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It's here. Finally. We won't bore you with the palaver involved in bringing you this bumper presentation of Kinect launch coverage – let's just say it's been an interesting, and exhausting, few days.

But even if you knew the story, it wouldn't explain why the eventual arrival of Microsoft's magic camera was met with such drama and excitement chez Eurogamer. Nor would the level of hype whipped up by the ringmasters at Microsoft, although that certainly helped (it's not every day we feature an Oprah clip on our website).

Maybe it's the large and lavish line-up of launch software. Maybe it's the contrast with the softly-softly approach Sony took for PlayStation Move. But the fact is, this doesn't feel like a mere peripheral. It feels more like a new hardware launch than anything we've seen in years.

Kinect isn't perfect by any means. It's expensive, finicky, unreliable and difficult to accommodate. But it's also an extraordinary piece of futuristic technology, and when is the last time the gaming world was treated to one of those?

Below we'll bring you our verdict on the hardware itself, its impact on the Xbox 360 interface and the Kinect experience as a whole. But first, the bit you really care about.

Set-up

At £130 Kinect is a very expensive peripheral, even considering Kinect Adventures comes bundled in. Good thing it feels expensive, then. It's quite large, solid and glossy, similar in finish to the slimline Xbox 360. There are sharp, angular vents on each side and three big sensors on the front. The unit also sports a power LED.

If you have one of those slimlines, you can plug Kinect's single lead straight into the console. If you have an original model, you'll need to use an additional cable which splits into a USB connector and a separate, compact power adapter. For some reason Kinect only works with the USB port on the back of your Xbox, so if you own a wi-fi adapter you'll need to plug it into the front of the machine with an extension cable; it's a bit inelegant.
Kinect should be situated in the centre of your TV, above or below it, between two to six feet off the ground. This shouldn't be a problem. The problem is playing space. You need six feet of distance from the sensor (1.8 metres) for solo play.

Move your coffee table out of the way and you might manage that. But if Kinect is going to detect two people at once, you need eight feet (2.5 metres) of space, clear of obstruction. You'll also require enough lateral room for the two of you to stand well clear of each other.

We did all our Kinect testing at home, in the living rooms of our modestly sized urban flats – not at the office. In all cases, getting enough space for two players was a struggle. At Ellie's the solution was to place her TV in the corner of the room and angle it sharply inward. Even then we were awkwardly crammed in between the corner of the sofa and the shoved-aside coffee table, and couldn't quite access the far corners of the playing space.

Put simply, if you ever want to use this thing with two players (and you really should) you need plenty of room. If you don't have the room, don't buy Kinect.

The other principal concern people have about Kinect is lighting and backdrop. This is a completely different story. With the exception of Kinect ID (the feature that recognises you if you step in front of the sensor – more on this later), we found it worked well in a wide range of lighting conditions. That said, like the Wii's sensor bar, it's not too keen on direct sunlight.

Kinect is brilliant at telling players apart from whatever and whoever is behind them, provided they're not inside the playing space. Walk between players and the sensor and it will be confused for a few seconds, but compose itself quickly. Seated play is possible in some games, depending on their design, but it can be a bit glitchy; situating your sofa some 10 feet back from the TV will probably be a bigger problem.

On plugging Kinect in for the first time you're led through a relatively short and painless calibration process called the Kinect Tuner. This process can be repeated if you have difficulties (we never need to do so). Some games require their own calibration, but this is usually minimal. There's something uncanny – in a good way – about the way the motorised head of the device tracks up and down as it checks out your room.

The Tuner also plays a few sounds to get to grips with the room's acoustics, and remarkably this is the only set-up the voice control ever needs; you don't need to teach it your voice or any words. Voice control works superbly for the most part, and the future-cool factor of controlling media playback or selecting menu options with the spoken word far outweighs the faint absurdity of prefacing every command with "Xbox". There's a very slight delay, but it's still better than reaching for the remote or controller.

Kinect ID requires the most set-up. Teaching the device to recognise you involves making your avatar perform a sort of protracted square dance around the playing area, while striking poses. It's funny at first but then a pain, and you need to do this several times over in different lighting conditions before it's reliable.

We never got Kinect ID working flawlessly in every game. However, when it does work it's incredible; stepping into a friend's game, having your profile automatically sign in and then your avatar appear is not just impressively seamless, it's plain magic.

Interface

Knowing Microsoft, it will continue to refine and expand how Kinect works with the Xbox 360 front-end in future updates. We certainly hope so, because the current implementation is disappointingly limited.

