‘Kinect Disneyland Adventures’ hands-on gameplay impressions and video from 2011 D23 Expo

in Disney, Entertainment, Theme Parks

For the first time since its announcement at E3, Kinect Disneyland Adventures was on display at the recent 2011 D23 Expo, giving Disney fans a chance to demo the upcoming Xbox 360 game that enables virtual exploration of the Disneyland theme park. While the game is far from complete, attendees at the convention had a chance to interact in the park’s 8 themed lands and play 6 of Kinect Disneyland Adventures’ ultimately 20 attractions-turned-games.

Lines were often long to try out the highly-anticipated game, which is still in development as Microsoft and game-maker Frontier work toward the recently announced November 15, 2011 release date. To make sure I had plenty of hands-on time with Kinect Disneyland Adventures, I set up a 30-minute appointment with a Microsoft spokesperson to try out the “controller-free magic” and explore Disneyland park as I’d never before.

Kinect Disneyland Adventures gameplay

Before I had a chance to play, Jen, the Microsoft spokeswoman, offered to show off a few of the game’s features. In the roughly 11-minute video below, you’ll see the impressive visuals that Kinect Disneyland Adventures offers, with a faithful recreation of most of Disneyland park, including walks through Main Street USA, around Sleeping Beauty Castle, Fantasyland, Tomorrowland, New Orleans Square, and a bit of Adventureland. You can also see Jen interact with a few characters, trigger some special effects, and play through one of the games based on the Matterhorn Bobsleds.

Video: Kinect Disneyland Adventures in-depth, hands-on gameplay at the 2011 D23 Expo

In watching Jen play through the game, I was immediately struck by the accuracy of virtual Disneyland. As she turned each corner, nearly every major element that I’d visualized should in the park was indeed in the game. While all facades were not yet completed in this demo (particularly in Tomorrowland), it was clear that a lot of work has been put into faithfully recreating the experience of walking around Disneyland, allowing players who are familiar with the park to take their favorite real life paths while “walking” through the game. From peering into the Penny Arcade while walking down Main Street USA to finding the Club 33 door in New Orleans Square, Disney fans will enjoy all the familiar sights Kinect Disneyland Adventures offers.

Upon playing, I found this park exploration to be the most entertaining aspect of the game, particularly for those who can’t make it to Disneyland regularly. Anyone with a fondness for exploring the park will certainly enjoy having it recreated at home without even playing any of Kinect Disneyland Adventures’ attraction-based games.

Controlling Kinect Disneyland Adventures

As visually interesting as virtually exploring the park is, it’s also somewhat cumbersome. I am a longtime gamer, used to playing with a controller since the Atari 2600 days. Even the motion controls of the Nintendo Wii, which I’ve been playing since launch day, require a controller. So the controller-free experience the Xbox 360 Kinect offers is new to me and the actual gameplay mechanism of Kinect Disneyland Adventures felt completely awkward. Jen explained this is the first free-roaming adventure for Kinect and as such they had to develop exactly how players would walk around. The system they came up with, pointing to move forward and rotating shoulders to turn left and right, just didn’t feel natural to me.

I first tried walking through Fantasyland, finding myself rotating the game’s camera without trying to as a result of my shoulders not being square with the screen. My arm grew tired from pointing to where I wanted to go and the non-player characters often got in the way, even trapping me in a corner for a few moments. I suppose being temporarily unable to move due to nearby crowds is an authentic theme park experience, but not one I want to have replicated in a video game. Ultimately, Jen did mention that the controls were still being tweaked, with more adjustments needed. I hope those adjustments are made, as I found myself longing for a controller the entire time I played.

Interactions in Kinect Disneyland Adventures

Beyond exploring the park – which despite control issues is still quite fun and enjoyable – the rest of the game isn’t quite as enticing. Jen demonstrated the many ways players can interact with characters. You can hug Mickey Mouse, dance with Snow White, or high-five Peter Pan. But while virtually exploring Disneyland is a great substitute for not being able to physically visit the park, meeting a virtual character simply doesn’t offer the same magical connection that meeting that character in person does. With Kinect’s controller-free play, hugging and high-fiving the air just seems awkward.

I’m told there are “quests” characters will offer to players, allowing further reasons for exploring Disneyland, which to me is a much better reason for having the characters in the game than simply for brief meet-and-greets. Unfortunately these quests were not demoed at the time.

The game also offers the ability to take pictures with the characters, but inexplicably only allows these photos to be taken with players’ avatars, rather than snapping an actual photo of the real person playing the game – which the Kinect system is perfectly capable of. In fact, the game does snap amusing real photos of players jumping, ducking, and dodging their way through attraction-based games, which are shareable online in the same manner the virtual character shots are. It’s disappointing to not be able to take a photo with a favorite Disney character and send it to friends via KinectShare.

