As a kid, how many times did you race around the house in an imaginary car, gripping an imaginary steering wheel in your hands? Some? Lots? I’ll bet a bunch of you still do it to this day, yes?
But it’s the end of 2010, and most of us are (technically) grown up and far too busy to careen around the place in fictional vehicles. So while I found it kind of strange that this is what Kinect Joy Ride largely wanted me to do, I was more than happy to give it a go. And then I played it.
I’m not going to mince words: Joy Ride isn’t a very good game. Well, there is a fun — if simple — game in there, but it’s surrounded by layers of mediocrity that strip away any joy (har har) you might have had. But I’m getting ahead of myself: first I’ll focus on what Joy Ride does right, then work out where it all goes awry.
Here’s the thing: in terms of content and modes, Joy Ride is a decent enough kart racer. It’s no Mario Kart or ModNation Racers, but it still manages to include all the features you’d expect from the genre. You can take part in eight-player standard races across a wide variety of tracks. You can drift around corners, charge up a boost meter, and perform stunts whenever you get airborne.
Battle Race has all of those things, plus the added bonus of weapons. Like any kart game, you can pick up random tools of destruction throughout the race, from mines and rockets to speed boosts and freeze blasts. It’s definitely the best mode, and one all racers should keep returning to.
Four mini-games are also included, and can actually be fairly fun in quick bursts. Smash has you driving around like crazy in a small arena, careening into as many objects before the time limit runs out. Stunt sticks you in a half-pipe, and has you getting as much air as possible to pick up objects and perform — yes — stunts. Dash is a more straightforward speed boost-enabled sprint, while Trick uses the Kinect tech in a very gimmicky way to have you making silly poses in quick succession.
All of these game modes are satisfactory. They’re not the genre’s finest work, but nothing stands out as being particularly terrible either. Coupled with a very pleasant visual aesthetic, particularly in the track design, and you’d think Microsoft would be onto a winner, right?
No. A racing game lives or dies on the quality of its controls, and basically it turns out that holding your hands in front of you to steer just isn’t very satisfying. Having nothing to grip, nothing to let you judge angle, and nothing to keep your steering steady results in a weird-feeling disconnect between your own actions and what’s happening on screen. You have to learn to steer in just the way Joy Ride wants, or you’ll be flying into a lot of walls and finishing last. The whole thing feels loose, when tightness is what every racing game should be going for.
Then there are the compromises to keep everything friendly and accessible. Acceleration and braking is automatic, and there is even a hefty dose of angle correction when you get close to obstacles. You’re still in control of steering (mostly), drifting, performing stunts and using weapons, but it’s not always enough. Combine that with the unsatisfying method of control, and you’re left with races that don’t feel fun, even when you win.
You’d think a second player would help matters out, but in all of my tests with a variety of friends, it just meant there was double the frustration hanging in the air. Whether you win or lose simply doesn’t feel like it’s up to you.
This game reminded me of nothing more than Lair, one of the early PlayStation 3 titles. At some point during its development, Sony decided that it should be solely controlled using SixAxis tilt controls. The result was a disaster. Joy Ride — originally intended to be a free-ish downloadable title with a standard control scheme — seems to have suffered in much the same way at the hands of Microsoft. It’s a real shame, as the content in Joy Ride looks like it’d be good fun when played with a standard controller. Here’s hoping for a patch…
Am I being too traditional, too unwilling to embrace a new control paradigm? I don’t think so. No matter how arcade-y the racer, you still need controls that are tight, responsive, and consistent — and Joy Ride has none of those things. The result is a game that unfortunately showcases why controllers exist in the first place. If you’ve got a brand new Kinect, stick to the dance and fitness games and avoid this one.