You can't use Kinect to control the 360 dashboard as you know it. Not the Xbox Live Marketplace, your friends list, libraries, settings or profile – none of it. Instead, you wave or say "Xbox Kinect" to get the sensor's attention and you're taken to the Kinect Hub. This is a sort of dashboard within a dashboard, a walled garden where you can perform Kinect-approved activities.

You make menu selections by moving your hand to float an on-screen cursor to your desired option. Holding your hand in position for a couple of beats confirms the choice. You'll get used to it, but it's slow, wobbly and frustrating. The 'swipe' gesture system used in Dance Central's menus, and on rare occasions in the main interface, is far superior.

The voice control system works better, but its availability is frustratingly inconsistent and limited. "If you see it, you can say it," boasts the interface – as long as there's a little microphone icon on your screen.
The Kinect Guide, a simple version of the Xbox Guide (for Achievements, signing players in and out and so forth) summoned by holding your left arm out at an angle, doesn't support it. Nor does playback of DVDs or the music on your hard drive.

That's right. If you want to enjoy futuristic voice-controlled media playback (or gesture-controlled, for that matter) and feel like you're in Minority Report (or at least Babylon 5), you're going to have to use Microsoft's faux iTunes - the Zune download and streaming service. This works a treat but your choice of media is limited, as are your payment and ownership options. More to the point, it feels unpleasantly like your hand is being forced.
There are a couple of other options for Kinect media playback. Last.fm and Sky Player are also supported, but although Sky Player works with gestures, it currently lacks voice control.

Let's end this section on a high note. We weren't able to thoroughly test the Video Kinect video chat service but it has a nice, clean interface and features properly amazing camera tracking. During video chat, you're not glued to a chair and a rigid pose, webcam-style; the camera follows you around the room effortlessly, speedily and intelligently adjusting zoom and camera angle to keep your face in shot even if you make quick movements. Very impressive stuff.

Using Kinect

The best thing about Kinect is the easiest thing to forget: it doesn't need a controller.

Of course, at Eurogamer we have no objection to controllers. Whether motion-sensing or traditional, they provide incredible game experiences Kinect will never be able to handle – and responsiveness, precision and tactile feedback it will never be able to replicate.

But we do hate batteries and chargers and cables and clutter, and the drawers and crates full of random plastic tat that anyone who loves our hobby has to put up with. Move is an excellent, responsive system with huge potential, but besides the Eye camera you need a couple of Move wands, and nav controllers, and cables or a charge stand for these, and you need to constantly feed them all with electricity like a nest full of bleating chicks.

By contrast, Kinect is gloriously simple. You'll never need to charge it, take it out or put it away. If you want to play with it all you need to do, quite literally, is say the word.

Using Kinect isn't effortless, though. It lacks precision, and Microsoft has made the interface more complicated and cumbersome than it needs to be. Getting to know Kinect these last couple of days, there's been a crust of confusion and annoyance to break through, particularly in the labyrinthine profile management and the laborious hand-waving interface. This isn't as accessible as controller-free gaming ought to be.

It's likely all this will improve with firmware and dashboard updates in time. It's even possible Kinect's performance will, too. On this matter we'll leave the final word, naturally, to our technology editor Richard Leadbetter; it pains us to bring you this launch report without Digital Foundry's expert view, but there simply weren't enough Kinects to go round or hours in the day. He'll be along soon.

We will say that lag is pronounced and noticeable in the gesture interface and in most games. In the majority, it's bearable and you'll get accustomed to it; the best simply design their way around it. It does seem that the more Kinect has to do the worse latency gets, which is consistent with what Microsoft mastermind Alex Kipman has said. When tracking the exaggerated full-body movements of two players (in Kinect Sports Football, say), things get sticky, but one-player Joy Ride with its subtler movements controls smoothly.

So Kinect is compromised. If you're prepared to put up with its compromises, you'll have a genuinely exciting piece of new technology with tremendous wow factor and a number of impressive party tricks. It really does transform your Xbox into a different machine (although it's a shame that this new one seems completely segregated from the old one).

It feels, frankly, a lot like your first experience with the Wii; it's not quite as capable as you imagined, but it is inescapably, totally new. And there's no question that non-gamers will be blown away by it, although most will probably find it too expensive.

If you're excited at the prospect of Kinect, or simply love new gaming hardware, you should absolutely pick a unit up. The sci-fi frisson of new technology it provides is something we haven't experienced in the last five years, and if you're that way inclined, it's worth the £130. At that price it's a lot cheaper than the only current alternative, a 3D telly. There are some good, if not great, games available right away, and it's a wonderful family toy.

If you're a floating voter, you should wait. Kinect will get better with time and its defining games are still to come. Here's hoping Microsoft and its partners can rise to the challenge of this new form of gaming better than most have with the Wii. Kinect deserves it.
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