If you ever want to see what pure, unadulterated excitement looks like, just watch a kid as they enter an empty field. Every time, every kid, they'll run into it, arms outstretched as if they're trying to grab all that wonderful open space at once, eyes wide, imagination expanding like a balloon, bursting with inspiration as they paint their ideas into the real world. It's a humbling sight: a tiny instinctive explosion of creativity that they take totally for granted.
The best children's entertainment fuels that explosion, offering templates and frameworks for the imagination to latch onto. And games? Games are best of all, because they offer unlimited virtual versions of that empty field, awe-inspiring pretend playgrounds where anything is possible.
This is something that Pixar clearly understands. What are its movies if not the starting point for a million make-believe adventures, populated by characters who continue to live and breathe in the imagination once the cinema screen goes dark?
Following the example set by Frontier's Disneyland Adventures, you'd expect the clumsily titled Kinect Rush: A Disney/PIXAR Adventure to do a good job of delivering on that promise of filling the empty field. And, to begin with, it does.
The game extends an invitation to Pixar Park, an out-sized adventure playground with zones themed around Toy Story, Cars, The Incredibles, Ratatouille and Up. But first you need to let Kinect size you up and create a Pixar-esque avatar with which to explore this virtual kingdom. The result isn't particularly impressive, but it doesn't really matter as your character gets turned into rats, cars and toys anyway. It's only in the Up and Incredibles games, and the main hub area, where you'll see your digitised alter ego in the flesh, so to speak. That done, you're dropped off at the park by a bright and cheery yellow school bus and given free rein to explore.
Movement is handled by running on the spot (or simply moving your arms in a jogging motion, if you're lazy), while a gentle tilt of your body steers you around. It's simple and effective, if a little oversensitive when it comes to turning. Kids tend to make big movements rather than subtle tilts of the shoulder, and it can take a while to get them used to the smaller inputs the game requires.
So let's assume you head for Toy Story first because, let's face it, you probably will. You meet a fellow Toy Story fan and they excitedly explain the new story you're going to make up together - in this case, returning Mr Pricklepants to Bonnie before she gets home. And then you're off, inserted into an adventure with Woody, running around a lavishly realised toy-level world as a new member of the toybox gang.
Surrounded by oversized scenery, you run, jump and slide down makeshift ziplines as you try to catch up with Bonnie. There are often several routes to take and gold coins, that timeless video game currency, can be collected along the way. Occasionally you'll reach a larger open area, and have to locate batteries to open the way ahead. It's all very chunky and solid, with an unmistakable Pixar feel, and while the on-screen camera and Kinect struggle to co-operate when you wander too close to the scenery, it's still surprisingly easy to get around.
It is, you may think, the perfect combination of licence and technology. But all too quickly the game's narrow horizons begin to close in. First is the discovery that your Toy Story adventure is just three levels long. The same is true of all the adventures. More crushing is the realisation that the adventures are all the same. They follow the same core template - linear running and jumping followed by a small 'find the object to progress' moment - and even a sprinkling of boss battles fit an identical dodge-and-retaliate pattern as well. Only Cars feels noticeably different, though that's due more to the lack of legs on the characters than any apparent desire to offer variety.
"Kinect Rush is, you may think, the perfect combination of licence and technology. But all too quickly the game's narrow horizons begin to close in."
The impact this has on the game's appeal can't be underestimated. For one thing, it renders the half-hearted attempts at storytelling rather redundant. The narratives on offer add nothing to the existing stories, as they can only ever be thin excuses to get from A to B. Mostly, though, it's a poor use of Pixar's varied worlds. When racing through the jungle as a member of The Incredibles feels exactly the same as scrambling through a Parisian sewer in Ratatouille, what's the point of having six movie worlds to explore? By the time you've finished the three levels of one world, you've seen everything the game has to offer, and that wide-eyed element of surprise seeps away.
The game compensates slightly by offering several reasons to replay each of the levels. Repeated play earns more coins, which in turn unlock more bonuses. A second play-through might offer an additional power, with which to open previously unavailable boxes. You may earn more "buddies", movie characters who can be summoned with a clap to help open alternate routes. You may be given a simple secondary objective to consider.
Trouble is, as nice an idea as that is, none of them add up to very much. You'll never discover an entirely new area filled with fresh gameplay objectives, as you would in the Lego games (still the gold standard for bringing the wide-open field into children's gaming). These are small distractions stuck along the same old paths, and I found that the prospect of playing through the same sections three or four times over, in search of such paltry changes, did little to inspire any-long lasting excitement in my kids.
And that's a shame, as there's a lot here that works. Kinect is used thoughtfully, and only tangles things up on rare occasions. The attention to detail is admirable, right down to the use of the original voice casts - including bona fide stars like Owen Wilson - wherever possible. There's no denying that the sense of immersion is very powerful for young players. It's certainly a vast improvement over shockingly poor earlier Pixar games like Wall-E and Ratatouille.
There's a sense that having to accommodate Kinect has forced developer Asosbo Studios to play it a little too safe, and having found a combination of movements and interactions that work reliably, it's simply repeated them throughout, regardless of whether you're playing as a rat, superhero or wilderness explorer. Instead of six distinctive adventures, you get one rather shallow experience served up in six costumes.
Kinect Rush certainly lives up to its title, but only for the first hour or so. After that, the rush wears off and the grind sets in. That wide-open field turns out to be not so wide and not so open after all.
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