I'd like to consider myself a pretty hardcore Star Wars fan. While I may not get dressed up like a Stormtrooper and my slave Leia outfit is strictly for home use, I do have Star Wars tattoos! Come on, that's pretty hardcore, right? It's always a nice feeling when someone gets it. However, I'm the first to admit my supreme disappointment with almost everything to come out of Skywalker Ranch since the second half of Return of the Jedi. Sure, some of the novels of the expanded universe have been excellent and I really wish I owned a better computer so I could play Star Wars: The Old Republic online, but let's face facts... most of the other stuff has been pretty poor. It's difficult not to feel disillusioned. Kinect Star Wars, the first Star Wars title to fully use Kinect functionality (hence the name), gave me a ray of hope. Finally, the chance to wield a lightsaber and use the Force? Yes please! Sadly (yet predictably) this game is but another in a long tedious line of disappointments.
At its simplest level, Kinect Star Wars is really just a series of mini-games. However, there is a main story mode. It's called Jedi Destiny: Dark Force Rising. You play as any one of a group of young Padawans on Kashyyyk. After a brief tutorial, you are thrust into battle... sort of. After helping defend the Wookies, your character planet hops around notable locales in the Star Wars universe. It's all standard fare, so don't expect too much. However, while it's pretty thin overall, it's actually decent. It's a pity the gameplay doesn't back it up.
When watching the ads for Kincet Star Wars, you get the impression you can dance around your living room, swinging your imaginary lightsaber to slice down droids and taking part in epic battles. The problem is that the Kinect controls don't work particularly well. What is more frustrating is that it's difficult to tell if you aren't doing the action correctly, or instead the camera isn't accurately picking up your movements through no fault of your own. It seems like the camera manages to track your fairly well, but I often found myself struggling as either my moves were too fast or simply over-exaggerated.
There can also sometimes be a bit of a delay in response, especially during duels. If you manage to slog through these tedious experiences where you block an incoming attack after a ridiculously telegraphed, slo-mo build up to your opponent striking, then you have the opportunity to counter attack. It's difficult not to get overzealous in the heat of battle, but swinging your weapon too fast or too far seemed to regularly result in the animations not matching the movements. Then a second pause would follow as it tried getting back to a starting position the computer recognized. The truth is, wielding a lightsaber doesn't feel organic in the least, and it's just as disappointing as you'd think.
And that's not even including the vast move-set beyond simply flailing about with your fake lightsaber. For example, to dash forward into battle you need to step forward and put your arms behind. Unfortunately, it seemed like I was stepping forward incorrectly because I wound up crouching instead. Rather than dashing headlong into the fray, I would crouch there timidly while getting shot from all angles. Leaning from side to side is how you maneuver horizontally, but be careful... over-exaggerating that movement can lead to pulled muscles! But it's not all bad. Jumping is a well-recognized movement, and the jump attack is an essential early skill to master.
Using the Force is also a bit hit and miss. Again, any chance of this actually being cool is thwarted by the Kinect not recognizing what I was trying to do. But I think the bigger issue is the fact that the Force powers are simply underpowered. Using a Force push doesn't slam enemies against walls of fling them off parapets... instead it's more like a mild breeze ruffles their hair for a brief moment. Since these moves take a moment to charge up, it's difficult to use it effectively in battle.
When you're not swinging your lightsaber (or trying to anyway), most of the action takes the form of on-rails shooting segments. You'll pilot a space fighter as well as race around in speeders. These sections are pretty straightforward, and can actually be quite fun. Fun, that is, until you start to overcompensate for the Kinect controls and then everything degenerates. Sadly, that trend plagued some of the other game modes as well.
What's really weird is that the game itself seems to recognize that it doesn't work particularly well. If you can't get the motion right for a particular situation then a superimposed holographic image overlays the action for a moment as if to say "No, idiot, you do it like this!" Talk about removing you from the experience! I understand that this is probably more for the benefit of a younger audience, but if the controls simply worked better then the possibilities for something more elaborate holds interesting.
As much as I hate to admit it, I did actually try the dancing sections. It's shameless, but obviously meant to be at least a little bit tongue in cheek. Popular music has been re-worded with incredibly cheesy Star Wars lyrics. Hollaback Girl by Gwen Stefani is now Hologram Girl. Yeah... I know. But the Kinect recorded my movements with surprising fidelity, so that counts for something. If it's one thing the Kinect is known for, it's dancing games. But honestly, the whole thing left a sour taste in my mouth, and that's putting it politely.
The Rancor Rampage sections are good for a laugh. Running amok through some famous locales in the Star Wars universe is fun, and picking up terrorized citizens off the street and chucking them around (or eating them... mmmmmm) seems like it would never get old... until it does. I honestly can't see playing it more than a few times. The controls work reasonably well, but the movement in three dimensions suffers so trying to turn around after running into a boundary is a bit frustrating. I constantly felt myself trying to overcompensate and in most cases had to slow down to try and get the sensor to pick up my movements correctly. Having said that, I can see kids have a blast with this.
Another option is pod racing. It's fun, but it takes some practice to get used to the controls. I never really felt like I was in control of the pod. There are a fair number of different tracks to try as well as a slew of unlockable racers for when you want to try it out with friends. There is even a mini career mode you can play called "Destiny" which has you race your way to the top. But just like pod racing in general, it's cheesy at best. However, I can again see this sort of thing appealing to younger fans.
The stylized, animated graphics actually work surprisingly well, with good facial animations... some of the time. But it seems like for lesser characters they couldn't be bothered and the contrast is noticeable. The replicated animations from our real life movements sometimes look broken if the game gets caught in two minds about what you are actually trying to do. The backgrounds don't look particularly nice either: pixelated and grainy. The dialogue is as terrible as you'd expect and the obvious stand-ins for classic characters are just noticeable enough to wear on my nerves.
Despite all the problems, I actually had a few genuine moments of utter nerd glee as I sliced my way through a group of enemies. When it worked as it should, Kinect Star Wars was tolerable. Don't get me wrong, it's still laughably bad... and some of content is borderline insulting to Star Wars purists (especially the new song lyrics), but the fact is that I never felt like a Jedi, which was, of course, the point. I can see how it would have more appeal to a younger audience. Sadly, the good moments are few and far between, and I felt like most of the time I was just struggling against the controls. It was enough to make me want to go over to the dark side! All the tools are there, if only someone could get them to work right. Let me put it another way: I was very aware I was playing a game, and it was one I didn't particularly want to keep playing. There was no sense of immersion. In the end, my desperate struggle against impossible odds wasn't against the Dark Side, but rather against the Kinect.
This review is based on a copy of Kinect Star Wars for the Xbox 360 provided by Microsoft.