Microsoft Kinect makes your Xbox 360 into something else entirely. No longer is it the clumpy, whirring console exclusively for gamers willing to put up with endless red rings of death. Instead, it becomes the essential console for family gaming, making everything the Wii offers look, well, four years old. And it’s a software update’s throw from making the Xbox 360 the essential set top box, full stop.
Read our full Microsoft Kinect review to find out why we think it’s the gadget of the year.
Any seasoned gamer has been there. It’s Christmas, and your family has decided for once that they’re actually interested in what you’re playing. You try to show them how to join in, but even on the family friendly Wii, that still involves tying them up in a series of bands, remotes and nunchuks. Is the controller safely secured to your aunt’s wrist? DON’T MOVE WHILE IT CALIBRATES NO TOO LATE. And then there’s the whole explaining thing when their Mii starts running into a wall and they still wonder what they’re doing wrong and isn’t this stupid let’s just watch Eastenders. Sigh.
Microsoft promised to do away with that with Kinect, and it has. This glorious bit of kit sits under your telly, almost always works without a hitch, and makes enormous break thoughts in certain types of games, while admittedly encouraging mini game tat in others. But hey, you don’t have to use it just for games, and we’ve got a feeling that Microsoft Kinect will become a lot more over time.
Let’s be clear: Microsoft Kinect isn’t small. The sensors are the size of coins, and they flash and glow occasionally. At around 29x8x8cm, it’s much bigger than a PlayStation Eye camera, to the point where it won’t sit on top of most new TVs at all. There’s little in the way of design flourish, but it is black like the new Xbox 360, and you probably won’t see it under your TV if it’s the same colour, except when broad daylight is streaming through the windows. You get the feeling Microsoft simply made it the shape it needed to be, and that’s fine.
The set up
One of the big worrying points of Microsoft Kinect has been set up, but we have to say, it was pretty painless for the most. Once you install the latest update, you just plug the Microsoft Kinect camera in: new Xbox 360 slims have a dedicated port for it, but it’ll require a USB port and a mains plug on older models (the cords are all supplied). You’ll then be prompted to position and calibrate it quickly (or rather, it calibrates itself, you just stay quiet), and then be walked through a tutorial – which ironically, you need a gamepad on hand to click through.
Then, you’re away, assuming you’ve got the space to use Microsoft Kinect properly, which is the heart of the issue. In the room we used to test Microsoft Kinect, we placed the camera just in front of our 32-inch TV, on the same stand, approximately 60 centimetres above the ground. It’s worth noting that Microsoft Kinect is quite chunky so it’s unlikely that it’ll sit on the top of any recent TV comfortably, unlike the stick thin Wii sensor bar.
With this set up, we found we needed a space between 2 and 2.4m away to play comfortably, depending on the game. Kinectimals and the Kinect hub could both be controlled much nearer, and in the case of the latter, sometimes sitting down too. But games like Fighters Uncaged kept pushing us back until we were close to the opposite wall. Given that you can pull off axe kicks in Fighters Uncaged, that’s probably just as much to stop you booting your telly, but we have to say, space really is an issue. You will need six or seven feet of space in front of your TV.
We’ve had readers asking about whether low light made much of an issue while using Kinect, and we understand this concern well. We have poxy eco-bulbs which are about as powerful as moody backlighting in a smoky jazz bar in our living room, but we tried it out once any natural light had vanished, and we didn’t notice any difference in performance whatsoever, in both single and multiplayer.
Using Microsoft Kinect
We were bowled over the first time we tried Microsoft Kinect earlier this year, and that’s still true now. After catching you quickly, it locks on recognising every flailing limb and gesture with seemingly no lag. You just point to an icon for a second, a dial comes up and when it fills, that option is selected. You’ll need to get used to raising your hand to the side of your body when pointing, but once you do, the experience is seamless. It gets to grips with which hand you want to use very quickly.
In truth, Microsoft could have learned from some of the third party developers for Kinect: some games have a colour coded icon to indicate which of your hands are in control, while Dance Station’s vertical menus you move your arm and up and down make much more sense than the horizontal menus in Xbox better suited to gamepads.
But the most telling fact is that when we had relatives try out Microsoft Kinect, it just seemed perfectly natural to them to step in front of the camera and grab the virtual driving wheel. None of them, from a nine year old girl to a 54 year old man, were even surprised that they didn’t need to use a controller, and nor did they get confused as to who was in control in the menus. Make no mistake, Microsoft Kinect works, and brilliantly.
