Buried deep in every game-playing brain, beneath the froth of neurones, veins and synapses, there's a little bronze plaque bearing the words "No game involving lightsabers can possibly be all that bad". A more recent addition squats a few tissue layers above: "The sole, true and noblest reason for a motion sensitive control system is to let us wave lightsabers."
Terminal Reality's Kinect Star Wars puts both ideas to the test. What we've seen of the look-Darth-no-hands Jedi sim shows definite promise, but the implementation is a touch rocky, and with the promised Christmas release fast approaching the developer will need to work fast to address it.
The build we played at a Microsoft event this week offers a tutorial level in forest terrain and a segment from the campaign - you can expect hover races, starship battles and two player duelling in the retail release. The basics of play are basic indeed: you extend your right arm sideways for a few seconds to Force-draw your lightsaber, then swing the arm to wield it.
Incoming fire may be absorbed by holding the blade out in front, or deflected at enemies with carefully timed swipes. Left hand, meanwhile, takes care of Force lifts and blasts: pull it back to charge a shot, or reach towards a foe to wrap them in a telekinetic embrace, then flick to one side to toss them away.
Ploughing through gaggles of Separatist droids, there are moments when the requisite Jedi blend of grace and power clicks. Terminal Reality has done a bang-up job on the Star Wars vibe, the zap and clang of blaster shots competing with some commendably John-Williams-esque orchestrics for mastery of the soundtrack. But these are flashes of nostalgic glory amid a murkier main event.
Lightsaber fighting is limited to simple horizontal and vertical swipes, with anything more complex, like a diagonal stroke from one side of your body to the other, sending the character model into paroxysms. It's difficult to establish momentum (aka "build combos") the way you would in a real sword fight, and the latency obliges you to slow Skywalker's cut and thrust to a series of vague, exploratory caresses.
If lag hampers offence, it kills defence stone dead. There's little chance of deliberately bouncing a laser bolt back to sender when you're operating a good fraction of a second faster than the dude on-screen. Fortunately, recharging health is available in generous quantities.
A broad-based auto-target makes latching onto a foe with the Force easy, but the automatic camera seems to have been drinking the same, sedative brew as the gesture system, struggling to frame anything that isn't directly in front and at medium range. Force lift is fun but not as emphatic as we'd hoped for: you'll try to punt a droid straight up, only for him to bounce and scrape like a bike skeleton dangling from a fishing line.
More acrobatic tricks include Force dashing, performed with a pronounced, heavy forward step, and jumping, performed by jumping. Recognition wasn't 100%, again, and the exaggerated nature of the inputs makes each move difficult to integrate fluidly with the slashing and blocking.
But there are those moments when everything comes together. Lightsabers leave mouth-watering orangey trails through metal, and deflecting a shot is satisfying when you manage it. Given drastically reduced latency and a more opened-out, better-meshed move suite, Kinect Star Wars could still lead the charge for hardcore gaming on the mo-sensing platform. We just hope the build we encountered is much older than it looks.