Microsoft’s next-generation gaming experience didn’t impress me by what it did but more for what it will be able to do. The possibiliites will be limitless.
There has been so much buzz around Microsoft Project Natal for the Xbox 360; a piece of kit that essentially turns an already impressive games console into a whole new gaming and entertainment experience by adding an advanced camera that captures your entire body and translates the movements into an on-screen avatar.
It’s easy to take this for granted when you first start playing with Natal: if you’re used to gaming with the Wiimote then you’ll be thinking ‘ho-hum, the little person on screen is mimicking me’ but throwing away the controller and letting the game play you is a totally different experience.
It was strange to stand in front of a TV screen – no controls, no sensors, just me – and have an avatar on screen that mimicked my body movements pretty accurately, complete with swivel of shoulder and turn of hip.
The only problem with Natal pre-release is that there is only one demo game where your avatar whacks balls against a wall and tries to smash as many as possible. This didn’t really keep me entertained but it wasn’t meant to; it was simply designed to show that the technology does what it is supposed to do.
Again, another thing that consumers won’t experience is this version. I was told that it was not the final build and I could tell, because although it picked up my body movements quite well it didn’t really pick up my arm as I swung for the ball. I have a feeling they’re still working on calibrating velocity, and I’m looking forward to this because a piece of technology that can pick up and translate speed as well as position in 3D space into on-screen action is pretty awesome.
As I said to one of the Natal demonstrators, Boris Becker’s arm wouldn’t even have registered (yes, my tennis analogies are completely out of date) but it was really cool using something other than your hand to play a game.
Because it picks up your entire body, you can kick, slap and even head butt things and as I found out if you simply stand there it smacks into you, but you can move things out of the way if you slam your body sideways or even swivel your hips or shoulders. I was reliably informed that it picks up 42 distinct points on your body.
Plus it seemed to be happy to pick up two players side by side but didn’t detect the person standing behind us. And we tried a bit of tag-teaming but this didn’t phase the Natal sensors, it seamlessly picked up the new person and the first one jumped out.
The kids are all right
As I watched the rest of the adults begin with Natal by swishing their arms about a bit and slowly warming up to kicking the ball, I realised that the only prohibiting factors were shame, self-consciousness and fear of ridicule amongst peers. Much the same as with the Wii on launch.
Children are not burdened by this and are also willing to try something new. As one of the journalists I was speaking to said as we watched one kid playing Natal, "He has no fear".
We watched in awe as he jumped about energetically, head butting balls, kicking high in the air and looking as though he was having the time of his life. As much as adults will love Natal, kids will live Natal. Their avatar will become a second skin and we grownups should jump in with both feet, too.
You got game?
There are so many games I could see Natal working with. We already know that EA, Ubisoft and MTV Games are official partners and Peter Molyneux of Lionhead Studios hinted that Fable III would have Natal capabilities, plus they already demoed their Milo character with Natal at E3 2009.
We’ll find out what big titles are coming down the line at E3 2010 and I’m hoping there will be a Stars Wars one. Imagine fighting with light sabres, doing a classic Darth Vader chokehold or slamming your opponent into the nearest wall with a force push!
Of course, with EA on board, you can see how well it will work with soccer games and the like. Sports will be big on this and there is the River Rush game, but I’m more interested in what it can do for other games, particularly if it will be integrated into classic franchises like Halo, Medal of Honor.
What else can it do?
Even if you’re not the gaming type, having Natal on your Xbox 360 makes it pretty futuristic. After switching on your console it detects your presence and you can navigate through your games, movies and music by swiping your hand and choosing one to play by grabbing it. So yes, couch potatoes can also enjoy Natal. In fact, it will make them even lazier … but in a fun and interactive way.
I’m looking forward to the final build and I do think how cool this will be down to the games available, but what can I say? I want one. Badly. Sucks to be Wii.
By Marie Boran
Photo: Microsoft Project Natal for the Xbox 360