'Kinect Star Wars': Flawed, But Welcome

Apr 10, 2012
Originally published on April 11, 2012 6:35 am

Maybe it's the wide-eyed child that still exists within me. But I happen to like much of the dialog and some of the narrative in Kinect Star Wars.

I may be the only one. After being delayed for the better part of a year, the Kinect Star Wars game debuted last week to less than stellar reviews. But Microsoft has high hopes for the offering and even has marketed a fancy, beautifully made Xbox 360 to go with it. Based on the astromech droid R2-D2, it's a nerd's delight. But the game in which you take on the roller coaster adventures of an apprentice/Padawan during the Clone Wars has been savaged by critics who hoped for much more. Part of the vitriol comes from the fact that there's a goofy dancing game included in the package. It's a bit like a George Lucas version of Dancing with the Stars when, say, Darth Vader hits the floor.

If you approach Kinect Star Wars purely from a gameplay standpoint, you'll find bugs in the programming. Lightsaber dueling can be slow and plodding. Using The Force to move objects like boulders can be terribly imprecise. So can steering a podracer through valleys, canyons and under kinks in the football-field-long tail of a giant beast. That's because Kinect's current gesture-based technology isn't quite refined enough to be as precise as a game that uses a traditional, handheld controller.

Since the release of the Kinect in 2010, Kinect games have generally received middling review scores. If you parse the reviews at the aggregate site GameRankings, the average of most Kinect game reviews is 70 percent out of a possible score of 100. That list of games includes the latest Tiger Woods golf experience, which is expensive to make. But you can't blame Kinect for some of the Kinect Star Wars animations which end awfully abruptly, like the game director needed a pee break and couldn't hold it. All told, Terminal Reality, the developers, have only made one outstanding product over the years: Ghostbusters: The Video Game.

And yet.

What if you look at the game as something else? I began to approach Kinect Star Wars with an open mind and treated it as an interactive movie. Interactive movies like Johnny Mnemonic and Double Switch (with Debborah Harry and Corey Haim) were foisted on the public about 20 years ago. Some, like Tender Loving Care, even made it to theaters. But like the slackers of the time, these games rarely lived up to their potential.

Certainly, Kinect Star Wars needs some shiny polish like the sheen on the engines of a Titan 2150 podracer. But I very much enjoyed interacting with Yoda as he gave me his stilted, sage advice on how to battle. And Jedi Master Mavra Zane made me believe I was an essential part of her smart group of Padawan, rookie though I was. The dialog for this Jedi Master was a breath of fresh air when compared, say, to the unappealingly thin, military bromance narratives of the Gears of War games. (Then again, Gears is a much better game.)

I also stomped around in lunking Godzilla fashion in a small game called Rancor Rampage. As the Rancor, a goony reptomammal from the strange planet Darthomir, you leap about in front of your TV. On the screen, you see that you've smashed buildings and tossed humans and droids into oblivion. It's visceral, refreshing and ultimately somehow as tranquilizing as a good, fast run.

As a fan of Star Wars games since 1993's Rebel Assault, I fully realize that the quality of Kinect Stars Wars isn't near that of Knights of the Old Republic, the deepest game in the decades-long series. But it's not the complete shambles it's been made out to be, either. There was a time when Star Wars was considered to be the height of pop cultural holiness. Without new feature-length movies to support the mythos, the franchise is beginning to become less important to our culture. Maybe that's why I like this flawed game that should have been fixed before its release. Despite its creaky bones, bones that need more flesh, Kinect Star Wars has the heart of an underdog.

Harold Goldberg is the author of All Your Base Are Belong to Us: How 50 Years of Videogames Conquered Pop Culture.

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