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Thursday, August 26, 2010

Hole in the Wall Review

It seems like a great fit for the Kinect, but Hole in the Wall doesn't quite line up.

The Good

  • Striking poses is silly fun  
  • Two-versus-two competition makes it even sillier.

The Bad

  • Body tracking is inconsistent  
  • Feedback is unclear  
  • Lame presentation.
As a game show that challenges contestants to strike and hold a variety of strange poses, Hole in the Wall seems like it would be right at home on the Kinect. In the game, as in the show, a series of walls advance on the player, each with a shape cut out of it that the player must match. These shapes include human figures, abstract blobs, and simple polygons, and scrambling to position your body to line up with each shape creates some goofy fun. Trying to make your shadow look like an arrow or a cowboy can be amusing, especially for any spectators nearby, but there are some bothersome technical shortcomings that keep Hole in the Wall from maintaining that appeal. Furthermore, the silhouette feedback mechanism isn't always reliable, leaving you to wonder why your seemingly spot-on pose isn't scoring you points. Though these problems don't plague every round of Hole in the Wall and you can still enjoy some silly living room shenanigans, the flaws in the core mechanics make it hard to recommend.

Well, yes, that's technically true, but 'Holes in the Wall' just sounds weird.
There are only two modes in Hole in the Wall; you can face an unending series of walls and see how many you can clear consecutively, or you can play a show. Shows are themed contests that consist of three normal rounds and a final round. Normal rounds present you with a set of about 10 walls and allow you to miss up to two; if you get three strikes in one round, you fail the show. When you make it to the final round, you are often met with a slight variation on a normal round. The lights may be dimmed, making it tougher to see the hole in the wall, or the walls may come faster than usual. You earn points for every wall you clear in a show (faster clears earn bigger bonuses), and at the end of the show, your score is posted to online leaderboards.
So how do you actually clear a wall? It's as simple as positioning your body to match the cut-out hole. If you see a tall rectangle, you stand straight with your arms at your sides. If there's something that looks like a dog, you get down on all fours. And if you see a cowboy with arms akimbo and his foot up on a hay bale, well, you'd better hope you can raise your leg off the ground long enough to match the shape. As your silhouette gets closer to matching up with the hole, your image turns from red to orange to yellow to green, with the latter color indicating that you've reached the optimal position. The better your pose, the faster the clear meter fills up and the quicker you clear the wall. The walls come in fairly quick succession, so you might strike a baseball player pose, have to look like a big cactus, and then shrink down to the floor to fit into a box shape. The parade of poses is naturally silly and can generate a good amount of fun for those inclined to enjoy this mildly aerobic, utterly ridiculous endeavor.

The first few shows are relatively easy, but as you progress, you begin to encounter trickier poses that some players will find difficult. Holding your leg aloft at varying heights for seconds at a time presents a challenge to your strength and balance, so make sure you have heeded the Kinect's warnings and moved your furniture a good distance away. Harder poses can also be fun because they require more skillful maneuvering to successfully execute, but they also run afoul of Hole in the Wall's technical problems more frequently. The game is fine when you have to pose with arms and legs splayed out like a starfish, but the closer your limbs get to your body, the more problems you encounter. Slight elbow bends are problematic, and minor squats can be finicky as well.

Sometimes you can get your pose to register properly with slight adjustments, but such attempts are not always successful. The visual feedback only indicates that you are doing it wrong; there is no limb-specific feedback to say, "Just move your leg a little to the left!" You should be able to adjust by trying to fill the hole more fully with your silhouette, but it's unclear how Hole in the Wall detects your body. Bigger individuals might get away with simply making themselves loom large (the Hole in the Wall equivalent of brute force), but on another similar wall, this technique might fail. Sometimes your silhouette can line up almost perfectly and still register as red, but other times, you can be off by an entire limb or two and still earn green. Detection is particularly spotty when you have to get down on the floor. These issues force you to try to learn how to game the game, rather than follow the simple and intuitive rules. It's possible to play entire shows without encountering these problems, but the threat of inconsistency looms over every session.

Hole in the Wall is neither technically flawless nor visually appealing. The walls themselves often feature crude line drawings meant to give context to the shape of the hole, but they are simplistic at best, indecipherable at worst. The meager stage and braying audio are thankfully deemphasized during actual gameplay. In addition to competing against the walls, you can challenge another player or team (up to two versus two) to see who is the best poser, and getting more people in the mix can increase your likelihood of having fun in spite of the technical shortcomings. Unlocking and beating the 10 shows is likely to take you a few hours, and the poses get trickier and faster as you progress. The challenge of contorting yourself into mildly awkward positions is pretty amusing, but having your performance derailed by spotty detection is frustrating. Though it does have some entertainment value, Hole in the Wall is still a tough sell at 800 Microsoft points ($10).