Version tested: Xbox 360
Once the king of core, Rare's latest incarnation in a turbulent existence is as standard-bearer for the Xbox casual revolution Microsoft hopes will be ignited by the arrival of Kinect.
The British studio's first offering for the device is a game that owes not just its existence but many of its ideas to the release that defined motion-control gaming four years ago: Wii Sports.
Making no attempt to disguise its influences, Kinect Sports features six main activities: Football, Bowling, Track & Field, Boxing, Volleyball and Table Tennis.
If you're looking for something to illustrate 'the Kinect difference', Football is a good place to start and a highlight of the game: here, unlike with rivals' tech, you use your feet.
Player movement is not controlled directly: as an attacker you kick the ball either to pass or shoot; as a defender you shimmy from side-to-side trying to block passes; in goal you need to use your full body to block shots.
It's so successful and so much fun because it's such an intensely physical experience, and the lack of a controller really does add to the sense of immersion. Whether kicking, heading or diving, it all plays to the unique strengths of Microsoft's hardware.
Track & Field splits into Javelin, Discus, Long Jump, Sprint and Hurdles and works exactly as you'd expect: jog on the spot to run, perform the relevant arm motion to throw. The real fun, as always in this genre, comes through competing with friends and family.
Bowling, Table Tennis and Boxing unavoidably feel like box-ticking inclusions according to the Nintendo blueprint, which is no bad thing in itself. In bowling, you reach to the left or right to grab a ball, aim and then swing your arm forwards – with a limited amount of control afforded over speed and spin.
Your left or right hand becomes the paddle in Table Tennis, with top-spin, back spin and smash shots possible. It's certainly fun, but does lack the subtlety of control offered by Move in the Sports Champions version, and, like Wii Sports Tennis, rarely do I feel I have a great deal of control over the direction of my shots.
Boxing is the game's weakest event by a knockout. It's a terribly messy affair that lacks any sense of making a connection with blows, the result being you might as well just be standing a room flapping your arms around.
Volleyball, finally, is a fairly unremarkable inclusion where actions are focused on the ball rather than the game – which is to say that you are serving, returning and blocking without, again, ever feeling like you're influencing where the ball goes.
Beyond the main sports, there are eight unique mini-games to play, plus the five Track & Field events available individually. It's the classic 'mixed bag', but some are fantastic fun.
Target Football is a personal favourite. Here you aim at targets in the goal mouth from the penalty spot and must beat the goalie to hit as many as possible against the clock. Kinect does an excellent job of judging shot direction making this a moreish delight.
Paddle Panic, also terrific fun, fires a constant and accelerating stream of balls across the table tennis table for you to hit back. The result is a breathless, arms-outstretched frenzy of right-and-left lurching. Great stuff.
At the end of each event you're treated to a compilation of your 'best bits' as captured by the camera. The moment I broke Ellie's ceiling light with an imaginary volleyball smash, for example.
Clips can be uploaded easily to www.kinectshare.com. Irritatingly, however, the only way to view them is to visit the website and login with the Windows Live ID linked to your Xbox account. From there you can download the file, delete or share directly with Facebook.
A brief word on lag. For a game as deliberately simple in design as Kinect Sports it's rarely noticeable as an issue. It only really becomes apparent when you spot the visual cues designed to work around it.
Goalkeeping requires split-second reactions, so to compensate for the unavoidable delay between your arm shooting out and your Avatar doing the same, the game flashes a symbol on-screen showing where the ball is heading. It doesn't hamper the enjoyment of Kinect Sports, but does highlight some of the technical constraints developers are dealing with.
Outside of the game, menu navigation via Kinect can become a right pain. Rare's solution is, unsurprisingly, the same as Microsoft's for the dashboard: guiding a hand icon to the relevant part of the screen and holding it for a set period to confirm selection.
It's novel for a short while, but over time you'll get frustrated at how long it takes and yearn for the clinical efficiency of a controller – which is surely the exact opposite of what Microsoft would want.
Change your mind about an event at the last moment and you'll need to wave your arm at the top-left corner and keep it there while it slowly flips back through multiple screens. After a long session, when your limbs are knackered, it's an unnecessary chore.
It's important to stress that this is mainly a design problem rather than a technical one. By far the neatest navigation method I've tried so far is the one Harmonix has developed for Dance Central - horizontal gestures that are a pleasure to use and feel a hell of a lot more satisfyingly sci-fi and cool as a result.
Is your home Kinect-ready? Microsoft recommends six feet of space in front of the telly for single-player games and eight feet for two players. In our initial sample of two gaming spaces - Ellie's living room and my studio flat - solo play was problem-free (after the inevitable furniture shifting), but there were issues when a second player joined.
This was most evident in football. In split-screen multiplayer, in both locations, responsiveness took a noticeable hit – mainly through kicks not always registering. With two players practically on top of each other both kicking for the ball, the camera may well be struggling to track which bit is going where.
Despite the odd moments of confusion, though, whether playing co-op against the computer or head-to-head, it strikes the right note of engagingly silly party competition.
Both Kinect Sports and Sony's Sports Champions are transparent attempts to deliver a Wii Sports experience to their respective platforms. Both have seized upon and advanced the gameplay formula according to their strengths; but only Rare has understood the presentational lesson in Nintendo's success.
Enjoyment of Sports Champions is always in spite of its sterile, bargain-bin aesthetic. Rare's effort, in comparison, is an effervescent treat for the eyes and ears, bursting with charm, energy and flair.
Kinect party games are the natural home for the Mii-aping avatars which Rare, which knows a thing or two about Nintendo success, created for Microsoft. The most delightful application of full-body tracking in Sports is perhaps the simplest: wave at the adoring crowd; perform gloating, celebratory dances; punch the air as you sprint to victory. You can even do jazz hands while shaking your ass.
The surprising wealth of licensed music only adds to this. Score a goal, a strike or win a crucial point and you can bask in the glow of replay glory while a clip plays and the crowd goes berserk.
Good Vibrations, Just Dance, I Feel Good, Let Me Entertain You, We Are The Champions, U Can't Touch This, Hollaback Girl – it's the Now That's What I Call Sporting Celebrations of soundtracks, giving an irresistibly cheesy vibe that's part Gladiators, part stop-start American sports. Perfect party fodder, in other words.
A deliciously OTT voiceover from Peter "X-Factor" Dickson is the icing on the cake of what is, aside from occasionally intrusive advertising (a T-Mobile bowling ball? Really?), faultless presentation.
As with its Wii inspiration, to criticise it for lack of depth and complexity is to miss the point to a large extent. It's easy to pick holes and point out the game's limitations, but stick it in front of a family over Christmas and I suspect Kinect Sports would prove a big hit.
As a demonstration of the tech, it offers fleeting glimpses rather than a comprehensive examination of the potential of controller-free gameplay – with Kinect Adventures arguably offering superior examples. And it does little to answer questions on the hardware's application in core games further down the line.
But as a lively, funny, polished and varied genre title that will slap a smile on the face of the most jaded cynic, Kinect Sports does its job admirably.
Just watch out for dangling lights.
7 / 10