what worked, and what didn't.

Microsoft's Kinect
Microsoft's Kinect accessory, which launches in early November. Josh Lowensohn/CNET

I'll be the first to admit I'm a complete skeptic when it comes to motion control in games. I like controllers. A lot. And it's going to take a lot to sway my opinion on that.

Microsoft's upcoming Kinect accessory is the farthest you can get away from a controller and still have control of what's happening on the screen. Unlike Sony's and Nintendo's offerings--both of which can be had right now, Kinect, which becomes available at the beginning of next month, uses no controller. Instead, it tracks your body movements with its built-in camera and maps them to game controls.

Along with Microsoft's first-party efforts, there are a handful of third-party developers building games for Kinect's launch that will arrive in time for the holiday shopping season. Earlier today I got my hands on four of them from developer and publisher Ubisoft at a demo event in downtown San Francisco. The verdict? Based on my admittedly limited playtime of unfinished games, I still prefer controllers. But there were some hints of brilliance, that--if fleshed out--signal a very compelling reason to pick your body over a piece of plastic.

The first of those is a game called Your Shape Fitness Evolved. This game was featured in Microsoft's E3 keynote and is very much a competitor to Nintendo's Wii Fit series. It bundles a handful of exercise activities and minigames together and tracks your progress in each. The game then sets fitness goals and rewards so you can use it to get in shape.

What made the game incredibly enjoyable is a very solid sense of 1:1 motion with what you were doing with your body. Ubisoft is employing what it calls "player projection technology," which uses the Kinect's camera to process a 3D image of your body as it moves. This is as opposed to using a game avatar that may not mirror your body movements with as much visual believability. The end result in Your Shape is that you get almost instantaneous feedback of what your body is doing in the game's 3D space.

This factored well into a simple minigame that has you punching, kicking, and ducking. What made the experience so great is that the sequence of movements becomes quite natural and almost predictable, to the point where you forget that you're looking like a complete dork in your living room. The smoother and more connected your punches get, the bigger your score.


Announced at Ubisoft's event by the company's international brand manager, Felicia Williams, Your Shape will be making use of a new system called YourShape Center. This uploads your progress and information, such as calories burned and workout durations, to a free community site hosted by Ubisoft. There you can track the information while away from your game console, and see how other people are doing--be it your friends, or others in your geographic area.

Williams explained that YourShape Center will also be a place where people can create and track challenges. So say you want to set up a monthlong punching challenge with a few of your buddies; You can pick what minigames the challenge should work off of, what the scoring goal is, and who you want to participate. Everyone involved then sees that information both in the game, and back on the site.

Another game that took advantage of this mechanic believability was Motion Sports, a title that blends a handful of sports minigames into a single collection--much like what Nintendo does in its Wii Sports series. The title has a boxing minigame that did a pretty good job at tracking what my hands and upper body were doing. I was able to dispose of foes, and feel like I had enough control to learn from mistakes and do a better job the second time around. But Motion Sports is also the title that reaffirmed my reservations about using motion-control systems.

Motion Sports
Hang gliding in Ubisoft's upcoming Kinect title Motion Sports looks very pretty, but I found it to be physically tiring. Ubisoft

The game has a hang gliding minigame that has you using your body to steer a hang glider around a virtual city, catching updrafts and maneuvering your way into virtual rings. Within about five minutes my knees and lower back began aching as I contorted to steer my aircraft and maintain sufficient airspeed. "Would people want to do this in their living rooms?" I imagined. Because after a first go I certainly did not want seconds.

Dumbbell lifts
A demo day attendee bends down to do dumbbell lifts in Ubisoft's Your Shape Fitness Evolved. Josh Lowensohn/CNET

And this wasn't the only game that had my body hurting. A title called Child of Eden, by video game designer Tetsuya Mizuguchi, had me holding one of my arms out to both steer and shoot through waves of pulsating enemies.

The game's play mechanic is actually quite fun, as it has you targeting wave after wave of enemies, and switching between two different weapons to solve on-screen puzzles. The only problem is that to shoot with one of these weapons you have to flick your hand like you're pushing out into space. After several minutes of this flicking, along with holding your arm up, you can really begin to feel it. Maybe younger kids won't mind this, but as a writer I've got some pretty serious mileage going on these arms.

Our game demonstrator told me that shooting could be accomplished with less effort, but I found it difficult to get the game to differentiate between the smaller movements as navigation versus me firing. He said that watching Mizguchi play it looked more like a conductor directing a symphony, which sounds believable, but I'm betting there's a learning curve to getting there. That game won't be ready in time for the holidays, so for all we know the controls could get tightened up before it's released.

The last game on display, which is coming out this Fall, was Fighers Uncaged, which has you battling a number of foes in street fights. Maybe it was just being in a busy room possibly causing camera interference, but here I found the 1:1 motion feel that was so nice in Your Shape to be notably absent.

The game has you using your entire body to block kicks and punches, and of course fight back. Though instead of translating your exact body movements, the game employs gestures to do various moves. This is easy enough to get a hang of, but it feels like a missed opportunity of just letting you rail away on a virtual opponent in a way that the great majority of 3D fighting games can't capture. I managed to beat down my foes with some amount of ease, but I'm guessing my flailing would not serve me well against more advanced enemies.

These issues aside, I did found myself doing quite a bit of smiling while playing this first batch of games. In my mind, the experiences that ended up being the best were the ones that really put motion into the game without making you overthink what you were doing with your body, and why you were doing it. Are all the games from Ubisoft and others like that? Maybe not in this first batch, but it doesn't mean they can't get there.

 

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