After months of build-up, Microsoft's Kinect is finally available on store shelves. It's been promising a new way to play and experience games, but that's something we've heard from other game-makers in the past. Really the question you want to know is: Should you go out and buy Kinect? Hopefully by the end of this article, you'll have your answer.
What Is Kinect?
Many of you probably already know this, but for those just joining us, Kinect is basically a camera that sits on top or below your TV. Once plugged into your Xbox 360, the camera is able to track your movements in front of it, allowing you to control game characters and events by just moving your body. The Kinect camera also has microphones built into it, allowing you to speak basic commands to your 360 like "Play Disc" and "Fast-Forward." You can also use it to chat with friends.
How Much Does It Cost?
If you already have an Xbox 360, you can buy the stand-alone Kinect camera for $150. In addition to the camera, you'll also get a free game packed in: "Kinect Adventures." If you don't have an Xbox 360, you can buy a bundle for $300 which includes a 4GB console, Kinect and "Kinect Adventures." There's also a $400 bundle which includes a 250GB console instead of the 4GB one.
Short answer: Between $150 and $400.
The Pros And Cons: The Tech
At a basic level, the tech behind Kinect is very cool. The camera's sensors allow the system to track your body's movement in a 3D space (in this case, your living room) without you having to hold anything. It's unlike anything we've seen in video games before, and far more advanced than the technology we saw in the Wii.
Neediness. Because Kinect is tracking you with a camera, it needs good lighting and ideal surroundings. If you're lacking either, you're going to see the camera have serious problems keeping up, often glitching out, telling you that you're not standing in front of it when you most definitely are. Even in acceptable lighting, Kinect seems to only work flawlessly about 90% of the time and you're more than likely to run into body-tracking issues in even the best of circumstances.
The required space is probably the biggest problem facing Kinect. You need a lot of it. From the point where the camera is resting, you need, at the very least, 7 square feet of open space in front of your TV. No couches, no coffee tables, no nothing. Just open space. If you live in a metropolitan area, this is likely to be a problem. Personally, I was forced to build a make-shift shelf behind my TV in order to have enough space.
The Pros And Cons: Games
You'll be happy to know that my favorite of the Kinect launch games is actually "Kinect Adventures," the one you get for free when you buy Kinect. It's a polished, fun game designed for all ages that demonstrates just about all the features of Kinect through a series of mini-games. While not as ground-breaking as "Wii Sports" was a few years back, this is likely to be the game you pop in whenever you want to show Kinect off to friends.
For those non-gamers looking to buy Kinect as an exercise-encourager, you've got two decent options in the form of "Your Shape Fitness" and "Dance Central." If you're looking for a yoga-style workout, "Your Shape" offers a slow-paced regimen of workouts for beginners, intermediate and advanced users. Worth noting that because you'll be doing some of the exercises lower to the ground, you'll need even more space in front of your TV, so plan for 8-9 feet here.
As for "Dance Central," this is more of the high-impact option. The game uses the Kienct camera to track your movements as you match the choreography on-screen. All of the songs in the game (which include hits like "Poker Face," "Just Bust A Move" and my Bell Biv Davoe's "Poison") are fast and require a lot of movement, so you're likely to be feeling the burn after just a few minutes. There's even a counter that shows how many calories you've burned in the game.
(In the interest of full disclosure, "Dance Central" is published by MTV Games, which is part of our parent company. But the game's still good.)
Lastly, if you're looking for a game for the young one in your family, "Kinectimals" allows kids to raise and train a variety of jungle cats. The game is presented as a "Dora the Explorer"-style experience, so if the kid is older than 8, they're likely to roll their eyes. Younger kids, however, will eat this game right up. Also, if you're able to ignore the condescending narrator, it's not half-bad for adults, either.
While the above games are solid choices, it's worth noting that none of them are what I'd call "system sellers." They're fun games, don't get me wrong, but when it comes to quality, there's simply nothing on the level of a "Wii Sports" or a "Gears of War" in that line-up...the sort of launch game that will convince you that your $150 was well-spent. Perhaps in aggregate you'll come away with that impression, but none of them manage to stand on their own.
In addition, there's a whole mess of really dreadful games for Kinect which you should avoid like the plague. Games that either don't work or are the total opposite of fun.
The first of these disaster games is "Kinect Sports," which clearly attempted to cash-in on the "Wii Sports" phenomenon, but ended up being a mix of sub-par minigames with poor controls. And, by the way, running in place wasn't fun when we did it in "Track & Field" on the NES...and it's certainly not fun now.
"Joy Ride" is another one to avoid. The "Mario Kart"-style racer has you driving a car by sticking your arms out in front of you...something that will get old and exhausting after the first race (let alone after a dozen). Insensitive controls don't help, and you're likely to be slamming into walls more often than not.
The Pros And Cons: Non-Game Usefulness
Kinect does unlock some features for your 360 beyond just being able to play new games. Video Kinect is a new way to video chat which uses the camera, and it works rather well, allowing you to chat with someone else with Kinect or someone on Windows Messenger. Since the camera knows where you are, it can actually follow you around the room or zoom in to whoever is talking. It's extremely neat and is a cool way to stay in touch with friends across the country.
Also handy is the built-in microphone, as it allows you to play games with friends without needing a headset. The game's audio will actually automatically lower itself as friends are talking, so you can sit on your couch and chat with friends in-game without looking like an extra from "Top Gun."
In terms of out-of-game functionality, the above is really it for the useful features that Kinect adds. There's a new Kinect Hub which allows you to browse certain Kinect apps using just your hand, but right now the Hub is basically a ghost town. Almost everything in there doesn't actually require Kinect, including the recently-added ESPN 3 app. Netflix on 360 also has no Kinect support whatsoever, which is a big omission, considering how popular it is.
You can also browse friends and send invites through Kinect, but this process is way more cumbersome than it would be with a controller. Accepting a friend's game invite, for example, requires that you pass through no fewer than three menus, each of which taking between 5 and 10 seconds to get through. It's clumsy and worthless for setting up friend interactions beyond Video Kinect.
So we've come to the real question: Should you buy Kinect? Well, that depends on what sort of person you are. If you're the sort of person fascinated by new technology, who needs to be on the cutting edge of gaming, Kinect is worth your time. Some of the games are genuinely fun and you may get some use out of video chat. It's also extremely cool tech and the experience of playing it is unlike anything I've seen before.
On the flip-side, if you're a non-gamer who bought the Wii a few years ago to play "Wii Sports" and "Wii Fit," but you haven't touched the console in months, you should skip out on Kinect, as it's likely to gather even more dust in your apartment.
As for the hardcore gamers, you should wait it out. Despite the cool tech, none of the launch games are going to be anything you'll be playing a month from now, and there's no top-tier, first-party title like a "Gears of War" or a "Legend of Zelda" to entice you. Those games may be coming in the future, but for right now you should feel safe in knowing that you're not missing out.