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.