The six sports featured in Kinect Sports Rivals could easily be categorized as “Joyous," “Been There Done That," and “Brutal." On the “Joyous” front are Wake Racing and Target Shooting. Simple controls combining body and voice, lovely visuals, and a solid progression of difficulty and fun put them at the top of the ladder. Bowling and Tennis fall clearly into the “Been There, Done That” bucket--after all, it’s been close to a decade since Wii Sports introduced the concept to the world. While bowling in particular is easy to play and looks great, the not-quite-right recognition of you trying to bend and alter the ball’s spin relegates it to average status. Tennis is even less responsive, as the timing of the swing does not ever feel tight; I had the most success when swinging at the moment the ball bounced, even though that meant my follow-through occurred well before the ball actually reached the target.
The roughest aspects of Rivals--aka the “Brutal” bucket--are the Rock Climbing and Soccer games. Getting yourself up the side of a cliff is an often-frustrating adventure, and the most success I had was when I quit trying to time my climbs perfectly and just flailed my arms as quickly as possible. Of all the modes, Rock Climbing required the most re-starts to accomplish tasks simply because my avatar didn’t enough enough do what I wanted him to do. The Soccer mode is an interesting concept--you kick the ball to players in succession down the pitch then try and sneak a goal by the keeper, then it’s your turn to defend an opponent by standing in goal yourself--but the timing of my leg swings for power and direction never felt right. In the end, after a dozen matches, I resigned myself to the fact that it just wasn’t much fun.
Rare included a story mode of sorts to properly orient and train you in each of the events--and to provide a sense of progression. And while the narrative does a nice job structurally of navigating through everything you can do, the cutscenes and characters quickly become annoying. The fact that they’re unskippable (even when repeated) is even more grating. Thankfully, winning events generates currency that allows for a terrific amount of character customization and upgrades, which helps you distinguish yourself and move up the ranks.
Of course, you can avoid the storyline altogether and just jump right in to play with friends and family, which is welcome. Bowling is the easiest game to play for newcomers, but the Target Shooting and Wake Racing also work well in that setting. None of the modes take too long to play--10 frames of bowling is the largest investment of time you’ll make--so if your Xbox One is in a large, centrally located place and some people are over, Rivals definitely offers some bang for your buck.
Ultimately, Kinect Sports Rivals will produce some good times, but it's far from a killer app. It’s often difficult to tell why something isn’t working as well as you’d like--is it the game, the Kinect, or me? But when proper Kinect body detection happens in conjunction with an enjoyable event, there’s fun to be had. Rivals is bright and colorful, and bears many of the quirky, tongue-in-cheek hallmarks for which Rare is known. Unfortunately, only a few of the sports are fun to play, and its long-term appeal seems firmly rooted in the novelty party game camp.