If you’re expecting a true showcase of the Xbox One’s Kinect features, you’ll be in for a disappointment. In many ways this is a sloppy, lazy implementation of Kinect that has more similarities to 30-year old button mashing fighter games than it does to a new generation of virtual reality fighters. But go in with the right expectations, and you can still have some fun and get a decent workout from it.
I have to admit, I was skeptical. I remember all too clearly the last time I heard this exact same thing. The year was 2010, the publisher was Ubisoft, and the “killer Kinect game” turned out to an awful one called Fighters Uncaged. It was supposed to be one of the definitive demonstrations of the Xbox 360’s new Kinect functionality, but it ended up being a klunky, awkward game.
Sadly, Fighter Within suffers from almost exactly the same thing. With all the demonstration videos of the amazing new features on the Xbox One Kinect, as well as the nearly universal panning of Fighters Uncaged, you think Ubisoft would have gotten the hint and made a next-generation virtual reality fighting game that delivers on the promise of one-to-one motion control. But instead, we got a game where the gameplay was not just different than button-mashing games like Street Fighter or Mortal Kombat, where instead of a set of moves in response to button mashing you get a set of moves in response to a memorized set of gestures. Worse, with this game your on-screen character displays a limited set of motions that just feels confoundingly constraining given that you have an infinite amount of control with your body.
You start Fighter Within on a title screen that tells you to punch. In reality, instead of punching, the best way to choose is to hover your hand over it and make a small push-and-pull movement, which proves to be an exercise in frustration; the tracking is so jerky you’ll often have to try over and over again to get simply menu selections right. Worse, if you or a friend in camera range make any movements at all, the game will frantically try to interpret it as you trying to select something from the menu. And maddeningly, there are some screens where the menu is split into two screens, but it’s virtually impossible to scroll from one screen to the other. Simple tasks such as selecting items from a menu using hand gestures seems to be something that no Kinect game developer has ever figured out how to do properly, and while it’s a subtle thing, it’s one of many reasons Kinect has failed to gain popularity.
After that, you see a small video silhouette of yourself on the top of the screen. One nice thing about the Xbox One is that the Kinect has a wider frame, meaning unlike the Xbox 360 which required about 8-10 feet, you can get away being with about 5-7 feet away from your Kinect sensor.
The first time you start the game you’ll see a message, “Welcome to Fighter Within! The Initiation mode gradually introduces the game’s core mechanics through Matt’s story. Do you want to launch Initiation mode now?” For reasons I’ll get into below, I’d suggest you skip the initiation and go to the main menu.
At the main menu you’ll see a few options:
Initiation – Gradually explore the game’s mechanics.
This is the tutorial mode I spoke of above. I had hoped that they’d make the game so intuitive that I wouldn’t need a tutorial to learn how to play it. The point of virtual reality, after all, is that it should feel like “reality”.
You start out by seeing a cut scene with two white dudes in a gym. You’re, of course, the good looking American dude with the all-American accent, and the other dude, of course, is the English punk with a cockney British accent that you just feel like beating the living snot out of (sadly, in this PC world of avoiding racial and ethnic stereotypes, the poor British cockney dude seems to be the only one left for people to abuse). The acting and scripting are atrociously bad (You: “I gotta go, there’s someone waiting for me” British guy: “Yah, moy knuckoes”) and the “story” completely unnecessary.
The first part of the tutorial sounds simple enough. You can throw straight punches or Hook punches. A split screen shows an animation of the two punches and tells you “a straight punch can hit the stomach or the face” and “a hook punch can hit the stomach or the face”. Gee, thanks.
You’re then asked to “Try to perform the move”. The problem is, I made movements that had no resemblance to the move but the system didn’t seem to care (in one case, I literally sat down at my computer to type the last sentence, and yet the system enthusiastically proclaims, “Well done!”).
