First Look: Microsoft Kinect for Xbox 360

Are you looking for our full review of the Kinect for Xbox 360? If so, you can find it here.

"You mean you have to use your hands, that's like a baby's toy" goes the famous quote from Back To The Future II when Michael J Fox's character Marty McFly shows the kids of 2015 how to use an old arcade game.

At the time (it was filmed in 1985) the idea of just being able to use "you" to control the actions of your character on the screen was stuff of sci-fi, only to be found in the fantasies of Hollywood. Funny then that nearly 25 years later, Hollywood would be the venue for Microsoft to launch the Kinect for Xbox 360, a motion tracking accessory for its games console.

Previously called Project Natal and launched to an excited media in 2009, the accessory and the accompanying array of games that will be available to play on it are finally ready for show time. 

Microsoft Kinect for Xbox 360 is here and ready to be played. We say here and we say ready, but that's not entirely true. The technology works enough for us to have spent an evening playing with it (around 3 hours), and although that's exciting enough for us to tell you what we think, you won't actually be able to get your hands on it until Christmas. If you live in the USA that means 4 November. If you live in the UK or Europe shortly after, although one thing is for certain, you will get to play it in your home before the year is out.

So what is this "magical" device and how does it work? Kinect for Xbox 360 is a small bar that sits on a small stand beneath or on top of your television. Within that bar are a couple of cameras that track you and your friends' every move.

The clever bit is that you don't have to wear any dedicated clothing or detectors, nor do you have to hold a device like a Wii Remote. It works out where you are, and then tracking your entire body relays that information back to the software, which decodes it and then feeds that information to the game you are playing.

If controlling your console and the games that have been designed for the Kinect system with your arms, feet, head and body wasn't enough, you can also do so with your voice, giving your console commands as if you were Jean Luc Picard on the Enterprise.

From a hardware perspective there is little to it. If you've got an older Xbox 360 (the current version) you'll need to plug it into a wall socket for power and the Xbox 360 to get it to work. If you're going to have the new Xbox 360 (released in June in the US and July in the UK) then you'll be able to power it off your new console.

Once connected you get a simplified menu interface that allows you to wave your arms around to control a cursor to select icons and interact. That means checking out your Twitter and Facebook feeds as well as watching videos or viewing pictures stored on your console. Swiping your arm across lets you select individual shows, movies or music and you can fast forward, pause, stop, rewind and play either by giving it voice instructions "Xbox play" or moving your hands.

When you are not watching movies, you'll be able to chat to your friends - it's a video camera after all. Here Microsoft has announced a new service called Video Kinect, which works in a similar way to Skype video calls, just without Skype's involvement. You'll be able to talk to other users of the Video Kinect service as well as Live Chat users on their PCs. It's not the main focus, but it's a handy aside, especially if your friends are dotted all over the world, or even just your local town.

Of course, watching videos and video conferencing aren't the core things to get excited about here, even if they let you pretend to be Tom Cruise in Minority Report (sans gloves). No, the exciting element with Kinect is the already mounting number of games that you can play.

Microsoft has promised over 15 titles already for launch day and that doesn't include a selection of games expected for after launch and beyond in 2011. Ubisoft, EA, Warner Bros, Sega and Lucas Arts have all promised titles for the new accessory ranging from racing games, to fitness, to playing a Jedi knight in a Star Wars spin-off.

In our 3 hours we were able to play demos of five of the 15 launch titles: Kinect Joy Ride, Kinect Sports, Ubisoft's Your Shape, Kinect Adventures and Dance Club.

Kinect Joy Ride

Kinect Joy Ride is all about driving, but at the same time not in a serious way. It's basically kart racing with jumps and stunts.

To control the action on screen you have to stand in front of your television holding your hands as if you were holding a steering wheel. To steer you move the pretend steering wheel and amazingly, and we mean amazingly, your car changes direction based on your movements. If you want to drift you lean in that direction, while a full step left or right will force a rather big turn on the screen.

When it comes to stunts you can either lean to the side, forward, or backwards, and the latter isn't probably advisable if you've got a bad back. There is turbo boost as well, and this involves bringing both hands to your body and the pushing out as if you were firing a fireball. Not something you find yourself doing that often but you know what we mean.

Joy Ride was our first experience of the new world of gaming and we settled in very quickly, although we found that we had to be slow and purposeful to get it to respond, especially with the speed boost elements. Panic and react to quickly and the game will ignore you.

Kinect Sports

Moving on to the first of a couple of exercise titles for Kinect, Kinect Sport is like Wii Sports, giving you a range of sports to play and master from the world of track and field, bowling and other disciplines. The game loads up your avatar, just like Wii Sports, and away you go.

