Hands-on with Kinect: the apartment dweller edition

Last Thursday, when Microsoft Kinect launched, I posted about Microsoft's effective marketing blitz that brought the new "you are the controller" video game system into the public eye just in time for units to hit store shelves. I finished that post talking about how I hadn't pre-ordered Kinect and was glad I hadn't, based on early reviews. Thursday afternoon I was killing time on my lunch hour and wandered into Best Buy. They had stacks of Kinect controllers for sale, and a huge demo area full of Best Buy employees checking out the system. Best Buy employees...and no customers, aside from me watching from a safe distance. My fascination with all things gadget and video game crushed my willpower and the next thing I knew I was a Kinect owner. I also picked up Kinectimals because it had cute, furry animals in it and I wanted to get my girlfriend interested. She's not that into games that have you shooting people in the face (go figure), loves animals and besides, Kinectimals had been getting pretty good reviews.

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When I got home I didn't even bother with the living room; I know there's not enough room in there. Instead I dug out my old launch Xbox 360 and set it up in our home office. Setup was much easier than I thought it would be. The microphone calibration needed the TV volume cranked way up (after which we could turn it down) but otherwise Kinect took a look around the room (it's half-eerie, half-cute watching it "look" up and down when it powers up) and gave us a thumbs up and we were Kinect enabled. We've been standing about 7 feet from the Kinect controller, which is perched on the edge of one of our office desks. We have a new puppy and there's always all kinds of puppy toys laying around and Kinect isn't bothered by ground clutter, as far as I can tell (pre-launch posts talked about having to totally clear all objects from the floor in order to get Kinect to work properly). I'm not going to do a 'review' of Kinect because I haven't explored it that deeply and plenty of dedicated gaming sites have that covered. I just wanted to share our experience. We had a lot of fun messing around Thursday night. The voice controls are as awesome as you've read and pretty soon you start feeling slightly annoyed when you encounter something you can't do via voice, forcing you to have to pick up a controller. The Kinect Adventures game that comes with Kinect involve a lot of hand waving and jumping around to accomplish simple gameplay goals. It's a good introduction to Kinect but ultimately pretty lite fare. Kinectimals, as expected, grabbed my girlfriend's attention to the point where I eventually slipped out of the room, leaving her to her fun. For the record, that was the first time she'd ever played an Xbox game alone, so I guess Microsoft accomplished their "Everyone can play!" goal. She quit when the downstairs neighbor starting banging on the ceiling and she realized it was after 11 pm. You see, Kinect games like to make you jump. Jumping is not neighborly behavior in most apartment buildings, so that's a bit of a problem. I'd love to see game makers put in a "Jump Toggle" so that you could play these games later in the evening without making a ton of noise. Anyway, we shut down Kinect for the night and I spent the next day telling co-workers how much better it was than I'd thought it would be. I was a Kinect convert! Or so I thought. Friday night, Saturday, Saturday night, Sunday... and Kinect sat silent. Neither of us really felt motivated to fire it up again. Finally Sunday afternoon I decided I'd better play some more if I was going to write a post about it. This time I tried out a demo of Kinect Joyride, the racing game that you control my turning an imaginary wheel. It worked pretty well, but once the demo was done I'd had enough. If I'm going to play a driving game I want a physical controller in my hand. Then I took my own look at Kinectimals. It was way too cutesy for me with a lot of hand-holding tutorials and cut-scenes (which, as far as I could tell, you couldn't skip) and I was surprised to find how similar the activities felt to those in Kinect Adventures and Kinect Joyride. You throw balls and drive RC cars. I'm sure there's a lot more to it; I didn't get very far. Now in fairness, I'm way outside the target demographic, but in addition to the pacing I started to be bothered by the fact that I couldn't walk around (meaning my character couldn't). You use a map to move from area to area and once there your unseen avatar stands rooted in one spot. I realized that the cracks were starting to show in Kinect; I was missing having direct control of my character (hard to accomplish without a controller). When I wanted to quit playing Kinectimals I had to wait for the game to be 'idle' to bring up the pause menu (by holding my left arm out at 45 degrees). While the game was 'busy' Kinect wasn't watching me so I had no control. Hmm. And that's really as far as I've gotten with Kinect, but the way things stand now my opinion is that it is very interesting tech that works quite well, but so far I haven't found any really compelling content. I've heard Dance Central is good but I'm waiting to try a demo first. What I'm most interested in are the 'hybrid' games that Microsoft has mentioned: games that use Kinect and a controller. I'm hoping those will work with me sitting on the couch in the living room. Imagine a FPS where you can order your AI teammates around via voice command, and peek around corners by leaning your body. That's when Kinect will really appeal to me. Sadly we're already seeing shovelware titles (see video below from Giant Bomb) show up for the system; let's hope Kinect doesn't become another haven for mini-game collections like the Nintendo Wii has. My bottom line is that Kinect is definitely an early-adopter toy for now, but the system has real potential. If you're as curious as I am about new gaming tech then it's probably worth the $150 entry fee. On the other hand, if you're on the fence don't think you're missing out on anything if you wait six months or so for the gaming library to mature. First generation titles always hint at the great things to come, but rarely last long on gamers' shelves.

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