Then, it came down to a practice fight. As I said above, with all the hoopla about the Kinect’s new precision and the Xbox One’s new processor speed, I expected some level of one-to-one precision, where I could see my on-screen movements mirror my real movements. Sadly, there was none of that here. Instead of real-time motion tracking, it seemed the on-screen character was only capable of two locations when punching–high and low–and even with that the system didn’t do a very good job of matching what I was doing in real life. As I moved in real life, the fighter on the screen would respond with herky-jerky movements. And worse, there seemed to be absolutely no degrees of magnitude–whether I punched soft or hard, near or far, my on-screen counterpart punched with exactly the same force and distance. And forget about the system even being able to differentiate between a straight punch and a hook. In fact, I gave up trying to throw hooks altogether. While I started out trying my best to use finesse and make subtle movements, at the end of the day I just ended up flailing my arms.
The next step in the tutorial is to learn core defense: high and low guard (use the high guard to block a punch to the face or the low guard to block a punch to the stomach). Again, here you basically have two positions–high and low–not a continuous range of motion. You can also “step” forwards and backwards by leaning your body forward and back. You’re introduced to a big fat guy with a Scottish accent named Færgas who you need to avoid getting killed by (I guess anyone from the UK is fair game). Again, the dialogue is borderline idiotic (“We’ll see if yerrr rrrreally a brrravehearrrt”. And again, your on-screen character’s movements are awkward and jerky and very, very limited.
It feels like at some point the game developers just gave up. The part of the tutorial that talks about “Combos” defines them as such: High Combo: Punch in the face multiple times in a row. Low Combo: Punch in the stomach multiple times in a row. Heck, even the lowly Wii Fit was better at defining and detecting real combos like hooks vs. jabs vs. cuts properly.
You’ll also learn how to do kicks as well as other special moves, some of which resemble the motion in real life, and others which don’t at all. Unfortunately, to play the game you need to memorize exactly what motions to use to do certain things.
You’ll also learn how to build up something called “Ki” by raising your fists in a gorilla-like position. When you have enough “Ki” you can perform special moves, but you leave yourself vulnerable as you work to build it up.
At the end of the day, the Initiation Mode takes far too long and leads you through far too tedious a storyline to be enjoyable. My recommendation is to just skip it and go to the excellent tutorial videos under “Extras” to learn how to play the game.
Duel – Fight against an AI
Here’s where you can start fighting for real. You choose a character you want to fight as, and choose different opponents with varying moves and degrees of skill to fight again. You can also choose an Arena (Theme Park, Market Place, Dojo, Savannah, Lost Temple, Favelas, Roof Top, Construction Sight, or Training Arena). I’ll hand it to the developers that the graphics are very well done and do a decent job of showcasing the advanced graphics of the Xbox One.
As with games like Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat, matches are the best of three rounds. Sadly, unlike those games, the characters don’t really have personality, other than being different degrees of annoying.
The game is extremely easy to beat at the default (easy) difficulty level. But change to the expert difficulty level, and the game becomes challenging, and not always in a good way. Basically, the “AI” of the game speeds up, meaning you have to react much quicker to punching, blocking, and strategizing when to build up “Ki”. The problem is, your motions are so limited in range and the motion control reactions are just sluggish enough that you always feel at a disadvantage behind your computer opponent at the expert level. As one example, there’s a special move called “push” where each player needs to push towards the screen quicker than the other; aside from this being gimmicky and unrealistic, by the time you see the message to start pushing, the computer AI has already beaten you.
Another maddening “feature” of the game is that certain moves result in “cinematics”, slow-motion snippets where your on-screen characters are performing certain moves and during those few seconds you’re powerless to attack or defend. While I suppose this was put in to add a certain level of drama, at the end of the day it just makes you feel even more disconnected from the game, especially at higher difficult levels where your “fight” is just one cinematic after another and when you try to make moves during them you just get an annoying message saying “such-and-such move unavailable in cinematic”.
I eventually did find ways to beat the computer AI in expert difficulty, but I’d say it was only partially skill and partially just learning to exploit the patterns in the game, which sadly doesn’t leave you with a very satisfying victory.