Here we played bowling, our favourite of the evening, ran the 110m hurdles, and then crowd control. Bowling was superb, very easy to master, and very enjoyable. Tracking your every move it allows you to put left and right spin on the ball and depending on how much you move will affect the speed of your throw as well. Yes, you can even do a two-handed granny roll, although our attempts ended up in the gutter.

As for the 110m hurdles this is energetic stuff with the game reacting to how high you lift your legs to how fast you run. You've then got to jump for the hurdles (something we struggled to time right) and you'll soon find yourself huffing and puffing if you're not too fit to begin with, especially if you want to get a good time.

Crowd control is just that with the crowd responding to your movements.

Kinect Adventures

Following in the theme of Joy Ride and Sports, Adventures is a fun platform title that is all about teamwork or two player head-to-head. There will be over 20 level types in total in the final game and we were allowed to play three of them.

White water rafting as the name suggests involves you steering a raft down a river through the "gates" and collecting tokens on the way. You play it either on your own or with a friend and that means you've got to work together to steer yourself in the right direction. It's great fun and like Joy Ride and Sports is guaranteed to bring a smile to your face, if not out-loud laughter.

After rafting we played a level that involved collecting tokens and dodging barriers. You've got to dodge, duck, dive, and move your way out of trouble and the quicker you can learn the sequence the better. Finally we played an updated version of Ricochet that is like racket ball. Needless to say there is plenty of jumping, plenty of sweating and plenty of chances to make a fool out of yourself. We know we certainly did.

At the end of each level you get to see pictures of yourself from points in the game - normally of you looking silly, and you'll have the option to have them sent to a dedicated site which can then be pushed out to your Facebook or Twitter accounts. 

Your Shape

Where the Nintendo Wii had Wii Fit, Microsoft Kinect has Your Shape from Ubisoft and EA Sports Active 2, as well as a stack of dance titles already in the works. In our evening with Kinect we got hands-on with Your Shape and while we've seen EA Sports Active 2 demoed at EA's conference, we rather like the look of Ubisoft's more serious approach.

Turn the game on and standing in front your television will see you mapped. It doesn't just track your movement, but also calculates your height, your size/frame, and related stats. Based on that information it can then decide where to put blocks for you hit, or in the case of Yoga, actually how you are supposed to stand to get into the right position.

Where Your Shape differs from EA Sports Active 2 is that Your Shape will give you an exact replica of your body on the screen relaying the information back to you in real time. Brush back your hair and it will track it, move your body and it will show you that too. It's mind-bogglingly clever.

Of course there is a point: to help you lose weight and get fit, and there are a number of exercises, gym sessions, training programmes and more to get you started. This really is a gym replacement as long as you've got a 1-metre square space in your living room.

Dance Central

Remember those dance mats you used to get? Well this is like those, but about 10,000 times better. With around 600 dance routines to master, over 30 tracks to practice against and the promise of further content, Harmonix (the creator of the Rock Band series) is hoping that when it comes to dance this is going to be the must-have game.

And judging by our attempts (we were rubbish) it is probably right. Points are scored by following the moves exactly and there are three difficulty levels to challenge you. Get it right and you get rewarded, get it wrong and the game is over.

Here our experience wasn't too great, because of us rather than the game's inability to recognise what was happening. However people that we watched, who had far more rhythm than us, really got into it, strutting their stuff as if it was Saturday Night Fever.

Verdict

Our time was brief and the console accessory isn't out until November, however we are sold. We love it. Yes you could claim we've been swayed by the excitement and hype of E3 already, but this really is a magical device that made us smile.

While the technology is original, the concept isn't entirely. Thanks to Nintendo we've been bowling in our living rooms for some time, but where Microsoft has managed to succeed here is by taking that experience and increasing it. Ditching the controller is really liberating and is only likely to help open up the genre of interactive gaming, in the truest sense, in your living room.

With that in mind, it is fair to say that if you think the idea of the Wii with its balance board and Wii Remotes is silly, Microsoft's Kinect is unlikely to change that belief. This isn't in any shape or form lazy gaming.

However, the good news is that even if you bore or tire of the Kinect features you've still got a cracking games console with plenty of decent video games either already out or to come. Add that to the entertainment functionality, Sky Player, Facebook and Twitter and whether you like Kinect or not after you've played with it you are still left with a winner, something that can't necessarily be said for the Nintendo Wii.

This is the future of gaming, and with developers already teasing us with what is possible, the journey looks like it is going to be great fun.