New name, new games, and a new beginning for Microsoft's motion controller: Kinect. In the immediate aftermath of the Cirque de Soleil "Project Natal Experience", we had a chance to get hands on, or hands-off as it were [we did that joke last year - Ed], with a small selection of titles set to launch with the camera.
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First up, an opportunity to get to try out Kinect Sports. This is Rare's attempt to take on the almighty appeal of Nintendo's Wii Sports franchise, so it's not surprising to see Avatars take centre-stage in this multi-event epic - Rare designed them.
During the Project Natal Experience we saw various flavours of mini-game from football through to the hurdles, plus some javelin action to boot. At the playtest, the selection of available events is more limited.
Hurdles is present and correct though and available both for single-player and also in a two-player split-screen 'versus' format. The objective is simple: run on the spot in a frenzied manner, and leap when you see an upcoming hurdle in order to maintain speed and win the event.
The key to maintaining speed isn't how quickly you run on the spot but how many calories you burn. Not a lot of people know this, but the Kinect APIs in the recent Xbox 360 SDKs include a module that measures the number of calories you burn based on the motions you make.
Within this section of Kinect Sports, then, exaggerated running on the spot, arms pumping in the air, makes for faster motion than simply concentrating on getting your feet to move as quickly as possible. It is exhausting. Which is perhaps the point.
For the more laid-back, Rare's take on the motion-control classic bowling is also on hand. Move your arm to the left or right to collect a ball then simply... bowl. It feels more advanced than Wii Sports, to make the obvious comparison: for a start, if you really want to be zany and wacky, you can hold the ball out in front of you and simply toss it forwards for some "interesting" results. [Couldn't do that in 2006. Sold! -Ed]
Going for the more traditional bowling technique feels more refined. You can put spin on the ball quite tangibly. However, for some reason the ball occasionally seems to "jump" for no reason during a bowling motion. Perhaps the player, stooping down to bowl, leaves the camera's field of view?
The final section of the Kinect Sports demo is something rather more off-the-wall. Using motion control you're able to "conduct the crowd" and bring them to various states of euphoria exclusively through use of gestures. It's an interesting vision of how using the fully animated Avatars can create something new.
At this point it's worth pointing out that while elements of Kinect Sports may well be gesture-controlled, the impression you get when playing is that it's very close to full 1:1 tracking. For example, if you feel like running down the entire course in the hurdles game with your hands in the air then this is reflected in your on-screen Avatar.
Lag is present in Kinect Sports, as it is in all of the titles we see, but Rare's on-hand technical and communications expert Nick Burton pegs the game latency at 150ms, defined by the time taken for light to reach the camera and until the display information leaves the 360 output (in other words, you can add TV lag on top of that).
Burton says that lag categorically hasn't been an issue during development, and perhaps with some time it won't be in gameplay. Successfully leaping over a hurdle doesn't seem quite as easy as it should be, and it's interesting to note that dodging obstacles isn't quite as easy as we expected it would be either.