Kinect Star Wars Preview (Xbox360)

Marketing Kinect Star Wars must be pretty easy and horribly difficult all at once. On one hand it really does sell itself – it’s the Kinect experience everybody imagined when Natal was pitched. Everybody imagined swinging a Lightsaber around with the device – just the same as everyone did with the Wii.

On the other hand, it’s a game that’s clearly designed with kids and families in mind – and so how do they market it to people like me, or you, the SI reader?

Classic scenes reimagined

I’ll be honest – I don’t think there’s much in Kinect Star Wars for the hardcore gamer. Given the time to go hands-on with a near-final version of Microsoft’s big Kinect bet for a good few hours earlier this month, it was confirmed to me once and for all that the game is most certainly for the same family-friendly audience that Kinect has been so perfectly pitching already. This isn’t a game-changer in that sense.

Kinect Star Wars isn’t trying to hide that it’s for families and kids, though - right from the word go it’s clear that the decision is a conscious one, the design of the game centred firmly on being more family-friendly.

The character models here are based off the style of the recent ‘Clone Wars’ cartoon, all chiselled square jawed and big-eyed, and it’s an art style I actually like for this title. The way the animation works – mapping directly to your body – is sometimes goofy, of course, and the cartoony style helps to mask that.

While it’s clear that a chunk of the 360’s processing power has gone to the Kinect reading body movements, in motion Kinect Star Wars looks pretty good.

The lighting shines in some areas especially – one mission in the one-on-one duel mode has you battling Darth Vader on Cloud City in scenes from The Empire Strikes Back. The moody red lighting in the room where Han Solo was frozen into carbonite works particularly well in this defined art style.

The artistic style doesn’t hide all of the jank – it’s an impossible task – and so like many Kinect games there’ll sometimes be something weird about your Jedi’s arms as they seem to dislocate into strange positions or as he thrusts his own lightsaber through his leg. It’s a side effect of the Kinect hardware, and one that is simply unavoidable.

The modes on offer point to the friendly manner of the game, too. There’s the obvious story mode, which sees you take control of a new, unnamed Jedi travelling through a story that’ll see you hitting all the basic Star Wars story beats without intruding on the movies or other ‘canon’ story areas.

There’s a chase through a forest on speeders straight out of Return of the Jedi, battles against separatist robots from the prequel movies and even those damned trade federation droidikas. There’s short, skippable cutscenes which thrust the plot forwards, but the story seemed fairly rudimentary to the actual gameplay action.

In general the story part of the game reminded me of an arcade game, specifically SEGA’s old Star Wars arcade cabinet. You already know the basic Star Wars story beats, so instead of dwell on them the game throws the series clichés at you happily and lets you piece together the rest yourself. It’s fairly finessed, and works just fine.

Throw dudes about

Gameplay here is exactly as you’d expect – your right hand swings your lightsaber, your left offers up force pull, lift and such. You can lift enemies and drag them towards you or throw them further away, and when you get in close you’ll want to swing your arm about to attack them.

A definitive step forwards will force boost your character towards the nearest enemy, and the game seems to do a lot of work in terms of making sure you’re facing the right enemy. Swinging your lightsaber around in front of you without an enemy around will deflect blaster bolts. You can kick and jump as well.

It all seems to just work just fine. Occasionally I found myself needing to exaggerate my movements, but I never found it particularly tough to do the move I wanted to do. I did find myself tiring as long levels wore on, and even sections which required a bit less interaction didn’t seem to help. Maybe my lightsaber swinging was just too exuberant!

Past the story there’s the aforementioned duel mode which slams you into a battle from the series against a famous opponent. As mentioned earlier, I played the battle against Vader in Cloud City. This reminded me of the Vader battle in the SEGA arcade cabinet as well – like that game this is a pattern-based battle. Rather than outright trying to beat Vader down, you need to wait for him to telegraph what move he’s coming in with, block and counter. This mode was enjoyable, and did a good job of portraying a version of the original movie fight well.

There’s podracing – that’s rudimentary and plays just like Kinect Joy Ride, so I needn’t say much here. Again, it just works, though I wonder how much longevity this mode will have in reality.

Dance Central makes a cameo of sorts here in a dance-based mode. Stormtroopers, Jabba’s slave girls and other characters all show up here performing fun little dances to contemporary and classic songs – all of which have had a Star Wars-themed lyrical twist. The song covers seemed funny and self aware, whilst the dance tech seemed to be nearly identical to Dance Central. Again, it just works.

My favourite mode in the game is the last, involving you playing as a Rancor. A cross between a Godzilla movie and Burnout’s Crash Mode, it puts you in control of the gigantic beast Luke battled in Return of the Jedi set loose in Mos Eisley. Your job, simply, is to cause as much damage as possible as the huge beast within a set time.

The Rancor can charge about and pick people up and throw them. If you’d prefer you can instead just straight up eat them. Flailing your arms around will destroy stuff around you, while stomping about will squash things on the ground and move you about. Bending over and stomping your feet activates a charge move which smashes everything in your immediate path.

This mode is fun as hell and stupid as hell, but it appealed to that boyish love of destruction that still burns inside me. I really hope the final game has more levels in this mode to play around with.

Now you too can dance for Jabba!

You’ve probably noticed that throughout this preview I’ve used variations of the phrase “it works” frequently – and that’s the best way to describe Kinect Star Wars. It’s not mind-blowing and it isn’t going to change your life, but everything in it feels relatively competent and does the job that it’s supposed to do.

I can’t help but see the strings being pulled behind the scenes to make it all work, but for a young Star Wars fan I can only imagine that this game will be absolutely mindblowing. Kinect Star Wars is accomplishing exactly what it set out to do – it just isn’t for us.

Most Anticipated Feature: The Rancor mode, it's just so much fun.