I review games from the perspective of an adult. I mention this because my daughter just informed me that if she were the one writing a review of Kinect Star Wars, she’d give it “100 out of 10” and tell readers that any parents who don't purchase it for their children are bound to have a “rebel alliance of kids” on their hands. (I know. She's awesome.)
Like many kids her age she has an unabashed zeal for all things Star Wars. It was impossible for her to not like the game. LucasArts had her from the moment R2-D2 and C-3PO stepped onto the main menu screen. And had I not eventually stepped in to switch off the TV, I’m pretty sure she would have played until she died of exhaustion, like a goldfish mindlessly gorging itself to death.
I don’t blame her. She’s just a kid. When I was her age, my greatest concern was that I would die in a car accident before the release of Return of the Jedi and never know if Han Solo was doomed to spend eternity as a carbonite relief. (I did a lot of traveling on my Raleigh Mity Mite the summer of 1982.)
Point being, kids who adore George Lucas' galaxy far, far away are bound to happily overlook most of the problems I’m about to point out, which will likely lead to Kinect Star Wars becoming the most popular Kinect game yet released. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Kids like what kids like. But my job is to let grown-ups know they aren’t going to get much out of it.
Except maybe a heart attack.
There are five different ways to play, and all of them, save perhaps Podracing, prove exhausting when played at length. That’s not a demerit. It's just a fact. It’s terrific for kids who need more exercise, not so great for geeky grandparents with heart conditions.
The meat of the game comes in the Jedi Destiny mode, where players take on the role of a padawan under the tutelage of previously unknown but instantly likeable Jedi master Mavra Zane (voiced convincingly by Mass Effect 3’s FemShep, Jennifer Hale). We move through events that take place in the background of the second trilogy, visitiing the wookie homeworld Kashyyyk, zooming through cruiser blockades, and exploring the lush but inhospitable world of Felucia.
This is the mode in which we get to live out our childhood fantasies, brandishing a lightsaber in one hand and a wielding the Force with our other. But it’s not as much fun as you might have imagined.
Using the Force to pluck hovering battle droids out of the air and slam them into steel plates is satisfying, and our one-to-one control over a virtual lightsabre even more so. Most enemies require a few more slices to take down than what we've seen in the movies (my daughter, pointing at an attacking trandoshan mercenary with glowing, cauterized blade marks across his head, neck, and chest, suggested that we were using "cheap lightsabres"), and boss battles are typically won by learning simple, repetitive patterns of attack and defense, but these quibbles don't sink the experience. The combat's okay.
The problem is with navigation. We can move forward – accomplished by taking a step toward the TV and bending down, or by jumping to perform a flip over our enemies – and take steps to the side to dodge or move around objects. That's about it. It's disempowering, awkward, and slow.
Thankfully, an auto-targeting system locks us onto any enemies within swinging range, which goes a long way toward making battle scenes bearable. But that’s of no help during the platforming scenarios, which force us into discomfited movements as we try to move around, avoid, and zoom past obstacles that would have taken a simple flick of a thumb to circumvent with a traditional controller.
Special vehicle-based events, while often spectacular, tend to prove just as problematic. On-rails space battles, for example, place players in auto-firing ship turrets that we aim by pointing both hands. Our ability to pan around for targets is limited, and enemy ships, mines, and missiles can be devilishly hard to detect. Expect plenty of cheap deaths and redos, regardless of the difficulty level you select.
The good news is that if it ever gets too frustrating you can always hop back to the main menu and select another of the game's five modes. With the exception of Duels of Fate, which is just a way to practice your lightsabre combat skills against challenging foes, these extra modes are surprisingly deep experiences that can provide several hours of entertainment. One certainly can’t fault LucasArts for cheaping on content.
Podracing is perhaps the most full-featured of the bunch. It lets players take on the role of a slave-turned-pilot who works through a full season of races on tracks scattered throughout the galaxy, earning new abilities along the way.
Driving controls share a similarity with a horse's reins: Pull back with your left or right hand to steer, yank back with both to brake. I found it to be both intuitive and surprisingly precise.
Unfortunately, LucasArts has gummed up this simple interface with a bunch of unnecessary nonsense.
We must frequently throw our arms left and right to bang into opponents pods to protect ourselves and shove them aside. This often results in a loss of speed and a decrease in race position, regardless of whether your effort was successful. Special abilities – drones that repair our pods and attack our enemies – are equally aggravating. They're activated by raising your left or right hand. If you don’t do it just right, the camera will interpret the movement as a steering or breaking command, sending you careening out of control. And some races have obstacles that we must leap over. This requires a jump, keeping us from being able to play seated.
I ended up playing through most of my racing career on the easiest difficulty setting, which largely automates steering and braking – a bummer, since these are the most entertaining facets of the game. But it was necessary so that I could slam into opponents and activate abilities without worrying that I’d go flying off the track.
I hoped to take out my frustrations with some of the other modes in Rancor Rampage, a game in which players take on the role of a three-story tall beast running amok through populated areas. Its King Kong-style chaos has its moments. We get to smash buildings, throw droids, gobble people, and earn points in the process. I especially enjoyed slamming my hands down in anger like a petulant child and watching buildings collapse and fleeing civilians get knocked over. And an unexpected bonus comes in the stories behind the destruction. One about a pet rancor overcome with sadness and rage when his master, a little girl with a stuffed animal, is forced to give him up, actually made me laugh aloud.
Alas, a combination of problematic controls – I had a devil of a time grabbing things – and clumsy movement (turns out rancors turn with a speed similar to that of a luxury ocean liner) make Rancor Rampage more a cause of rage than an outlet for it. I want to smash some battle droids just thinking about it.
Strangely, the mode I’ve found most entertaining is the one I was most dubious about before playing: Galactic Dance-Off.
Essentially a simplified Dance Central, players simply mimic the moves of characters like Princess Leia and Lando Calrissean. Better performances results in more stars, and more stars serve to unlock more challenging dances, more themed levels (including dance floors on Coruscant and the Death Star), and more songs.
This mode’s charm comes in its geeky wit. Seeing Lobot as a DJ in Bespin’s carbonite cargo prep bay is a giggly treat. Plus, the moves we perform are given clever names from Star Wars lore, like the Kessel Run, which involves running in slow motion on one foot.
The songs, meanwhile, are Earthly ditties rewritten with Star Wars-themed lyrics. I might despise Jason Derulo’s “Ridin’ Solo,” but give it the ol' Weird Al treatment, transforming it into “I’m Han Solo” – a song about what it's like to be the Millennium Falcon's dashing pilot – and it becomes downright delightful. I suspect only the most curmudgeonly Star Wars fan will refuse to shake a leg if they give it a chance.
Curiously, the dancing mode is my daughter’s least favourite activity in Kinect Star Wars. She’s hooked instead on the Jedi campaign, which seems to do a fine job of living up to her dream of being a real Jedi who can lift ships with her mind and run a lightsaber through robot armour like a knife through butter.
Would that I could see the game from her bright-eyed perspective. I want to live out some childhood fantasies, too. Sometimes being an adult stinks.
Kinect Star Wars
Platform: Xbox 360
Release: April 3, 2012