Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Kinect Sports Season 2: Safe, Family Fun

The notion of a basic sports package for a console with motion based technology is nothing new. Wii Sports revolutionized casual gaming and Kinect Sports Season One, noted mostly as simply Microsoft's response to Wii Sports, was fun enough, but nothing special. Kinect Sports Season Two certainly ups it game when it comes to using the Kinect technology and boasts a handful of new features, but does that make it worth the buy?

Kinect Sports Season Two offers six brand new sports, replacing bowling, boxing, track & field, table tennis, beach volleyball and soccer with football, golf, darts, tennis, baseball and skiing. Each sport has three difficulty modes, Rookie, Pro and Champion, with the option of playing solo, with friends, or trying out unique challenges like Ocean Driver or Home Run Hero. Whenever you finish a complete game, usually two innings for baseball, one to nine holes for golf, two rounds for darts, best two out of three for tennis and so on, the game awards you new "fans", who show up physically as avatars in the stands of anything you play, as well as points, depending on what and how you did during the course of that session. It also totals up your calories both for the specific game and the overall time you've been playing in one sitting. Knowing the end of a game would bring me fans, points, and most importantly a calorie count, motivated me to complete a full game, even if I wasn't totally sold on the controls (oh hi, Darts), which in some cases forced me to play long enough to actually understand and enjoy it (oh hi, Football!)

Although if you are playing with a group of people and want to try a selection of games, your best option is Quickplay. The game divides you into the red team and blue team, assigning a Kinect Sports mascot to each. Then a random sport or mini-game is selected (Want to change it? You have ten seconds to swipe your hand, turning the wheel to a new random game). Whichever team prevails gets a point, and Quickplay chooses a new sport right away. Your group of friends can keep playing, switching off who plays what with no worry about signing in or out, for as long as you like.

A fun addition that helped keep the game moving outside of Quickplay was allowing the entire menu, including menus within the game, to be controlled with only your voice. Hands down this is the best voice control I've seen with any Kinect title. Granted, it didn't work as well for my voice, but my male friend playing with me almost never had an issue getting the Xbox to follow his commands. I might be mildly offended by the Kinect's predeliction towards lower tambers, but I was handily impressed with how easily my cohort could work his way through a menu without ever lifting an arm. During the golf portion as he commanded the game to "Change Club" "Driver", I could almost picture a caddy running up and handing the new club to him, faithfully following orders. The voice command is also used naturally in football, with "Ready, Hike!" and skiiing with "Let's Go!" Having the option of controlling everything with your voice makes the experience feel eons more authentic.

Authenticity seems to be a theme with Kinect Sports Season Two. The environment created for each sport is incredibly specific, down to chants of "Olly olly olly! Oy oy oy!" in the bar where you are playing darts and murmers turning to shushes on the golf course. The theme song even changes slightly for each sport, putting you in even more of a prepared mind frame.

Maybe I've been playing a little too much Dance Central 2 lately, but my favorite component of Kinect Sports Season Two is the celebratory dancing. Do well, and you are asked to dance and your avatar gets a couple moments to do whatever it is you do, and I'm telling you, your avatar has the ability to mimic your movements to a tee. It was hilarious watching them copy our all too strange dance moves. The songs that play while you dance are actually better than the song selection in Dance Central 2. Go figure.

Perhaps the biggest improvement over Kinect Sports Season One is the tech, natch. Baseball especially seems incredibly intuitive, as well as responsive, but not overly so. Pitching in particular seemed to come naturally to anyone who took the mound. I could throw a ball fast or slow, curve or straight, left or right, with no problem. Playing tennis flows as if you're actually on the court and skiing can be handily mastered after one run. Golf I found a tad more confusing, as I could never quite figure out how to change the direction I was hitting in the ball in and darts takes some getting used to, but overall, the game is a lot more fun and and a helluva lot less frustrating than Season One was.

A big complaint I often hear about the Kinect is while it's superior technically than the Wii or PS Move for something like dancing, where you shouldn't have to hold anything, it's less than ideal for sports based games, when you naturally want something in your hands, like a baseball bat or golf club. The thing people tend to forget here is that if you want to hold an actual tennis racket when you play, you can, the game picks it up just as easily as it picks up your hand pretending to hold a tennis racket.

But as fun as this all was, I don't really see myself coming back to the game very often. As I don't have any friends with a Kinect, I can't very well take advantage of the Challenge feature, where you play a sport and send your time to a friend to see how they match up. And if I'm going to use the Kinect to work out, Dance Central 2 is my choice, which I've played every day since I got it. And no, I don't generally like dancing. In terms of getting the whole family involved, or a group of friends under the age of 13, yes, Kinect Sports Season 2 is a must buy, but outside of that demographic, it has little to offer but harmless fun. Well, "harmless" might be stretching it. I'd be lying if I said my arms weren't a bit achy. Ultimately, I'd much rather dedicate my video game time to a slew of other titles. But if this type of thing is up your alley and you can guarantee playing it more than once or twice, then Kinect Sports Season Two should certainly be in your library.

Players: 1-4
Platforms: Xbox 360
Developer: Rare and Big Park Games
Publisher: Microsoft Studios
ESRB: "E" for Everyone
Rating: 3.5 Stars