Writing about Project Natal is kind of hard. I can't really tell you what button combination you need to do to perform 'X', or how that will affect 'Y' because the system runs, essentially, on an entirely new plane. But it's still difficult to say at this stage if this is really all that revolutionary. There's some serious potential to the technology, and what we were privy to most certainly got us excited, but remembering the first time I swung a Wii Remote in a wide birth to hit a virtual tennis ball also pretty much made me feel the same, and now that system's motion control is really starting to feel gimmicky.
But the aforementioned comparison still comprises a physical device, and the purpose of Natal is to remove that final barrier between player and machine; crafting an experience quite literally about the palm of your hand, your feet, your arms, your face... you.
This couldn't have been demonstrated better than when, during our demo experience, the rather tall Natal project director, Kudo Tsunoda, invited a rather petit lady from Gamespot Au to jump in, on-the-fly, and take his place with the the system's initial gameplay demo of swatting balls at a wall of ever-changing bricks. The standout thing here - the on-screen avatar not only changing immediately to reflect a smaller person, but equally recognised sex, changing from male to female without a single stop for recalibration or anything.
Both Dan and I had a chance to jump in, and swat the balls. Yours truly playing with more strenuous actions to see how they effect the demo, the best example being in what Tsunoda referred to as a "power kick" once I'd done it, and yep, it sent the ball flying with much more force.
With all of that said, however, the first demo just still didn't feel
like the goods. Which is why we switched pace and jumped right into a Natalised
Burnout Paradise demo. The objective here was to simply jump in front of the camera, position your hands in the air as if holding a steering wheel and put your front foot slightly forward to accelerate.
Seriously, this was an incredible demonstration of the system's 1:1 movement tracking. Each time you shift your hands just a little to turn the steering wheel, it happens immediately on-screen and in-game, and stepping your foot back just a little will ease off the accelerator, while all the way back will slam on the breaks and if left there long enough, send you driving in reverse. Moreover, Tsunoda made a point to come out and walk around one of the players who was driving, waving his arms about to show off the fact the system would simply ignore him and leave the driver/player to continue to race, without distraction.
The demo area we where in was a very white room with powerful lights, but Tsunoda was quick to point out Natal was utilising an infrared system, meaning it could literally work in the dark (good news for those of us who play games with all the lights out), and that currently the system's RGB camera was good for sensing up to four people at any one given time for games or uses requiring multiple people.
The final gameplay demonstration came in the form of Katamari Damacy (a game where you roll around a populated environment as a ball and pick almost anything up in your path to add to the ball, for the uninitiated). This was another great gameplay demo which required us to only hold our hands out in front of us and tilt them to turn the ball accordingly. A thrust of your hands forward would add a small boost to the ball on-screen, but similarly to Burnout, Katamari showcased the system's stellar 1:1 movement recognition, making for a fun gaming experience, and one super-easy to play, regardless of your age or physical limitations.
These three demoss were great examples of options for the system, while utilising it from your couch as a controller for movies, or for video chat across Xbox Live with a friend are also options on the cards.
We were invited along to a special panel discussion with three of Japan's most celebrated game designers, Capcom's Keiji Inafune, SEGA's Toshihiro Nagoshi and Konami's Hideo Kojima. It was an open forum for them to talk about the potential for the system and what they thought of it personally. This was a unique experience, and something not often done in the games industry, and while there wasn't an amazing amount of information directly pulled from the event, the individual thoughts from each of the designers gave rise to a few varying concepts that Natal could be provisioned for in game-design in the future.
"I had some vision for the sensor," Inafune says through a translator. "But you [Microsoft] surpassed my expectations." His passion for the potential is translated through his body language, and the fact he's willing to talk about it more than either of the other two (though he and Kojima did get into a few heated moments of dialogue). His main point though, comes in the form of expression and accessibility; people without hands, or major disabilities who could never game before will now have an opportunity.
"It was such a big shock to me," says Kojima of the first time he was demoed Natal. "Like 2D to 3D - that was the level of shock I had. Our lifestyle will change, and we won't just see it come in a box marked 'Game' anymore." Kojima's expectations seemed far more tangible; his sights set further down the track where the device itself opens doors for doctors and the like - he basically ran with all of his hope for sci-fi come-reality, like Minority Report, but reiterated throughout that he wanted to use Natal to create "an entirely new type of game".
Nagoshi-san was the least verbal of the three, but maintained a consistent focus on emotion. He perceived the technology to be able to finally impact players the same way films do; because of the heightened level of interaction. "You're now performing the action," he proclaimed. "We have established our foundation, but there is a future being built right in front of us with [Natal]."
Again, nothing came of the event in the way of new game revelations, but these are some of the industry's biggest hitters, and it was an extraordinary opportunity to see them on-stage talking about the future of games in this capacity. It also marked yet another leap forward for Microsoft, who are clearly focused on changing the industry, which is a very odd and unique position for them to be in (as they've never really been here before). It'll be interesting to see how the rest of the industry responds - will Nintendo create something outlandishly revolutionary in response? (And will it finally be in HD?) Or will they just continue to rake in cash for the time being with the model they've proven to be successful? And what of Sony and their lagging PS3? They've made business moves to attempt to catch the competition with price-cuts and redesigned consoles, but their R&D has simply lead to a veritable Wii Remote in HD with more processing power - where do these guys go once Natal has stolen all of the spotlight? (Which it pretty much already has).
In saying all of that though, Project Natal still has a lot of proving to do. Microsoft seem to be on the right track, only just during TGS announcing official third-party partnerships with the following:
Activision Blizzard, Bethesda Softworks, Capcom Co. Ltd, Disney Interactive, Electronic Arts, Konami, MTV Games, Namco Bandai, Sega, Square Enix, THQ Inc. and Ubisoft.
But will it be enough, and how long will it be before the technology is used beyond party game gimmicky functions? Only time will tell.