I squat down and my fingers instinctively spread, ready to receive a ball. No, I've not accidentally copy-and-pasted the first line of my latest letter to Penthouse Forum. This is the moment that the genius of Kinect Sports: Season 2 really comes into focus.
The ball, of course, isn't there. I'm playing American Football, one of the six new events in this sequel, and even though I know the sensor doesn't care whether or not I get into character, I find myself doing it anyway. It's impossible not to. I squat, call the play to my team and get ready to throw to the wide receivers. My hands make the ball shape all by themselves. Why? Because I'm playing American Football. It's what you do.
This happens time and again as I traipse around Rare's Twycross headquarters, trying out all the events, and it shows how the parameters of good game design have been expanded by the rise of motion gaming. Bad motion controls are perhaps the most off-putting mistake a game can make. Get it right, however, and the human brain automatically steps in to fill in the real-world blanks until you'd swear you can actually feel the pigskin in your hand. That's immersion.
But American Football comes later. Our first stop is for Tennis; one of Rare's upstairs offices has been cleared out and dressed up as a tennis court, complete with net and astroturf. In some ways, it's the perfect introduction, what with tennis being the quintessential motion gaming sport, but that familiarity also means that it's hard to get too excited about something that's already a genre staple.
Still, it works very well, as you'd expect. Adding topspin or triggering a lob or smash is intuitive, and the game strikes a decent balance between dragging your character to where the ball is and letting you move around for the best position. It certainly makes the Wii Sports version feel prehistoric, which is victory enough for Microsoft's technology.
Baseball is similar. Another familiar sport from rival motion games, Rare's take on America's favourite pastime delivers on the thrill of a cracking home run, but also introduces subtle nuance that only full motion tracking can offer. Running for base now involves actual running, while a forward lunge makes you slide for safety. Pitchers can take cues from the shortstop, with different types of throws well integrated via different actions.
Each team also has a super-powered pitcher and batter to deploy at strategic points in the game, offering a better chance of strikeouts or home runs accordingly. It's incredibly good fun, and another leap forward from motion sports games past - but as another evolution of a familiar event it's unlikely to be grabbing the headlines.
Feeling much fresher is Skiing, a sport so well suited to motion control that it seems slightly odd that this is the first major game to attempt it. It also helps to introduce some of the new developments added for Season 2.
One is voice control, which is now an integral part of the experience. In skiing, that manifests as shouting "Let's go!" at the top of the slope, just as the light turns green. This gives you a speed boost, which is then compounded by crouching into the traditional skiers' stance. Tilting your body steers you between the slalom flags, while large steps to either side make sharper turns. There are also jumps, though sadly the game didn't want to mimic my energetic mid-air scissor-kicks.
Each sport also has a mini-game challenge attached to it. For Skiing, it's a series of obstacle courses that have you ducking, jumping and steering around barriers. Get a decent run on this (or on any of the challenges) and you can send them to friends to try to beat, a sporty twist on Need for Speed's Autolog. You now accumulate fans rather than simple XP, and beating a friend's challenge earns you bonuses that send you up the ranking ladder faster. There's traditional local and online multiplayer as well, naturally, but this feels somehow more personal.
With thighs burning from the rigours of the slope, it's off to a more genteel pastoral setting for a round of Golf. Another sport that has prior form in motion gaming: Season 2 distinguishes itself here by getting it wonderfully right.
The aim and swing work much as you'd imagine, but the game does a great job of gauging the power of your shot. Without an on-screen gauge, this has always been something of a dark art, yet Season 2 makes it seem easy. It helps that you have unlimited practice swings that let you see exactly where the ball will land, but it's still surprising how often shots play out exactly as you wanted. It's especially impressive given that Kinect is reading your body movements sideways, rather than the front-on view it was created to expect, and the developers are clearly pleased with this new addition to their Kinect toolbox.
Golf has more than just solid swing mechanics though. There are lots of clever little touches that make it one of the most distinctive events in the game. Key to this is how Kinect has been woven into the golf experience in a way that feels invisible. Lift your hand to your forehead in the classic "lookout" pose and the game gives you a flyover of the fairway. On the green, crouching down lets you inspect the contours of the ground while a simple "cold, warm, hot" shot indicator makes lining up a putt a simple pleasure. If you need to change clubs, you simply say "Change club" and then call out the one you want.
It all adds up to a small but almost perfectly formed golf game. Indeed, with a few more courses (a nine-hole match is the maximum at the moment), it could almost stand alone as a separate product.
American Football fills the "how will that work?" slot taken by Proper Football in the first Kinect Sports. It's a complex sport, and it's understandably been boiled down to the most exciting parts, offering the chance to play as quarterback and receiver.
There are six plays in all; two short range, two medium and two long. You choose your play (again, via voice control or gesture menu) or get the AI coach to pick the best one for your situation, and then call to your teammates to toss the ball back to you. Pick the receiver in the best position, and throw them the ball when their indicator turns green, showing that they're in a position to catch.
Then it's time for some cardio as you sprint for the endzone. The faster you run, the more tackles you'll dodge, although this element feels a little random. An early feature, seen at E3, where you could physically dodge your opponents has been removed for simplicity, but it can leave the offensive play feeling a little unfair. It doesn't always feel like you could do anything to stop the opposing team getting a down.
What American Football does offer is strategy, even with the limitations of six plays. Picking the right one makes a noticeable difference to your chances, and played co-operatively with one player as quarterback throwing to the other player as receiver, it offers more depth than the basic throw-and-run movements suggest.
And then there's Darts, a curious companion to the other sports, but one that helps to round out a commendably varied selection. It's also yet another example of just how good Rare is at this motion control lark. Accuracy has been improved from within centimetres in the first game to mere millimetres this time around, and that becomes clear once you find the rhythm of the darts event.
As in every other darts game, you first guide a floating crosshair over the board. Pulling back your hand locks your view, but the skill then comes in the throw itself. Shots can still go wide, but by throwing as if you were holding a real dart - the slow drawback followed by a short, sharp throw - it's possible to start hitting treble twenties in your first game. In fact, the accuracy is so impressive that it feels very weird - almost as if there's an invisible dart flying from your hand and into the screen. Darts is a pastime that has been attempted in games going all the way back to the 1980s, but this is the first one I've played that felt almost exactly like the real thing and rewarded real-world skills accordingly.
And that, more than anything, is where Kinect Sports: Season 2 seems most promising. Each event, quite simply, works as you'd expect it to without your brain having to enter "video game mode". This is a much more eclectic line-up of events, each with its own unique feel; that so many of them feel "right" the moment you step in front of the sensor is quite an achievement, the sort of invisible design work that is easily taken for granted.
It remains to be seen how this roster of sports will maintain its appeal in the long term, but on this evidence it seems that far from being a quick cash-in, Season 2 could well push the boundaries of Kinect harder than any other game this year.