Kinecting With Friends

I just cancelled my gym membership.

It was a nice place, only a half mile from my house and never crowded when I went. It had everything I wanted in a gym, but it turns out so does my living room. Ever since buying EA Sports Active 2 for the Xbox Kinect, that is. But more about that later...

We arrived home from my sister's wedding in New Jersey to find the Kinect bundle on the front porch and a copy of Harmonix's Dance Central in the mailbox. Yes, the same Harmonix that birthed the Guitar Hero and Rock Band franchises. Nevermind the lingering hangover, the cross-country flight, and onset of one of the worst head colds I've had in years, I rushed downstairs the following morning like a child on Christmas morning and immediately connected the Kinect sensor and booted up the packed-in Kinect Adventures title.

Setting the sensor up was a breeze. I had read plenty of tips in the weeks leading up to the Kinect launch about lighting conditions and space requirements and was ever thankful for our house's large open floorplan. I shoved the couch back about 6 feet towards the kitchen, turned on all the lights behind me and was immediately detected in the "best" position for Kinect enjoyment. Kinect Adventures delivers a wonderful first impression of the technology. The disc includes a half-dozen different mini-games that seem designed to show off the Kinect's ability to track your skeleton in three-dimensional space. The games themselves lose their appeal quickly (only Achievement hunters and small children need apply), but as a tech-demo, it does its job admirably. I was at once impressed with the sensor's ability to not only track my hands and feet forward, but my head as well. And the game's ability to take random snapshots of you while playing and then upload (with your permission) Polaroid-like memories to a central website is a bit of genius.

Yours truly jumping for coins during the river rafting game.
 Dance Central (gameplay video) is the real star of this show, however. My wife and I have spent thirteen years mocking one another's [lack of] ability to dance, yet that didn't stop us from cutting a rug (technically bamboo flooring) and laughing all night as we attempted a host of dance moves set to music that I'd otherwise be embarrassed to have on my iPod. Learning to play is super easy, even for those with two left feet. Every song has its own specific set of dance moves and three difficulty modes (each successive difficulty setting builds upon the previous one with additional, more complicated dance moves). Simply pick a song, then a difficulty, and select "Break it Down" to learn the moves. The instructor will step you through the moves and you can slow it down even further at any time with a wave of your hand. Learn all of the moves then select "Perform It" to put it all together. You're goal is to try and mimic the movements shown by the dancer on the screen: the on-screen dancer's body parts glow red to show where your positioning is off.

Friends having fun with Dance Central.
One of the best features of Kinect, and especially Dance Central, was on display this past weekend during our Kinect party: the ability to track three people at once. We were all amazed at how well the system differentiated between the main dancer and backup dancers, even when arms and legs were crossing in front and behind of one another. Not only that, but the system's ability to instantly know when someone has left or entered the dancefloor was particularly impressive. Especially when it was Kristin or I since we both completed the facial recognition process and it immediately recognizes us by appearance. Kinect Sports (launch trailer) was also great fun to play during a party as well thanks to the ease at which teammates could jump in and jump out of the game as the events went by. No more passing controllers back and forth. No more loading profiles or signing players in and out of the game. It didn't matter whose turn it was; just step in front of the sensor and you were ready to go!

Gotta protect the face when the wife is coming at you with a right jab.
Unfortunately, my enjoyment with Dance Central and Kinect Sports has been somewhat limited due to the time I spend with Active 2 (game trailer). I'm simply too sore to play them. Active 2 by EA Sports is a fitness game that comes bundled with a heart rate monitor and a resistance band (the game supports using dumbbells also, which I do). I wasn't expecting a whole lot in terms of intensity so I set up a 9-week program on "hard" mode. The game uses your heart rate and weight to calculate the number of calories you burn. Each of the 9-week program's workouts typically consists of 30+ exercises and takes roughly 35 minutes to complete, that is if I didn't have to pause the game periodically while I lay collapsed in a puddle of sweat on the floor. I've burned as much as 250 calories in a single 30 minute workout with an average heart rate of 141 bpm (including warmup and cooldown).

The exercises range from pushups and squats to side-jumps and planks, but there are also several more "gamey" exercises that do a fine job of tricking you into thinking you're not working out. I was shocked to see how intense the mountain biking exercise was. It was only naturally for me, an avid mountain biker, to have pretty low expectations for this activity, but the combination of holding a squat during the descents, squat-jumping on the ramps, and sprinting the hills makes for a very intense 90 seconds of activity. Another favorite is the goal keeper exercise. Playing goalie while three players kick rapid-fire soccer goals at the net is not only fun, but exhausting. The precision of the Kinect sensor makes it clear on-screen when you're slacking. It also makes you stand up and celebrate a particularly impressive kick-save. The in-game character you create does an excellent job of mimicing your motions (even your bad ones) and the game accurately counts your reps and tracks body positioning so you know when you're slacking or not performing the exercise/lift properly.

Active 2 comes pre-loaded with over a hundred pre-set workouts that you can select from. You can also create your own custom workout by selecting which of the dozens of exercises you want to do. It's also possible to have a custom workout created on the fly by simply telling the game how much time you want to workout for, what intensity level, and what type of workout you want to target (core, legs, cardio, etc.). The degree of flexibility and customization with the game is pretty impressive and, best of all, it does a great job of encouraging you to keep at it. Weekly fitness checks help you monitor your weight and improvement through high-intensity heart rate test designed to measure your cool down. Active 2 retails for $99 USD, but I found it for $79 at Fry's and I've seen ads for Target giving away a $20 gift card with the purchase.

So am I impressed with Kinect? Yes. Does this mean I'm no longer a so-called "hardcore" gamer. Who cares? It's entirely possible to enjoy Kinect and still enjoy going online and blasting folks in Halo: Reach or settling into a game like Fallout. Kinect is not a replacement for traditional games, but rather a way for people to get more out of their Xbox, especially when entertaining. The ease of use, the laugh-out-loud fun you can have with the games, and the jump-in, jump-out nature of the experience makes it unlike anything I've played before. We had 9 people over last Saturday and every single person, including those who haven't ever owned a game system, went home intending to buy an Xbox Kinect bundle and Dance Central. And our friends with The Playstation Move were vocally wishing they had a Kinect instead.  I don't expect many great games for Kinect -- just like there aren't many for the Wii -- but I am more than happy with the ones I bought. Which is saying something, considering I originally ordered my Kinect simply for the voice and motion controls for the dashboard.


Criscipline said...

I'd like to share this post with some people if you don't mind. Nay sayers.

This sounds so freaking cool. (excellent review btw) I can't wait to get it. I need a game to trick me in to working out so hard. I know I will love Kinect so much - just have to wait a little while longer.

Jeffrey S. Carter said...

We love our Kinect at the Carter household, though I opted for Ubisoft's Your Shape because EA's joint wasn't out yet.