Sports-themed minigame collections are practically a requisite for motion-controller launch lineups at this point. The Wii launched with Wii Sports, The PlayStation Move launched with Sports Champions, and now Kinect for the Xbox 360 is launching with Kinect Sports. This collection of "six major events from the sporting world" not only serves as a good demonstration of what Microsoft's new hardware is capable of, but is also accessible and fun for the whole family. There's not nearly as much fun to be had here solo as there is playing with friends, but provided you have plenty of space in front of your TV (ideally you should stand at least six feet away from it), and you're OK with working up a sweat while playing, you're sure to have a good time.
One of Kinect Sports' greatest strengths is that even if you choose to skip the brief but informative sport-specific tutorials before jumping into a game for the first time, you're unlikely to have much difficulty figuring out what you need to do. That's because, for the most part, you control these games by moving in much the same way that you would if you were participating in the sports for real. That doesn't mean you need to run around your living room in soccer or dive onto your hardwood floor in beach volleyball, of course, but your arms and legs definitely get a workout. This is especially true in the track and field events, which include long jump, javelin, discus, sprint, and hurdles. With the exception of discus, all of these events involve building up speed by running on the spot; the higher you lift your knees, the faster you run. You jump when you need to jump (hurdles change color as you approach them to help with your timing), you make a throwing motion as you approach the foul line with your javelin, and you swing your outstretched arm from back to front to get power behind your discus. All five of the track and field events work well, though because they're the most physically demanding , it's likely that much of your Kinect Sports time will be spent elsewhere.
The most sedate of the included sports is bowling, which works surprisingly well given the lack of a controller or--more specifically--the lack of a button with which to time the release of the ball. To bowl, you simply reach out with either hand to grab a ball, move left and right until the small highlighted targeting arrow on the lane is where you want it to be, and then make a bowling motion with your arm. The Kinect doesn't afford you quite the same level of control over your ball's trajectory as the PlayStation Move does in similar games, but the speed of your throw is believable, and it's possible to add spin to the ball by bringing your arm across your body as you release the ball. Like the bowling in Wii Sports, this is bowling boiled down to the bare essentials, but the absence of different oil patterns and ball weights doesn't make it any less fun. It's a little jarring that you occasionally end up using a ball that's adorned with advertising, and it's unfortunate that no more than four of you can play together, but bowling is still a Kinect Sports highlight that you're likely to return to time and time again.
Similarly, table tennis is a lot of fun and could hardly be simpler. Your onscreen Xbox Live avatar does just about everything that you do, which includes moving closer to or farther from the table and stepping from side to side. Using your hand as a paddle, it is effortless to perform both forehand and backhand shots, and the game is pretty forgiving as far as making contact with the ball is concerned. You can direct the ball more by stepping forward and addressing it early, and it's possible to add topspin or backspin by hitting the ball with an upward or downward motion, respectively. Your attempts to add spin to the ball aren't always recognized when you use a realistic motion, but exaggerating your movements so that the Kinect camera can more easily recognize them generally rectifies this problem. Exaggerated movements are also recommended in boxing, incidentally, where your punches and blocks (you don't control anything else) can either be at head height or body height.
Though they're still easy to pick up, beach volleyball and soccer are the least intuitive of the events in Kinect Sports. Both of them use onscreen prompts to let you know when you need to perform certain actions; a target that pops up to let you know where your hand needs to be to dig the ball or save a shot at goal, for example. In beach volleyball, the only other movements that you need to concern yourself with are those that you'd expect to perform on a volleyball court; setting, serving, and spiking are all recognized using realistic motions. You can even make your serves more powerful by jumping and hitting the ball in midair. In soccer, which is played five-a-side, you automatically assume control of whichever player is either in possession of or closest to the ball, including the goalkeeper. As an outfield player on offense, you need to look for runs being made by teammates and then kick your leg out in their general direction to complete a pass. Typically, you're presented with two or three passing options (represented by onscreen arrows) and have only a short amount of time to make the pass, so you have to act quickly and keep an eye out for opposing players who might intercept the ball before it reaches your intended target. The fast pace definitely adds to the fun, and the same is true on defense, when it's your job to be the player stepping left or right as necessary to intercept passes.
All six of the events in Kinect Sports (Track and Field counts as just one) support multiplayer both locally and online, and most support both competitive and cooperative play. Only two players can take part simultaneously on a single console, but it's possible for you both to team up against online opponents in beach volleyball, soccer, and table tennis. All of the events are a lot more fun to play with friends than they are to play solo, though depending on the size of the space that you're playing in, you might find that turn-based sports like bowling and long jump are the only ones that you can play comfortably with folks in the same room. You have to stand a little farther from the TV (between seven and 10 feet is recommended) when two of you are playing so that the camera can see you both. Thus, the potential for clashes of arms and elbows during hotly contested games of table tennis and beach volleyball is high if you stand close together. Fortunately, there's never any reason for you to throw punches to the left and right or even to sidestep while boxing.
In addition to the regular versions of each sport, Kinect Sports features minigames that you're free to enjoy individually or as part of the Party Play mode, which supports up to 12 players divided into two teams. Standouts include the One Bowl Roll bowling game in which you're challenged to complete different spares; Target Kick in which you assume the role of a soccer striker attempting to beat a keeper while taking set piece kicks at specific areas of a goal; and Paddle Panic in which table tennis balls are fired toward you at such a rapid rate that you must use both hands to return them all. The minigames add some much-needed variety to Kinect Sports, but, like everything else about this collection, they're best enjoyed with friends and offer only short-lived fun for solo players.
It's unfortunate that Kinect Sports makes almost no attempt to cater to solo players. There's nothing inherently wrong with multiplayer-focused games, but some sort of single-player progression beyond the option to choose different AI difficulties and earn experience points toward meaningless levels would've been most welcome. Some additional environments in which to play the included sports might also have gone some way in keeping things fresh. The colorful stadiums filled with avatars and the neon-soaked bowling alley where strikes are celebrated with laser light shows and short samples from licensed songs look great, but they never change. And that's the biggest problem with Kinect Sports: You need friends or family around to keep it interesting. If you don't have anyone to play with, you're probably not going to play it at all after checking out all of the events a couple of times. Convince your family to play on a holiday or get together with friends both online and locally, though, and good times are guaranteed.