My pre-ordered Kinect arrived yesterday in a plain brown box belying the huge amount of fun inside. Read on for my review of the hardware, some opinions about where it needs to go from here, and a short review of Kinect: Adventures, the pack-in game bundled with the Kinect hardware.
Microsoft's answer to the Nintendo Wii and the Sony Move peripheral is the Kinect - an attractive, modern looking attachment for the Xbox 360. With the promise of voice-controlled menus and movie playback, motion-controlled games, and face-controlled auto-sign in, this was an easy purchase for me, even if I hadn't have been suckered in by the hype: those videos of parents playing with the kids won me over.
What I want to describe here is how the device met my expectations.
Voice and Motion Control Menus
What We Expected
The Kinect will let you control your Xbox with your voice and hands alone! Never pick up a controller again!
What We Got
This, to me, is the Kinects biggest weakness, and shows the unimaginativeness with which control was executed. You can't actually control the menus like you're thinking: in order to control things with your voice, you first have to get the attention of the Xbox by saying "XBOX". When you've done that, you can then say "KINECT", which takes you to the Kinect Hub. This is the problem: we don't want another new entertainment hub to learn and worry about: we want to use the existing Xbox menu system. The fact is, you can only access by voice or motion the features that are currently available in the Kinect Hub, which is a pitiful listing: Video Chat, ESPN, a whole bunch of advertisements, and the ability to open and close the tray. You can't even turn the Xbox off or on.
Why didn't they come up with basic voice or hand movements for moving around in the Xbox menu system? If they can program in basic voice commands like "Dashboard", then why not "Game Marketplace", "Xbox Up", "Xbox Right", or the critical "Xbox Friends?" Why make us learn a limited hub that they will have to program specialized apps for to keep current? This whole system feels half-baked: like beta software pushed into production.
Finally, voice control does not work in Netflix, or Windows Media Center. While fixing the Netflix app is up to the Netflix team, surely they were given warning that the Kinect was on the horizon? Game developers have had the Kinect programming API for months: Netflix missed a golden opportunity to ride the Kinect wave. Having Windows Media Center not work with Kinect is downright heartbreaking, though. At my house, all of our media is recorded and/or streamed from the WIndows 7 PC sitting right next to the Xbox 360. Again, the Kinect has a massive hole in its functionality: Microsoft's flagship media center can't be used with Kinect at all. No pausing, no rewind, no changing to channel 4.
What Needs to be Fixed
Ditch the Kinect Hub, implement a menu-driving system that recognizes voice cues for each individual aspect, and device a movement system for sliding the menus around. The Kinect Hub already has a system for sliding menus back and forth: bring it to the main Dashboard. Light a fire under the Netflix team to produce a Kinect-compatible app, and pin down the Windows 7 Media Center team until they add Kinect control features.
What We Expected
Play games with your hands! Control your on-screen avatar! Drive cars from your couch without a controller!
What We Got
This is where the Kinect really shines. The games are fun - especially for kids - and are easy to pick up and master. My wife, who generally doesn't enjoy video games, said that this was "really fun!" and kept playing long after I had to get back to work.
Remember that that the Kinect needs three things that will cause you to rearrange your living room and entertainment center: lots of floor space, an extra power receptacle, and a firm ledge to sit on. All three of these were not exactly expected, and are causing lots of teeth-grinding online. Indeed, the Kinect needs you to stand between 6 and 8 feet back, and needs a good 7 or 8 feet wide at that point. It's a lot of space, and you'll have to move your couch back every time. It's so far back, in fact, that my 27" TV is actually too small to see, if we sit back down on the couch behind us and try to navigate the menus!
The power receptacle was annoying to have to find, and the ledge that the Kinect sits on has to be able to view both your feet and head, so forget about having your Kinect back on a cabinet. The best bet, if you've got small childern in the house as we do, is to wall-mount the Kinect... using the $15 wall mount that isn't available until November 22.
When you sit back down on the couch after playing (with two players) to interact with the Kinect - say to change games, or use the menu system - you will be too far back for the system to see you. It seems odd to say, but consider this: you play a game, sit down to rest, and lose control of the game. You'll have to stand back up and get closer.
The biggest concern I have about gaming with the Kinect is that there is about an eighth to a quarter-second lag between your actions and the game. This is because a hardware processing unit was removed from the Kinect in order to reduce costs. this lag isn't always important, but forget about true twitch-based reflex games. I touch on this in my review of Kinect Adventures, below.
Finally, Kinect requires that players be 40" tall. Did you know this? This means that my energetic little 3-year old is too short to play.
What Needs to be Fixed
There isn't much that can be fixed here, or perhaps that needs to be fixed. Games manufacturers will get better at massaging the hardware into producing games that are more compelling, and will begin to integrate the Kinect into mainstream games as alternate control methods. For example, in a first-person shooter, I could imagine using the Kinect to pick up hand motions that could be seen by fellow players, or to have the view screen shift left or right, or rotate, based on head movements. The Kinect has the ability to use the device as the microphone for video and voice chats, which I very much enjoy... in the dashboard. This is not possible to use in loud, explosive games like Modern Warfare 2, however, as the microphone picks up too much audio by dint of being too sensitive and too close to the main speakers. I would ask Microsoft to add an automatic switch over: when you attach a headset - whether wireless or wired - it should take precedence over, and disable, the Kinect microphone. That way, you don't have to go into the dashboard all the time to disable and re-enable the Kinect microphone. WIll Microsoft ever add the processing unit back in? I'd bet on it: my prediction is that Kinect 2.0, costing $150, will launch Christmas, 2011. You read it here first.
Adventures is the perfect pack-in: a light selection of five mini-games that show off what can be done with the system. Two are similar: control a raft down a river, dodge obstacles on a moving minecart, another two are similar: plug holes in a tank filling with water, pop balloons, and there's one twitch game: hit bouncing balls towards a set of blocks to break them down.
The control games are terrific: easy on the eyes, easy to play, and quick to pick up. Where the system begins to have trouble is in the twitch game, Rally Ball. The problem here is that that quarter second lag makes it almost impossible to hit the balls as they increase in speed. If you hit a fast-moving ball, it's the purest of luck, and is only because of the fact that your randomized hand movement pattern and/or gigantic avatar just happened to be in the way. The auto-aim is plain to see, as the balls magically reflect off your hand directly at a block, in a clear violation of "the angle of incidence equals the angle of reflection". I can't see how any racing game or shooter could ever be properly made: control lag is simply too important a factor.
All of these games are a workout, no doubt: standing up and swinging your arms is tiring no matter what game you play. All of us hardcore games rightly feared that we'd be exhausted playing these kinds of games, and we were right: you can't play this stuff for hours on end. In fact, my wife and I have entered into a pact to play purely for the exercise value!
If Kinect was never going to improve, and had only this selection of games, I'd say pass on it. The dashboard controls are half-baked, the games are too easy, and the living room requirements are too harsh.
However, we know that Microsoft is going to push this thing as their future console: I believe that we can look forward to update after update in the months and years ahead. If they can knock out the features I describe above, than $150 for Kinect will be a steal. As it is, if you have kids, then yes, buy it for Christmas. If you don't have small kids, then hold off until the feature set improves.