Four years ago, Nintendo changed the way people played video games, with Wii, the first system that lets your body movements control game play. This Fall, Sony followed suit with its Move controller for PlayStation 3. And now, Microsoft joins in with Kinect for Xbox 360.
Microsoft Kinect does away with game controllers entirely. It uses a sensor bar with a pair of cameras that tracks 48 points on your body and an array of four microphones to pick up your voice, so your body becomes the game controller, letting you interact virtually within the game.
I spent much of the last week playing Microsoft Kinect with my kids -- ages nine and six -- and their friends. My opinion? Kinect is a great purchase for Xbox families with tweens and young teens, and is a lot of fun for the parents, too.
Out of the box
Setting up Kinect is simple. You plug the Kinect sensor into the Kinect port, place the sensor below your TV screen and turn on your system.
Kinect then scans your room to orient itself. When it's finished, you see a black-and-white image of you and your space in the lower right corner of the main screen.
Waving activates motion control and sends you to a screen called Kinect Hub, an area for Kinect-enabled games and services and games, like Zune and ESPN (Xbox features outside the Kinect hub, such as Netflix, require you to use your regular Xbox controller). You can also talk your way through menus by saying "Xbox" and then reading from the list of voice command options that appear onscreen.
Working your way through menu options by pointing at buttons isn't quite as easy as you may think. To get Kinect to recognize a choice, you have to hover over the button with your hand for a few seconds. For me that was no problem, but for my 6-year-old the wait was a challenge.
Voice commands, not surprisingly, only worked well when it was reasonably quiet. A nice touch is the box at the bottom of the screen that shows that Kinect is listening and which commands are available.
While I like playing games, I'm not a huge fan of game controllers and the complicated key combos required for many games, so using Kinect was a welcome change for me and the kids picked it up quickly. Regardless of whether you like controllers or not, for most Kinect games you won't miss the controller and most benefit from its absence.
Microsoft says to leave a minimum of six feet between you and the Kinect sensor, but I found that even the 8.5 feet that I have was barely enough, especially when my kids, ages 9 and 6, were playing. They were constantly going outside of the play zone, as they vigorously jumped, swung and leaned their way through the games. Kinect is smart enough to compensate for limbs darting outside the box or a person strolling in front of the sensor. You get a warning when you stroll too far, but if you're outside the box too long your avatar will simply disappear, which was very frustrating for my kids. Apparently young kids pay as little attention to warnings from game systems as they do warnings from their parents...
It's easy to get carried away while playing a Kinect game because the sensor translates speed into power. Mimicking a powerful spike while playing volleyball in Kinect Sports translates directly into a powerful spike in the game. Comparatively, playing volleyball with Sony's PlayStation Move in Sports Champions doesn't require as much movement, though you can still work up a sweat, and Nintendo's Wii remote can produce powerful effects on screen with just a quick flick of the wrist. Kinect definitely gave me, and my kids, a workout.
Xbox isn't just about video games, you can also watch movies, play music, view photos, and hang out with friends. For Kinect, that primarily means an easy way to browse through a video catalog, pull up some music tracks and navigate playback controls.
Should you buy it?
If you already own an Xbox 360, there's no question that this is a great addition. And at $150 with the controller and Kinect Adventures! game packaged together, it's a pretty good deal.
For those in the market for a new game system, though, the choice isn't quite as clear.
For casual gamers Kinect is a great option. It offers an intuitive interface plus video chat and easy access to movies and music. So it's more well-rounded than its main competitor, the Nintendo Wii. It's my choice for families with tween and young teen children who are looking to do more with their game system. For families with kids under 8-years old, I'd still opt for the Wii.
If you're a traditional gamer looking for a motion-based controller system, Kinect is not for you. Xbox 360 has great games for this type of gamer, but they're not built for Kinect. The clear choice here is the PlayStation 3 with Move.
A longer version of this review is cross-posted on Techlicious.com