Review: Kinect Star Wars

KinectStarWars

A long time ago—okay, it was last year—in a galaxy, far, far away (or our own living rooms. Whatever.) Star Wars fans began to clamor for a motion-controlled videogame that would fulfill the fantastical wish we’d had since the first time we laid dewy eyes on George Lucas’s 1976 sci-fi opus. A game that could capture the whirr and thrill of wielding a virtual light saber. A game that would let us use the Force to flip stormtroopers around like blueberry pancakes at our breakfast tables.

Sorry, would-be padawans. This is not that game.

And frankly, it was never going to be. All those suspect not-quite-ready–for-prime-time demos of the game notwithstanding, we’re sitting on nearly two years of evidence that Kinect, the motion sensor device that was supposed to forever alter the gaming landscape, is very much a work still in progress. Yes, the controller-free experience is improving incrementally as developers become more familiar with the platform environment, in the same way that a rookie NFL quarterback improves after taking several Reality Fighters-sized sacks upside the head. As I’ve noted elsewhere, we’re finally moving past the days when simple things like menu navigation in a Kinect game are a routine exercise in drunken vertical yoga.

In many ways, Kinect Star Wars is the quintessential Kinect game, circa 2012. The motion-detection sometimes functions well, and sometimes reacts like a blind man attempting to perform backflips through freshly poured concrete. If you look at the Force-fed menu of gameplay options, you’ll notice that each of them is designed to showcase an existing Kinect-game genre. You’ve got swordplay/combat in the Jedi Destiny: Dark Side Rising mode. There’s a pod-racing game to cover the need for speed crowd. And yes, there’s Galactic Dance-Off, the cringe-inducing, yet surprisingly well deployed Dance Central clone in which Lando Calrissian and Slave Leia bust a move to Star Wars-inflected pop hits like it’s 2010. (You ain’t no Hologram Girl, Leia.)

What it all comes down to is this: Like most of the Kinect library, the target audience for Kinect Star Wars isn’t the diehard 30-and 40-something gamers who dissect every frame of every Lucas re-issue with acid-spiked entitlement, but the casual 30- and 40-somethings (and, more pointedly, their kids) who don’t mind people laughing at them as they flail around in front of the sensor. And for them, Kinect Star Wars holds some fun appeal.

The most serious side of Kinect Star Wars is actually its least effective. In the sadly derivative Jedi Destiny: Dark Side Rising, you’re given the choice of several Jedi avatars, but it ultimately doesn’t matter which you pick—they’re all flat and lifeless. (Where’s Starkiller when you need him?) After scoring some basic training from the likes of Yoda, you’re sent off on a series of missions that find you bouncing around the galaxy, surviving what feels like subpar cover versions of some of the original Star Wars’ trilogy’s greatest hits. During firefights, you can flip your hand back and forth to (sort of) wield your lightsaber, or you can extend your hand and roll the dice on the Force’s wonky Kinect-based targeting, hoping that it’ll zero in on the battle droid that’s blasting you into Wookie trail mix and not the rock that’s crouched nearby.

The mission set-up is actually quite jarring, a herky-jerk mix of brief on-rails combat segments interrupted by cutscenes where everything seems to run much more smoothly than it does when you’re the one actually wielding the Force. It’s impossible not to compare the way the action plays out here to the Kinect’s best game, The Gunstringer, where different gameplay styles flow seamlessly into one another, and wish the design team had shamelessly cribbed its approach. This is one instance where a clone attack would have been most welcome.

Like the Galactic Dance-Off mode—strike a pose, everybody–podracing is also fairly successful, even though it relies on interesting and detailed track configurations instead of bad song-based Star Wars puns to put its gameplay over. The control scheme, in which you extend both hands in front of you and pull one or the other back to execute right and left banking turns, is actually quite immersive. Of course, it also ensures you won’t come close to completing the full circuit before your limbs tire and literally fall off your body, but hey, you can’t have everything.

And finally, you’ve got Rancor Rampage, the mini-est of the minigames collection, but also the one that offers the most visceral thrill. It’s simple—you’re controlling a big furry beast intent on smashing and stomping everything in sight, encouraging players to flail their limbs as wildly as possible to affect said destruction. As a gameplay experience, it’s about as deep as a reflecting pool on the surface of Tatooine. On the other hand, it’s also the immersive realization of what it felt like to be one of the monsters from the old Rampage arcade game. Without the risk of unexpected public nudity.

It won’t be long before the Kinect gives way to the Kinect 2 (the former just absorbed its first price cut) and we begin to consider the next evolution of motion-control games. In a different galaxy far, far away, Kinect Star Wars could have been the gaming blockbuster that put a Kinect in every living room. Instead, like The Phantom Menace, it’ll be remembered as a moderately entertaining, ultimately disappointing Could Have Been.

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Pros:
+ Podracing and Rancor Rampage are fun in short bursts
+ Cringe in horror at Lando Calrissian’s turn on “Dancing With the Star Wars” if you must, but the bust-a moves gameplay is one of Kinect Star Wars’ best modes.

Cons:
- Lackluster Kinect controls fail miserably to deliver on the promise putting you in the boots of a powerful Jedi
- Presentation ought to feel magical, instead feels flat and derivative

Game Info:
Platform: Xbox 360 Kinect
Publisher: Microsoft
Developer: Microsoft/LucasArts/Terminal Reality
Release Date: 4/3/2012
Genre: Action/Dance/Racing
ESRB Rating: Teen
Players: 1-2
Source: Review copy provided by publisher

About the Author

Aaron R. Conklin has been writing about games and games culture for more than 15 years. A former contributor to Computer Games Magazine and Massive Magazine, his writing has appeared on IGN.com and in newspapers and alt-weeklies across the country. Conklin's an unapologetic Minnesota sports fan living in Madison, Wisconsin, home of the Midwest's most underrated gaming vibe.