Project Natal Hands-On Impressions

We had a chance to check out three demos using Microsoft's controller-free technology.

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When Microsoft first revealed Project Natal at the Electronic Entertainment Expo, the publisher called it a "revolutionary new way to play." Just how revolutionary this technology is remains to be seen, but what we do know is that both publishers and developers are already expressing enthusiasm for Natal and its capabilities. We had a chance to try it out for ourselves in a behind-closed-doors hands-on session at this year's Tokyo Game Show.

The creative director on Project Natal, Kudo Tsunoda, began the session with the Ricochet demo first previewed during E3 this year--a simple 3D block-breaking game where you use your whole body to knock balls at a wall. The Natal camera had no problem picking up Tsunoda's body movement accurately as he moved, including smaller movements he made with his fingers. Tsunoda explained that Natal works by reading the body entirely and then creating a "skeleton" that it uses to follow the body's movements. This is why the camera will not be interrupted by movement offscreen or interruptions like someone walking past in the background (which effectively means you can still play in a room full of people).

Following Tsunoda's demo we had a chance to jump in and try Ricochet out for ourselves. The camera took a little time to read our body, and surprisingly it worked out we were female--the onscreen avatar adjusted itself to our height, while the hair changed appropriately. However, the camera incorrectly judged the position of our legs--it had us sitting cross-legged instead of standing up like we were. It took about a minute before it readjusted itself.

Playing the game was difficult at first, partly due to the fact that we knew we looked somewhat crazy flailing and waving our arms about trying to hit the oncoming balls. After a few minutes it became easier, but we still found it hard to integrate ourselves with the virtual space. We could see the balls coming, but because we had no controller in our hands, the first reaction was to reach out to the screen and try to hit the balls at the same angle they were coming from. We soon discovered this wasn't necessary--just doing the hitting motion in the same general direction as the balls would have sufficed. The movements also had to be quick and relatively varied, requiring the use of hands, feet, and the torso to stop the balls getting through.

The next demo Tsunoda showed off was EA's Burnout Paradise. When first booted up, the demo did not actually work--Tsunoda stood there waving at the screen with no response, and the demo had to be restarted. Once we got our hands on it, it proved enjoyable and a lot easier to play than Ricochet. We stood in front of the Natal camera and placed our right foot forward to accelerate and back to brake. To drive the onscreen car we simply mimicked real-life steering. The steering motions can be as small or as wide as is comfortable--you can hold your hands very close together or very wide apart, and it will make no difference. Driving around the streets of Paradise City at a very high speed using no controller became very natural after a few minutes, even though it was a completely new experience. We found it easier to get back on the road after crashing than it would have been using a controller, which made this demo the most intuitive of the three shown.

The final demo we were shown was a fusion of Project Natal and Beautiful Katamari, a demo Tsunoda and his team prepared specifically for this year's Tokyo Game Show to celebrate Japanese developers. The demo was incredibly fun to play--we stood in front of the camera and used a down-facing cupping motion with our hands to control the katamari. By tilting our hands to the left and right we were able to navigate around the town, picking up as much junk as we could to slowly grow our katamari. A fast push gave the katamari a quick burst of speed, and more exaggerated tilting of the hands made it swing even further to the left and right.

While we had a lot of fun playing Beautiful Katamari with Natal, we must point out that holding up our hands for longer than five minutes proved somewhat difficult, and as soon as we lowered them slightly, we found the onscreen movements slightly off.

Watch for more Project Natal news and announcements on GameSpot.

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