The Kinect Hub
The beauty of Microsoft Kinect is that once you’ve hit that power button with your big toe, you don’t need a gamepad at all. On start up, you’ll be taken to the regular dashboard, but after a couple of seconds while the camera loads, you’ll notice something a little different: a window in the corner, tracking your movements. Kinect is already tracking you, trying to find your hands, and once it does, they’ll glow white. All you have to do is wave, and you’ll be thrown straight into the Kinect Hub, which never takes more than three seconds. See in the video below for how it all works.
Once you’re in, controls work just like they do in a game: you can hover over an icon to activate, and from here you can open games, head into Xbox Live for Zune, Sky Player and Last.FM, and adjust Kinect settings, though we found we never had to.
Speaking of all those features: they work well, so long as you have Gold membership and points stored up already on your account. You hold down on movies to pick them, or tell it to pause and play. It’s really convenient, but the limitation with Microsoft Kinect is that it only works with these core services. You can’t open all the video files stored on your PC and start streaming them to your Xbox 360 as you can with a gamepad, so if you don’t want to watch the latest Hollywood blockbusters without a remote, right now you’re out of luck. We asked Microsoft if there were plans to introduce Microsoft Kinect browsing to all your media, but a spokesperson declined to comment.
For the most part, the Microsoft Kinect Hub is in keeping with the design of the general dashboard. But there are some odd UI inconsistencies that we came across in our testing however. Firstly, it’s not always clear when the Kinect dashboard is activated by the pause gesture, and when the in game menu will be. We’d like to be able to pull the former up at any time also, but as it stands, to shut down quickly your best bet is still to reach for your gamepad or walk across the room. Secondly, the navigation is sometimes a mess. You can swipe through your achievements, but moving from page to page requires a completely different movement to anywhere else in the dashboard, where you activate the arrow and then swipe in the opposite direction.
Another thing we did notice however is that there doesn’t seem to be a way to eject a game using Kinect gestures. You can only play a title, or open and close the tray so long as it’s empty. A strange oversight, but not that much of a bugbear, and everything else works so smoothly that it’s hard to complain.
Microsoft’s pulled together a slightly larger launch line up for Microsoft Kinect than Sony did for PlayStation Move, with 19 games good to go from launch. We’ve tested seven of these, and you can read individual reviews of them by checking out our Kinect games: launch line up feature, but in short, most won’t appeal to long time Xbox users raised on trigger finger first person shooters.
They’re simplistic, revolving around basic core concepts like running on the spot, or in the case of Kinect Joy Ride, simply steering left or right. Someone used to playing Halo on Legendary, or with all the achievements unlocked on Mass Effect 2, will be left with the feeling that they’re insubstantial.
But as hilarious multiplayer games for everyone in the Redknapp family to enjoy, they’re extremely impressive. Kinectimals is utterly adorable, Kinect Sports is even funnier than Wii Sports and Dance Central is one of the games of the year, annihilating anything the Wii has to offer when it comes to busting a move in your living room.
There is the odd glitch with Microsoft Kinect. Inevitably, it doesn’t get the right hand you’re using 100 times out of 100, so now and again you’ll pause for a second to adjust – especially if there are two people in view of the camera. We also triggered the pause menu by accident now and again. But for pure motion control, these hiccups are negligible. You’ll rarely have to faff around with calibration by pointing at stuff, as you have to all the time with PlayStation Move. For such groundbreaking tech, this is a mighty achievement.
We suspect there are more than a few people out there who are still wading through Fallout: New Vegas, and have both Call of Duty: Black Ops and Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood on pre-order. You know what you want from a game, and most of the Kinect games ready for Microsoft Kinect launch day won’t tempt you – and until more comprehensive media control comes to Kinect, we suspect little will change your attitude.
Likewise, if you’re after true 1:1 motion for fast action games, it’s not as accurate at speed as PlayStation Move, with games still going down the stock animations road for all but gentle movements. Table tennis on Sports Champions, for instance, is much more impressive than its equivalent in Kinect Sports.
But for the price (£129 on its own), Microsoft Kinect still represents a phenomenal way to get the whole family involved in gaming in a manner that not even Nintendo has managed. And there’s so much potential, we’re aching with excitement. Sure, an Xbox 360 with Microsoft Kinect may cost almost twice as much as a Wii, but it’s worth it.
Kinect has topped our Top 5 list of best gadgets of 2010 and best Xbox accessories, which is why we’ve given it our Recommended rosette. Check out more Top 5s here and find out more about how they work with our Top 5 guarantee.
We also put Microsoft Kinect into the hands – or rather waving distance – of loyal Electricpig readers to see what they think. Read all about it in our Microsoft Kinect review: Reader Inquisition!