Version tested: Xbox 360
"Where are our games?" So wailed the gaming hardcore when Kinect galloped into view, bringing with it cuddly animals, carnival games and Avatars playing volleyball. "Oh, don't worry, we'll get around to you eventually," replied the games industry (speaking as one for the sake of a clumsy review intro). "We'll make some hardcore games with some blood and swearing, and maybe a bit of side-boob if you're lucky."
Cue Rise of Nightmares, a proper, 18-rated marathon of gore in which you hack zombies to pieces and there are sexy ladies in short skirts and characters say "f**k" and it's totally for grown-up gamers who crave mature adult entertainment.
Or maybe not, but Sega at least deserves credit for trying to make an actual action game on Kinect. It would have been very easy to stick the player on rails, throw in some crude hand-slashing, make with the entrails and call it a day. That Rise of Nightmares offers freedom of movement in a three-dimensional world is reason enough to at least salute the noble intentions on display.
After a brief pre-credits intro sequence, you're in control of Josh, on a European holiday with his wife. Long story short, their train derails in a cursed forest, she gets kidnapped by a mad scientist and Josh has to carve his way through the living quarters of the recently deceased. You could almost call it a house of the dead, in fact.
Sega's famous lightgun blaster is an obvious influence, along with similarly loopy horror games like Clock Tower and Resident Evil. The plot is by turns predictable and bats**t insane and the voice acting comes with an exclamation mark at the end! Of every! Line! If this were a traditional joypad game, it would barely be worth a second look, but the addition of motion control makes it a unique experience.
Movement is handled by putting one foot forward to start Josh moving. The further forward you move your foot, the faster he goes. Step back and he back pedals. Turning your shoulders steers him left and right. It's simple and it comes tantalisingly close to working.
When there are few enemies around, or when you're asked to explore a location, it's perfectly possible to get about with a decent degree of accuracy. Admittedly, you do tend to veer from left to right, constantly adjusting your direction with woozy torso gyrations that leave you looking a bit Jack Sparrow - but it's intuitive, reasonably effective and extremely promising.
Objects of interest are highlighted and a quick gesture glues your viewpoint to them. If it's a door, you push to open it (or kick it). If it's a switch, you pull it down. If it's a wheel, you spin it. Obvious stuff, but the game injects enough variety in its opening levels for you to feel genuinely immersed. Swimming through a murky lake and then having to brush leeches off your arms, or rummaging in the guts of a cadaver for a key are just some of the delightful actions you'll be asked to mime.
Combat is incredibly simple. You can only hold one weapon at a time, and these are picked up with the same hand-wave used to interact with the game world. Bringing your hands up in a boxer's stance puts you in "focus mode" and your view will then lock on to any nearby enemies. Punching and slashing with either hand delivers the blows as required. Some items - scalpels, explosive vials, claws - can be thrown, and later in the game you gain an energy weapon on your left hand that disintegrates enemies with a charged blast.
When these factors all work in harmony, it's surprisingly entertaining. Motion control adds little to the gameplay but undeniably enhances the experience. Being stalked by a hulking brute and having to physically freeze on the spot so he won't catch you is an inspired use of the tech. Ditto for the freakish opera-singer enemies whose inhuman screams can drive you insane if you don't put your hands over your ears.
But when the motion controls don't work, they really don't work. These pitfalls generally come when the game gets a little too greedy and asks you to tackle large groups of enemies at once. Suddenly the imprecise turning and lackadaisical jogging speed become deadly weaknesses, and the game can easily lose track of your movements as you struggle to survive. The auto lock becomes a hindrance, as you're unable to turn while in combat, and with enemies that spit vomit all over the screen, leaving you unable to see, what should be cathartic becomes infuriating.
Even more problematic are some of the traps and obstacles you're expected to navigate. Whirling blades and thrusting spikes that would be embarrassingly easy to dodge with a joypad become a trial of patience as you steer Josh like a wonky supermarket trolley between their deadly blades. With slack checkpoints and a fondness for instant-death, dodge-or-die moments, there were times when I was ready to throw the Kinect sensor out of the window.
The initial pleasures of the 3D exploration quickly pale, even in a story that barely lasts an afternoon. You soon realise that a lot of the gestures aren't even necessary - one lazy wave is enough to climb a ladder, swimming can be performed by just flapping your hands by your sides. Combat, too, is less detailed than it first appears. Aiming a blow precisely is a haphazard affair, and the game clearly doesn't take into account the power of your strikes: a half-hearted swipe still lands a killer blow if it lands in the right place. In many ways, it's close to early Wii games like Red Steel, where you're given the illusion of one-to-one motion tracking rather than the real thing.
Just like the mad scientist whose baffling plot drives the action, Rise of Nightmares is a failed experiment. But it's also a worthy experiment, and there are enough ideas here that almost succeed to suggest that Kinect may yet play host to a brilliant adventure game. As it stands, this is a bizarre curiosity piece, but only of passing value to the gamers it so eagerly wanted to impress.
5 / 10