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.
Which brings us on nicely to Kinect Adventures, the full game from the team led by Natal creative mastermind Kudo Tsunoda. Yes, the old Ricochet demo is back, but this time it is integrated into a full game consisting of 20 different "adventures". So, mini-games. We get the chance to play three of them. Ricochet itself remains much as the same as it was when we played it last year, albeit with graphical changes.
However, what's curious about the game is that the 1:1 mapping between human motion and character movement on-screen isn't quite as smooth as I remember it. At gamescom last year the on-screen Avatar was uncannily mapped to your actions. Here the skeletal structure seems somewhat more rigid, almost as though the number of control points has been dialled back.
The obstacle course section sees your Avatar on a moving trolley, and you're tasked with moving out of the way of oncoming barriers, whether by side-stepping, ducking or jumping. Collecting bonus tokens is the name of the game and that often involves striking a pose to match the way that the pickups are arranged as they hurtle towards you.
All pretty good fun but, like Kinect Sports, you often feel as though you're jumping or ducking too late, and that you need to "buffer up" your commands in advance. You can blame lag for this, of course, but I think the issue here isn't just a technological one - it's biological too.
Let's assume for a moment that both Kinect Sports and Kinect Adventures do indeed have 150ms latency. One reason for the feeling of lag will be that the human body simply doesn't react as quickly as our fingers do. It takes us longer to physically jump than it does for someone to push a button with the intent of jumping. All this is over and above whatever latency gesture recognition might add, of course.
One element about Kinect Adventures which really must be applauded is its implementation of split-screen two-player. It's literally drop-in, drop-out in a local flavour. If you're playing the game solo and someone wants to join in, all they need do is "jump in" to the scene and start playing. The game automatically changes into a split-screen configuration and will return to the solo view if one of the players then decides to duck out of the camera's view.
The final game in the three-level demo of Kinect Adventures is River Rush. You've caught a glimpse of it in the now-infamous Parade video of Kinect in action. One or two players take on rough waters collecting tokens, dodging obstacles and leaping to different parts of the level. Weave or step left or right to move the onscreen dingy and jump to send it flying into the air.
All very straightforward, all very fine. It's worth pointing out that Kinect Adventures uses Unreal Engine, so along with Rare's Kinect Sports it's the best-looking title.
The most effective Kinect game at this evening's hands-on event, though? Harmonix's Dance Central has got "massive hit" written all over it.
The idea is extremely straightforward: choose the track of your choice (Lady Gaga has a sizeable representation), then mirror the on-screen dancer's moves. These individual moves are buffered up with explanatory directions to the side so you can effortlessly move from one step to the next. It's easy to get into, great fun to play and because it's essentially a massive exercise in gesture control, there is no discernible latency.
It's ironic that the game with perhaps the least Kinect technology in direct evidence during gameplay is probably going to be the biggest hit, but the bottom line is that the genius is all in the implementation, and Harmonix has got that just right.
Dance Central occasionally diverts from its "mirror my actions" gameplay to instrumental breaks, where the on-screen dancer disappears to be replaced by the player in the form of Kinect's depth map, rounded out and smoothed off, then filtered with a range of psychedelic effects. When the break is over, you're also treated to a range of stills taken from the camera, showing the best of your freestyle groovin'.
It's a nice diversion from the core gameplay, and those "action stills" crop up in other titles like Kinect Adventures and Kinect Sports. Rare's game even offers the chance to upload the "player view" camera feed to YouTube - the first time I can recall that an Xbox 360 title has been allowed to communicate in such a manner with a third-party website outside the Live domain.
Your Shape: Fitness Evolved
Just like Dance Central, the Kinect hardware is also tailor-made for the next game on the roster, Your Shape: Fitness Evolved.
There are definite shades of Wii Fit here. The player follows the movements of the on-screen guide in a series of yogic movements, punctuated with mini-games that include clearing the screen of blocks by punching and kicking them.
The visuals are clean and attractive and the transposition of player motion into on-screen action looks great. Lag is clearly in evidence, but it's not exactly an issue for a game like this, and only really apparent during the faster-paced mini-games.
Probably the weakest of the titles at the event is Kinect's Joy Ride. It's a cartoon-esque, Crazy Taxi-style driving game that uses a control system extremely similar to the old Natal Burnout demo we saw at E3 and gamescom last year.
Hands are held out before you to simulate holding the steering wheel just like the old demo, but there are some new additions: nitros are engaged by pulling back on the "wheel" and then thrusting forward, while physically leaning left and right allows you to exaggerate the turning motion, almost like a conventional power drift.
It's also possible to gain "mad air" and perform various car-based stunts through the contortion of your body and indeed there are game modes and environments specifically designed to put this system through its paces.
However, Joy Ride is clearly showing some issues. First and foremost, from a technical perspective the game appears to be having problems locking on to certain people. While I "interfaced" with it easily enough, poor old Johnny Minkley completely failed to get the motion sensor's attention, leading to three reboots and even a quick glance at the "NUI" (natural user interface, apparently) debug tool to check that the Eurogamer TV chief's skeletal data was being processed, which it was.
Joy Ride also highlights something else of interest that needs work: menu navigation. During the Project Natal Experience shenanigans we got a glimpse of the new Xbox 360 front-end optimised for use with Kinect - it consists of a range of on-screen buttons with the user's hand controlling a glowing sphere, highlighting each option.
In that context, it looked as though a gestural "prod" was used to activate the button. Joy Ride (and indeed Rare's Kinect Sports) also uses the same basic idea, but instead of prodding you leave your "hand" in position on the button and wait for it to engage. It feels clunky and unresponsive, and you also find your hand having to rest in odd, uncomfortable positions simply to activate a menu option.
It's not exactly a major problem in the greater scheme of things, but you still get the sense that developers are finding their feet with these mechanisms. It's interesting to note that in Kudo Tsunoda's Kinect Adventures there is no "prod" - instead you progress through (single "button") menus by making a "zip" style motion, helpfully mirrored on-screen with an appropriate on-screen graphic.
The overall verdict from the handful of games we see is, by and large, positive. These are not core games for traditional gamers - indeed, the only game we've seen that could make that claim is the Star Wars title glimpsed at the Project Natal Experience (and sadly missing from this event). But the impression you get from the best of the games is that they are infectious family fun: they're genuinely entertaining and you want to get involved.
This need to participate is the magical ingredient that made the Wii such a hit, and Microsoft has definitely tapped into that same rich vein, but provided its own unique appeal that provides a sense of involvement that goes well beyond the fun offered by the Wiimote waggle controls.
Whether that sense of entertainment can endure, and whether developers will overcome the many and varied technical challenges of the system remains to be seen, but based on this initial playtest the signs are looking good.
Xbox 360 Kinect is due out this November along with a range of first- and third-party software titles.