Speaking of friends, cooperative play is available, allowing two people in the same room to walk around the park together or join together to complete a challenge. But players will not find friends from afar wandering the park as online gameplay is not available. Beyond sharing photos and achievements earned, Kinect Disneyland Adventures is largely an in-home experience. (But wouldn’t it be fun to stumble across your friends while wandering Frontierland or invite them to virtually hang out on Main Street USA? Unfortunately, it’s not in the developers’ plans.)

Attractions in Kinect Disneyland Adventures

Six attractions were available for demos at the D23 Expo: Matterhorn, Big Thunder Mountain, Pirates of the Caribbean, Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan’s Flight, and Jungle Cruise. Fourteen more are promised, consisting of the “most popular” and “classic” attractions around Disneyland. So it’s likely The Haunted Mansion, Space Mountain, and other iconic experiences will be included.

But unlike the faithful recreation of Disneyland’s streets and facades, gamers shouldn’t expect to ride through their favorite attractions while playing Kinect Disneyland Adventures. When “entering” attractions, players are offered a choice of a handful of games based on and inspired by the attractions. So entering Pirates of the Caribbean might result in virtually paddling a boat while battling swashbucklers, visiting the Matterhorn can send players sliding down an icy slope throwing snowballs along the way, and walking into the wacky world of Alice in Wonderland places players inside a giant game of croquet.

I watched the Pirates and Matterhorn games and played Alice in Wonderland croquet. The common thread between all the games (which Jen refused to refer to as “mini-games”) is movement, and plenty of it. While it is possible to play Kinect Disneyland Adventures sitting down, particularly when exploring the park, the attraction-based games essentially require players to stand, combining jumping, swaying, ducking, throwing, waving, and quite a bit of arm flailing to get through.

Honestly, it’s all a bit exhausting and left me feeling like I had actually just walked around Disneyland in the hot sun. To move faster through the Alice in Wonderland croquet game, players – who are “trapped” within giant clear balls – are to wildly wave both arms in a circular motion above their heads as if helping to push the ball forward from the inside, while literally jumping over obstacles and dodging left and right. Yes, it’s exactly as tiring as it sounds. And while I’m all for getting gamers off the couch to get more active, I never felt the reward of playing the rather repetitive game was worth the extra effort.

Jen alluded to the fact that Kinect Disneyland Adventures is a narrative experience. That is, there seems to be a story that pulls the whole adventure together, setting goals for players to achieve while wandering through Disneyland and playing the attraction-based games. Unfortunately, details of the narrative are not yet being discussed. In fact, Jen was hesitant to even explicitly confirm the existence of a solid story for the game.

Kinect Disneyland Adventures is also said to include “themed parades and firework displays,” but Jen wasn’t willing to elaborate on that just yet. She did say that the game is permanently set in daytime hours, so the magic of Disneyland at night won’t be seen in this game.

Overall impressions of Kinect Disneyland Adventures

Visually, Kinect Disneyland Adventures is exactly what any Disney theme park fan wants out of a game that allows exploration of the Happiest Place on Earth. The ability to fire up a game at home and be instantly immersed in Disney magic is an experience bettered only by an actual visit to the park. The scale feels right, as does the impressive level of detail adorning each of the many Disneyland buildings recreated in the game. Just as in the park, it’s the smaller details that makes Kinect Disneyland Adventures feel right, including the ability to see familiar sights like freely strolling up to Snow White’s wishing well, wandering by the Dole Whip stand, and circling around the Partners statue.

But players looking for more in-depth gameplay beyond the exploration of Disneyland may find Kinect Disneyland Adventures lacking. Repetitive games don’t offer the same Disney magic of the attractions they’re based on. The visuals and sounds are right, but the actual game mechanics grow old fast. Likewise, meeting virtual characters is amusing at first but left me longing for something more out of the game. I’m hopeful the game’s story, whatever that may be, will help to give players a reason to do more than just aimlessly wander the park. With three months until its release, Kinect Disneyland Adventures has much yet to be revealed, but also left me with much to be desired.

But an average trip to Disneyland will cost hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars for airfare, hotel room, and park tickets. A new Xbox 360 with Kinect bundle costs around $285 (or just a Kinect at around $140) and Kinect Disneyland Adventures will retail at just under $50. So for just above $300 total (plus a compatible TV), a virtual trip to Disneyland can be accessible any time at home. For those Disney fans who already own an Xbox 360 and Kinect, the $50 price tag for Kinect Disneyland Adventures is well worth the ability to wander the park at any time and you may even find you enjoy some of the games as well.

Kinect Disneyland Adventures will be available for Xbox 360 Kinect on November 15, 2011.

You can pre-order it now on Amazon. Check back here for a review of the final game when it is released.

Video: Kinect Disneyland Adventures gameplay trailer

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