Arcade – Choose a fighter and fight against successive opponents
Again mimicking Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat, this mode takes you through a series of eight opponents that you have to defeat. As you can see from the video below, at the default difficulty level it’s not really a challenge at all. And as I said above, when you ratchet up the difficulty, it just becomes an exercise (no pun intended) in frustration.
Again, while they ripped off the format from those games, they failed to capture any kind of compelling storyline or personality.
Local Multiplayer – Fight against a local opponent
I have to admit that this for me was by far the highlight of the game. I recruited my wife to fight against me (something she was happy to do, although I had to remind her to punch forward toward the screen–not me). The system picked up both of us pretty quickly, and allowed each of us to choose our own character to fight as.
What made this fun was that both of us were on the same level, which meant we just had a good old fashioned street fight and didn’t resort to gimmicks and “secret moves”. It really came down to how well we punched and blocked (what a concept). I wish Ubisoft and other game publishers would get this. When you look at how successful games like Candy Crush Saga and Angry Birds are, it shows clearly that people don’t want games that you need a stack of manuals to figure out how to play.
For the record, she beat me all three rounds we played, including the one below.
Training – Improve your fighting skills against a passive opponent
In this mode, you can choose any character you like and choose any opponent, and then proceed to practice your moves by beating up your opponent, who doesn’t put up much of a fight. Good for learning the esoteric moves you’ll need to master the game, as well as getting revenge on opponents that beat you mercilessly in expert mode.
Here, you can adjust the difficulty, turn “Ghost” mode on and off (a way the system can give you “hints” during your fights of the proper moves to make), adjust volume settings, activate or de-activate play space warnings, and enable or disable gesture feedback durign a fight.
The Extras menu option allows you to access these features:
Fighter Bios and Credits aren’t really worth your time. The Fighter Bios are a rather lame attempt to give some “personality” to the different fighters and introduce you to their various fighting strategies, but you’ll do fine if you don’t read it. Credits shows you the names of everyone who worked on the game.
Control Cards show you at-a-glance all the different moves you can make in the game. They include attack moves (high/low straight punches, high/low hooks, round kick, throw, a motion to pick up a stick, and a motion to do an attack that looks weirdly like “pole dancing” ), as well as defensive moves (open guard, high/low blocks, auto-counter, high/low counter, lean), and “Ki” strikes (charging in, push kicks, back moves, high round kicks, swaps, slams). It also shows special moves you can make against different characters. On the surface, this seems like a lot of moves, but again, at the end of the day it really just reinforces how limited and forced the game is vs. one that really shows off the true capabilities of Kinect 2.0.
For me, these video tutorials did a much better job of explaining how to do different moves than the contrived “Initiation Mode”.
After all the negatives I mentioned about the game above, you might be surprised to hear me say that as far as workout quality and fitness, Fighter Within actually does provide a really solid workout. After playing the Duel mode, the Arcade Mode, and the Local Multiplayer mode, in all three cases my heartrate was elevated, and I was sweating and panting.
But with the exception of multiplayer mode, there isn’t much in this game that compels me to want to go back to it. Its fatal flaw is that of being one of the first games to utilize the brand new Kinect 2.0, but coming out with a game that doesn’t use any of the features that Kinect 2.0 brings to the table. Instead of a full motion of punches and blocks, you get “high” and “low”. Instead of real-time motion you get an annoying delay. And instead of having free motion and movements, your character just stands on side of the screen and occasionally “swaps” to the opposite. Instead of using motion controls in new an innovative ways, they just built a rip–off of classic 30 year-old fighting games and replaced button-mashing with a limited set of gestures.
I see as of this writing that the price of the game is down to about $20-25, down from $59.99 At that price, I’d say it’s probably a worthwhile purchase to add to your collection. As long as you go in with the right expectations, you can have a decent amount of fun with it and a very good workout.