Wreckateer is best described as Angry Birds for the Kinect. There’s more to it than that, but the similarities make the comparison easy. Instead of using a slingshot to shoot birds at blocks, you’re using a medieval ballista to shoot cannon balls at castles. It’s a proven formula since destruction is always entertaining, and thankfully Wreckateer adds more to this formula by making you work for points, not just total destruction. The game’s not just about destroying castles but how well you can destroy castles. This added depth makes it more than a mindless toy, but it all falls apart in higher level play.
The gestures that you use to control the ballista are wonderfully simple and intuitive. You have to step forward and clasp your hands together as if you were grabbing the end of a slingshot, then you step back to stretch out the slingshot, and finally, open your arms to let it go. You can control the strength of the shot by how far back you move, and you aim by stepping left or right while pushing your clasped hands up or down. The movements make sense and create an experience unique to the Kinect. Instead of just dancing or flailing in front of the TV, Wreckateer actually makes use of the three-dimensional space around you. It’s the first Kinect game that I’ve played that doesn’t feel like it originated on the Wii.
Each type of shot has its own unique gesture controls. Some, like the exploding shot, only need to be activated once. Others, like the flying shot, need to be activated and then steered through the air. Before activating those special tricks, you can change a shot’s course by swiping in the air — a gesture so natural you might even find yourself doing it without realizing it. At no point are the controls ever confusing.
When you’re just messing with the controls and blowing stuff up, Wreckateer works brilliantly. The Kinect has no trouble recognizing these sweeping, full-body motions, and the tone is lighthearted and charming. The levels are designed like puzzles with enough depth to prevent Wreckateer from being just a mindless toy, but a huge spike in difficulty around the halfway point turns that depth into a frustrating brick wall.
You can earn a bronze, silver, or gold medal on each level, depending on how many points you get. If you fail to earn at least a bronze, you can’t progress to the next level. Progression is easy at first, but as the game starts to ask more of you, the controls and physics seem to work together to sabotage you, and you’re forced to play and replay the same level over and over again.
When trying to aim, the Kinect can follow your arms for the most part, but there’s a dead zone between the middle and high angles. You might move your arms just slightly, looking for the perfect angle, but the ballista will jerk up and down from one seemingly preset angle to another. This problem only exists when adjusting the angle, though. When you’re stepping left or right to turn, the Kinect can easily track your full body, but it has trouble making sense of your subtle arm movements. This makes it impossible to shoot with consistent precision.
And yet the physics seem designed with precision in mind. Sometimes you’ll hit a tower and bring the whole thing crashing down. Other times you’ll destroy a chunk, yet the rest of the structure remains standing with a complete disregard for the laws of gravity. It looks like both shots hit the same area, though maybe they were actually inches apart and the game reacted accordingly. That would be fine if you could aim with a similar precision, but since you can’t, the destruction often feels random. You’ll spend a lot of time resetting and retrying until you get that one perfect shot, and when you do, it feels more a matter of luck than skill.
Wreckateer is the first XBLA game to incorporate a new Xbox LIVE feature called Avatar Famestar. At it’s core, Famestar is a system of in-game achievements similar to… well… achievements, but this new system seems designed for more casual players. For one, the “weekly fame challenges” reset each week, meaning you don’t have to keep buying new games to increase your fame, which is a surprisingly consumer friendly tweak. As you earn more fame you’ll unlock Avatar costumes, but this isn’t all that different from the Avatar Rewards you already unlock in some games. Overall, it’s a fine source of more meta challenges.
Wreckateer is fun as long as you don’t take it seriously. Playing for points will have you throwing your arms up in frustration or making offensive gestures at your television. It’s the smartest use of the Kinect to date, which makes it maddening that the one gesture that it has trouble recognizing is so integral to the gameplay. Blowing stuff up should be entertaining, right? Wreckateer turns it into a grind.