Sunday, October 31, 2010

Kinect Gold Subscriber Preview Night - Toronto

Set to change the way we play, Kinect launches for the Xbox 360 this coming Thurs. Nov. 4th. This past Tuesday, Xbox Canada held a preview event in downtown Toronto where Xbox LIVE Gold members could come by, try out Kinect, and compete for awesome prize packs!

The Gold Subscriber Preview Night was my first experience with Kinect, and like many of you I've read both good and bad about the new technology from various media sources. Personally, I wasn't expecting too much going in besides a gimmicky new peripheral for my console, and I'm happy to say that Kinect was much more impressive than I first suspected.

The venue is a rented location right across from the Eaton Centre at 207 Yonge Street (and you can actually still go there now for about another month to play whenever you like, no RSVP or Gold membership required!) and the ground floor has several booths set up with consoles, Kinect sensors, and Kinect games for the general public to try. The Gold Subscriber Preview Night was held on the second level, and after signing in at the front desk, I was permitted to walk upstairs and take in the relaxed setup that Xbox Canada provided.

With IKEA couches and Kinect themed decorations everywhere, as well as free snacks and drinks for all ages, the Preview Night not only encouraged guests to interact with the half-dozen booths set up with Kinect, but to also relax and socialize with the wonderful Canadian community members who could attend. The basic design of the venue was very well done, as Kinect is all about the social experience of getting off the couch and playing with friends and the location's layout certainly encouraged this!

Promotional staff were walking around the entire floor helping people learn about Kinect, answering questions, and of course, regulating the competitions for some sweet prize packs! The prize packs were of high quality, consisting of copies of Crackdown 2, Halo: Reach, Fable III, Xbox 360 Fable III Limited Edition Controllers, etc. I'm not talking individually either, I mean all of these things were part of one prize pack and were awarded several times throughout the night! Talk about promotion!

Now one very important thing to note about Kinect at this event is that the games were still beta versions as Microsoft is developing the hardware and software right up until launch, so while most of the launch titles were present they didn't have all their features, and for Kinect itself, facial and voice recognition was not used.

Having said that, I was quite surprised by how well the technology actually worked. All one had to do was simply approach a booth and stand a few feet back from the sensor, wave to assume control, and begin playing! I watched many people play Kinect Adventures!, and the ease at which people could control their raft and move their Avatar to collect coins around the game levels was most impressive. Regrettably I didn't get to try Kinect Adventures! myself, but I did experience several other titles.

First up was Kinect Sports where I tried for a prize pack. Bowling was the game being played when I tried, and the promo staff set the ground rules of requiring multiple strikes to continue. This was my very first attempt with connect, and I did not score a strike and was disqualified, but that's alright. Next up was Kinect Joy Ride, where Jeff, Xbox Canada's product manager, took me through how to play the game.

Like most Kinect titles, once the sensor is tracking you the cursor simply moves with your hand-guided motions. Stop the cursor over an option and a circle draws around it in a clockwise direction. This gives you a few seconds to move the cursor or, once the circle is complete, to select that option. For Kinect Joy Ride itself, once you're in-game you simply position your hands like you're holding a steering wheel and turn that wheel to drive your vehicle. Bring your hands close to your chest and you begin charging a Turbo Boost, and once you've built enough charge, thrust your hands forward to really launch your vehicle!

Personally, I found the sensor could be a little too sensitive while steering, and one promo staff member pointed out that while playing, I had also been moving my body and not just the "steering wheel," which in this case throws the sensor off a bit. It's something apparently a lot of new players have trouble with in Kinect Joy Ride, but once you get past that the game handles very smoothly. If you actually get some air time you can even spin around to cause your vehicle to spin!

The next and final game I tried was Kinectimals, in which I got to play and interact with a lion cub. I was able to throw Frisbees or Mexican hats at targets to score points, and the cub would run out and fetch used Frisbees for me. What was pretty cool was that leaning your body would actually tilt the camera angle, allowing you another way to adjust your aim. If you threw too fast though, the sensor might not properly track you, but if you used fluid, steady hand motions, you could often hit targets rather easily.

When I was done, the next person who stepped up for Kinectimals was a child. He was about 5 years old and being me, I spent some time helping him, assisting a promo staff member in instructing him on how to play the game. Sometimes he'd move too close and fall outside of the sensor's field of view, or he'd move too fast and not be tracked properly, but he was having a great time. He actually played a game with the cub itself, teaching it tricks by standing up, rolling around on the floor, or doing hand motions. The child was having a great time, laughing and telling his mom about everything he was doing, and this above any other experience that night really showed me Kinect's potential: that anyone, of any age, really can just jump right into a Kinect game and even if they aren't doing things quite right, they can still have a wonderful and entertaining experience.

Visually, I was quite impressed with the various game's graphics. While not Unreal Engine quality, they certainly looked very nice, and textures were crisp, fluid, and detailed, as were the various character animations, particularly that of the cub from Kinectimals. The environments of Kinect Adventures! also looked very well done.

I must confess I was certainly impressed with my Kinect experience. I only got to spend about 30 minutes overall trying out the various above games, but the tech was quite easy to use. I'm still not 100% sold on it though, as I think the motion tracking tech could be improved to be a little less or a little more sensitive depending on the title, but the potential is certainly there in spades. At this point, the target audience for Kinect is different than my personal style of gaming. After a long day at the office, do I want to come home and jump around my living room annoying my neighbours, or do I want to sit on my butt, drink and beer, and play some Halo: Reach?

If you guessed the latter then you've been paying attention, but that's certainly not to say Kinect won't be a great accessory to parties and casual living room gaming environments. Kinect is certainly something I will be keeping a close eye on in the months to come, and depending on how Microsoft improves and supports Kinect post-launch and if more mature or innovative games are made available that suit my tastes better, we'll, my neighbours just might be telling me to stop banging around after all.

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