Version tested: Xbox 360
Ah, the strange case of the bundled game. That spot in the hardware box at launch was once reserved for cast-iron classics that would instantly justify your purchase. Now, as gaming's technology and audience diversify, the pack-in tends to act as demo and marketing tool, adding value and pointing the way to potential rather than attempting to define hardware with software.
Still, there's a curious burden placed on these games which are nominally free, yet in a sense share the price tag – and hype – attached to whatever they fell out of a box with. No, the jolly and polished Kinect Adventures isn't worth £130 on its own. The slick presentation and structured approach of this slender mini-game compilation flatters to deceive, but it's definitely more Wii Play than Wii Sports.
If it's just a tech demo, though, it is an immediately engaging one. Unlike Kinect Sports – which cautiously picks its way around lag and the other limitations of Microsoft's sensor with its clever, minimal designs – every one of the five mini-games in Adventures features full-body motion sensing in 3D, and every one is playable simultaneously by two players. It does falter from time to time, but relies on forgiving timing and disposable game design to ensure you keep having fun.
Some of the games will be familiar to anyone who's been following Kinect's development. Rallyball first appeared at Project Natal's debut in 2009 (alongside poor old Milo). You stand at the mouth of a box court and bat a ball towards moving blocks at the far end, like a human Arkanoid paddle, or a squash player. Targets hidden among the blocks reward you with pins (Kinect Adventures' coin-style score pick-up) to gather, or multiply the balls in a flurry of bouncy chaos.
The arrangements and movements of the blocks get more complex, and it's possible to control the force and direction of the ball to some extent with your arm and leg gestures, although just blocking it with any part of your body will do. A second player can join in co-op, and it's easier with two of you filling the mouth of the court. It's a bluntly gratifying 3D twist on an ancient gametype with a fun physicality to it, but it's too erratic to hold the attention.
River Rush is the show-stopper. You bomb down colourful, crazy jungle rapids in a dinghy, steering it gently by leaning into turns or more sharply by stepping towards the sides of your craft. Jumping causes your dinghy to bounce into the air and there are plenty of gates, multiple routes and platforms to negotiate in search of a quicker time or more pins. Two players can collaborate in the same boat, and it's a test of communication and co-operation, if not skill, to make sure you're pulling in the same direction.
With vibrant graphics, a rollicking pace and your little avatars aping your every movement as they scurry around the dinghy, River Rush is the most successful stab yet at using Kinect to drop you directly into a fantasy world. Jumping is a little sluggish, but otherwise it gives you a fine sense of control – arguably better than Joy Ride's. It's a basic blast.
Reflex Ridge is a series of train-track obstacle courses; you stand on a flat-bed trolley as it trundles along and step around, jump over or duck under hazards. Jumping gives you a short burst of speed and, in a neat touch, you can hold poses to pick up arrangements of pins with your body shape.
Two can play in split-screen and it's the only game in Adventures with a competitive edge, although a tidy performance collecting a lot of pins is worth more than beating your friend to the goal. Once you get to the tougher stages, control lag will really start to grate, especially with two players. But it's a clever implementation of Kinect's virtual puppetry that highlights its unique possibilities.
So does 20,000 Leaks, an odd little game which puts one or two of you in a glass box on the seabed and asks you to stop leaks created by cheerfully malevolent cartoon sea creatures that have presumably mistaken you for the Pixar talent scouts who turned them down for parts in Finding Nemo. Leaks appear on the floor and three walls and you need to plug them with your hands, feet or even head; leaks linked by cracks need to be stoppered simultaneously, the game pushing you into gently contorted positions like a 3D Twister.
It's a good demonstration of Kinect's limb-tracking and 3D movement, and there's a curious pleasure and even quiet awe to be had from controlling a game with precise placement of your feet for the first time. But like most of Adventures' games, upping the difficulty results in frenetic flailing about rather than a test of skill.
Finally we have Space Pop, hitherto unheralded, and it's not hard to see why. One or two players stand in a low-gravity chamber and have to pop bubbles with their bodies, moving forward and backward and from side to side and flapping their arms to fly up to the ceiling. The bubble patterns get more complex, but the game remains silly, boring, and frustrating to control.
Every level in Kinect Adventures – River Rush has six, the other games nine apiece – is instantly available in Free Play, but you can also choose to play the game in Adventure mode. One or two players can complete a series of 'Adventures', unlocking four difficulty levels and being rewarded with digital trinkets as they go: avatar vanity items, say, or 'living statues' that you can amusingly animate with your own voice and movement.
The Adventures are just strings of the game's levels, occasionally subjected to extremely mild cosmetic remixes. There's the race-against-the-clock Timed Play (unlockable as a separate play mode), in which the pins become time extends, or the mode in which the red Adventure pins become, um, blue Treasure pins. There's no real variation in design; you always have to collect as many pins as possible, either physically or as a reward for success.
As with Joy Ride, it's a rather forced attempt at grinding out the lifespan of a simple game through a progress-and-reward structure. However, Adventures does at least have the good grace to offer most of its content for free play from the start, and kids will probably enjoy collecting the goodies. You can share and upload the de rigueur embarrassing snaps and there's even online play.
It's not a party game to match Sports, however. It's nice to play in company, but most of Adventures' mini-games aren't particularly designed for or improved by multiplayer, and there's scant competitive spirit to be squeezed out of it. It's breezy, polished and charmingly presented – the interface picked out in stitches of brightly-coloured thread like a scout's reward badge – but ultimately throwaway.
It's easy to see why show crowds and first-time users are reliably wowed by Adventures; it's original, cute, tailored to Kinect's unique capabilities, and impressively committed to the idea of full-body, real-time motion control on screen at all times. But with just five games it can ill afford one dud or sustain a laboured campaign mode, and without compelling multiplayer there's little reason to persevere with it after the wow factor wears off.
Our advice: load Adventures as soon as you unpack your Kinect and enjoy it, preferably with small children to hand. Within a couple of weeks it will be gathering dust: another brave bundled game, first up out of the trenches, first to fall.
6 / 10