NEWS - Friday, June 5, 2009

I’ve Played Natal and it Works

  Following up on its successful E3 press conference, Microsoft held a special hands-on event at the Standard Hotel in downtown Los Angeles. Besides showing off the latest versions of games like Halo 3: ODST, Forza Motorsport 3, The Beatles: Rock Band, and Shadow Complex, Microsoft also had special "behind closed doors" demos of two of its more secretive projects, Project Natal and Alan Wake.

   I’ll admit that I was eager to try out Natal specifically to see just how real the onstage demo truly was. After all, what Microsoft showed onstage -- not counting the incredibly long ultra-saccharine marketing video -- was pretty impressive. As Steven Spielberg alluded to in his surprise speech at that very press conference, a camera that could act as an "invisible controller" for hardcore and first-time gamers alike really would be a defining moment for the next generation of videogames.

Here’s the amazing thing -- I played with the Natal for all of 5-6 minutes, and I have to say, it actually works.

  The first demo I tried was what Microsoft was calling "Burnout Natal." Though it isn’t a real game in development, the mixture of Burnout Paradise and the Natal camera was meant to provide proof that you could use the device’s technology for practically any genre or software. How quickly I was recognized into the Natal’s body identification system (just a few seconds) was surprising, and in a matter of moments I was controlling Burnout paradise with my feet and hands.

  Most of the people around me during the MS press conference were groaning when they showed how a racing game would control with Natal in the aforementioned marketing footage, but truth be told, it’s a lot more fun than it looks. Though I did miss the bit of resistance that a controller or steering wheel normally gives me, I was shocked to see how natural it felt to drive a car without actually being in one. How easy was it? To accelerate, I simply moved my right leg forward; to brake, I moved it backwards, and to pop it into a neutral position, I just stood straight up (or as straight as my spine would allow me to stand after 12+ hours of E3 spelunking). Driving was just a matter of pretending that I had a steering wheel in my hands, and every subtle movement I made was picked up by the camera allowing me to drive pretty well (and pretty straight) for the few minutes I got to try it out. As an added bonus, the motion for going into Burnout mode was an appropriate Top Gun Volleyball fist-pump. The whole experience was surprisingly fun and I walked away with nary a bad thing to say (which is quite an accomplishment, because normally I complain a lot).

  My second go at the Natal was with the game highlighted specifically in Microsoft’s press conference by former Fight Night father, Kudo Tsunoda, known as "Ricochet." Admittedly, Ricochet isn’t my type of game. I’d rather sit on the couch hitting remote control buttons instead of virtual dodgeballs (which probably explains why I’ve reached the point where I get winded doing simple things like chewing and talking). Nonetheless, Ricochet provided a small dose of fun as I did my best to break targets with an increasingly-prolific supply of balls. The response here didn’t seem as sharp as it did with Burnout -- but to be fair, there did seem to be a small learning curve with the aiming system. Though again, it’s not my type of game -- but the good news is that, when speaking with Tsunoda about things in the works down the line, that there are plenty more games -- much more ambitious ones, in fact -- in development that we’re going to see in the near future.

  All in all, I found Project Natal to be quite refreshing. It’s nowhere near the gimmicky device I originally took it for and the fact that it works already on a retail Xbox 360 (Burnout was running on an "out of the store" model, no debugs or special systems required) says a lot about its current stage of development.

To say that I’m anxious to see where Microsoft, and it’s horde of third party developers, takes his next is an understatement.


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