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Hands-On: Microsoft Kinect a Major Let Down

First there were Atari’s paddles. Then D-pads, analog sticks, and rumble packs. While most innovations in controller design have incrementally boosted the number of buttons, triggers and other inputs crammed into a two-handed brick, Microsoft’s Kinect promises to do away with them forever.

The unprecedented hands-free control device that Microsoft introduced last year as Project Natal has finally gotten a real name (Kinect), a price ($150) and a launch date (November 4). More importantly, it also has real games. After jumping, ducking and flailing along with many of the new titles for Kinect, including Ubisoft’s Motion Sports and Warner Bros.’ Game Party, it’s easy to see the appeal, but the execution remains a troubling question mark.

Put Down the Plastic

Gaming journalists seldom like to admit it, but stepping up to an E3 demo with even the most familiar controller carries with it a certain sense of anxiety. What does square do? Is left trigger brake or accelerate? Do I need to invert the Y axis? It’s the same sense of confusion and uncertainty that turns your parents, grandparents and skeptical friends away from video games. And though vets only feel it for a second with new games, it still exists.

Kinect bulldozes that sense of intimidation. Without a piece of plastic to pick up, hold properly, or otherwise fumble with, stepping into the game isn’t even a choice anymore. By the time you’re watching a game, you’re controlling it.

Ubisoft Motion Sports Test

In Motion Sports, the menus are dead simple. Every activity has been sorted into a grid on the main screen, which players can select from by merely holding their hand up and leaving it on the right one for a few seconds. A glowing profile of the player in the back of the screen makes it obvious which game you’re reaching for.

A few claps through the instruction screens, and you’re into the action.

Football

We started out with football, which would seem like an awfully complex sport to distill down into just movement. Ubisoft did it by reducing the game to merely dodging incoming defenders as you race for a touchdown. You don’t run in place, steer your character, or cradle a virtual ball. Just perform the right movement – dodge, jump, duck – at the right moment, and you’ll make it to the end zone.

It’s like Dance Dance Revolution without the music – and surprisingly difficult to master. We found ourselves crunching into the turf over and over, either from performing the wrong moves, or just doing them too late. The delay of the Kinect system makes itself most obvious when jumping, which feels like it happens on screen a full second after you’ve done it in real life. Your feet are already planted firmly back on the carpet by the time it registers.

Even if we had a little more luck with it, we can’t see this type of gameplay keeping anyone – even a casual gamer lured in by the Kinect – occupied for very long. Besides a few extra points for exceptionally clean maneuvers, its sheer monotony.

Skiing

Unlike football, Ubisoft’s skiing game actually lets you steer. The motion itself is mostly in the shoulders, while crouching controls speed (lower is faster) and clawing away at virtual ski poles lets you push off from a standstill.

Out of the gate, steering feels awkward. Although heeding the game’s instructions not to oversteer allows us not to run off the track immediately, it the character’s on-screen motions steel feel choppy and disconnected from our own. He almost seems to move in notches. Hardly the graceful carving motion you imagine with skiing.

The pacekeeping avatar that picks all the perfect lines passed us in an instant and disappeared over the next hill. Even if you can manage to stay between the gates, picking those same razor-thin lines using your shoulders to steer feels like using a butterknife to perform surgery.

Root Beer Tapper, Quarterback Challenge and more

Other titles followed a similar pattern. Warner Bros.’ Game Party offered the same dismal sense of control with graphics and kiddie themes more suited for the Wii. The only trolls we hit in the Whack a Troll game were by accident, we sloshed soda everywhere and made quite a few digital customers angry in Root Beer Tapper, and Quarterback Challenge proved to be nearly impossible.

Lots of Sizzle, Where’s the Steak?

One year ago, the sloppy and generally imprecise experiences we had with Kinect could have been passed off as pre-alpha buginess. But this is the state of Kinect in 2010, just months away from launch. With a full extra year of development under its belt, we’re not impressed with what we’ve seen.

The Kinect is not easy to use, it’s not accurate, and it’s not fun. The only worse waste of $150 we can imagine spending on the Kinect at this point is the ensuing trickle of dollars that would go into buying the present selection of godawful titles for it.

If there’s any potential for Kinect, it probably lies in its use as a tool for controlling menus. The few opportunities we had to interact with it on this level – rather than in games – it actually offered enough precision to not only work, but work well. If it can maintain that feel from a couch, reaching for the remote could become a thing of the past.

Nintendo really has a leg up on Microsoft here, and the Sony Move is definitely looking more promising at this point.