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After playing a bunch of titles using Microsoft’s Kinect, I can say that the gimmick works.

After all of the bruhaha of E3, I was still skeptical of Microsoft’s version of motion control, Kinect. Would it be worth the $150 price tag? Are the games for it any fun or are they just Wii retreads? While I still reserve my opinion on the first question, I think the second question is a lot easier to answer. Yes, Kinect is fun, and in a way that’s either better or at least different than the Wii.

The first game I got to play was Joy Ride, developed by Big Park Games. It’s a lot like Mario Kart, pitting you against another player in a souped up vehicle and racing in a cartoony, non-realistic world. The character in the vehicle is your Xbox Live Avatar. Despite all of the similarities to Wii, the game played much differently.

Steering is accomplished by holding your hands up as if you were in fact holding a wheel. To get a boost of speed, you pulled the “wheel” towards you and then pushed forward. Going over jumps, you do flips and tricks by flailing around. Kinect is responsive enough that you don’t have to exaggerate your movements, but that didn’t stop me doing so. In fact, because I was playing with my real body, I felt more in control of the game than I have with any other input device. Racing felt clear and intuitive, aiming for green boosters in order to gain speed over the opponent that can barrel into you and push you off to the side of the track. It was a lot of fun, and I beat the guy from Big Park, so that was a bonus.

Next up was Kinect Sports. I consider the bowling game in Wii Sports to be a big reason that the console sold as many units as it did, but I can say that Microsoft has trumped Nintendo with their own version. Taking the bowling bowl is as simple as reaching left or right (the game corrects if you are right or left handed). If you want to move a couple of boards to the left, Kingpin style, all you have to do is step that way. Pulling back and releasing the ball is easy, but the thing that sold it for me was how much spin i could put on the ball. By lunging forward and following through, I was spinning like crazy and knocked down strike after strike. It felt amazing. Just ot test it out, the dev next to me encouraged me to the thorw the ball a the pins overhand. Sure enough, the ball soared and bounced heavily on the lane just as if I had thrown it like a baseball. The bowling game might just be Microsoft’s killer app on Kinect.

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On the other side of the room was the set up for Dance Central. Like Rock Band and other rhythm games, it is a lot harder than it looks. I didn’t get a chance to dance any of the five tracks on the demo (ranging from Lady Gaga to Bell Biv Devoe’s Poison, “Never trust a big butt and a smile”) but, if the amount of people laughing, moving and grooving to the beat is any indication, everyone loved it. One of the coolest features is that during every song there is a 10-20 second “breakdown” where points are not counted and you can do whatever moves you want. This is displayed onscreen in a trippy graphic, and then video from your awesome dance is shown to everyone. It was a neat way to keep the mood light and the party jumping.

This was actually a feature that I saw in a lot of the Kinect games. Taking advantage of the fact that people often like to see themselves being ridiculous, the games will display highlights or quick video shots of what you look like when you play. Far from being embarrassing, these little snapshots give you the chance to laugh at yourself and with the audience. It’s akin to those pictures taken after you ride a roller coaster. Yeah, you might not shell out the 20 bucks for a glossy print, but everyone likes to check out the stupid faces they make as they plummet 200 feet.

One of the most intriguing Kinect titles for me was Child of Eden. I’m not really sure how to describe it. Hallucinatory shoot em up? Trance Shooter? There are shapes that pulse and move to the beat of a techno soundtrack and the player points towards the part of the screen that must be cleared. But that’s not it, there are different mechanics at work for each stage and part of the joy was figuring them out. There was no UI, no visual feedback other than the swirling pulsating shapes. It felt nothing more than being inside music, if that makes any sense.

Playing the kind of games that Microsoft has lined up for the Kinect launch was kind of exhilarating. Many of the titles worked in a party atmosphere, with players jumping in and out and a crowd always on hand to cheer the antics. I’m still not sure whether the gamer that likes to sit on his couch and play Mass Effect 2 or Final Fantasy XIII will want to play while standing for that long, but that’s not really the market that Microsoft is aiming Kinect at. If its goal was to provide a library of games that people that can Kinect with together (see what I did?) to share a gaming experience in the living room, then I think that the collection of games described above might just pull it off come November.

Greg Tito is pretty sure that he looked completely ridiculous at least five times while playing with Kinect.

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