Elephants, ponchos, dancing and lightsabers.
It was about three seconds after donning a neon poncho with power suit shoulder pads that I realised Microsoft's much hyped Project Natal Experience event at the Galen Center, Los Angeles, was going to be unique.
And unique it was. An expectant crowd of media, game developers and celebrities gathered to watch Cirque du Soleil dancers dressed like volcano-worshipping tribesmen flap their arms about and bend their legs into their necks as a mock family played Natal game after Natal game in a living room suspended high in the air.
The idea was that an asteroid, which turned out to be a big sphere with the green X in Xbox on it, had crashed into the earth, and loads of people with feathers sticking out of their heads were worshipping it. At one point, a young boy rode an elephant into the crowd.
Cirque du Soleil's performance was great, but the longer it went on the more obvious it became that this world première was less about Microsoft showing us Natal and more about Microsoft showing off.
So, what did we learn? Well, gamers will be most interested in two things: one, Project Natal's official new name, Kinect. It's an obvious play on the words "connect" and "kinetic", but the connotations, in my opinion, are apt. With full body motion sensing and voice recognition, we will be able to connect to games and our Xbox 360s as never before. And to do so we'll need a hell of a lot of kinetic energy.
The problem with the reveal was that it had been unceremoniously spoiled hours earlier by a leak, one guaranteed to have set the cat amongst the pigeons in Microsoft HQ. But our spirits were lifted when we saw, for the first time, a Star Wars Kinect game.
It works like this: your body movements govern the actions of an in-game avatar, viewed from a third-person perspective. We saw "dad", from the mock family, move his body forward with arms outstretched behind him to dash his Jedi avatar forwards through the 3D environment. We saw him wield an imaginary lightsaber with both hands, deflecting Stormtrooper laser fire and slashing. We saw him wave his arms around to use the Force, directing its destructive power towards unlucky Stormtroopers. And we saw, at the end of the demo, Darth Vader himself turn up, stepping off a transport to his iconic fanfare. Lightsabers clashed, dad gritting his teeth, and the demo ended.
The game looked all sorts of wicked, with impressive graphics and exciting gameplay. Quite predictably it drew the biggest cheer - the only cheer - from the crowd. Here, I hope, is the Star Wars game Nintendo's Wii promised me.
What else do we know? Well, you can navigate the Xbox 360 dashboard with your hand, but in a not quite as sci-fi way as the E309 Natal videos suggested. You control a small white circle with your hand, selecting windows and moving, for example, photos from right to left or left to right. Not quite Minority Report, I know, but impressive nonetheless. Indeed the feature could resonate with gadget-loving dads: as I left the Galen Center I overheard a middle-aged non-gamer tell his mate that navigating the Xbox 360 in this way excited him the most.
We also saw two girls communicate with video and voice in real time. It didn't look awful, as most webcam conversation do, but slick, smooth and crystal clear. As you're chatting, you can show your chum photos, which they can navigate with their hands as described above. Not a particularly revolutionary technology, but exciting to have your Xbox 360 be capable of nonetheless.
The rest of the event was all a bit meh. We saw a driving game, in which players control cars by steering an imaginary wheel. To boost, you push your hands out from your body. Leaning back flips the car backwards, leaning forward flips it forward. Turning your arms to the left spins it horizontally. There was a skateboarding luge type course, which was all about doing tricks with your car and running over orbs to collect them. At one point, the car grew wings and flew, with two avatars standing on each wing.
We saw a river rafting game, in which players control a raft by leaning their body left to right, collect orbs by waving their hands, and dodge obstacles by jumping and ducking.
We saw the iconic Disney castle image and iconic Disney character Tinkerbell flying about - what kind of game it suggests is anyone's guess.
We saw "mum" play a Tai chi game. You have to follow the movements of an in-game instructor. A pulse emerges from your avatar's heart for good form. You can also blow rose petals about, which should be fun.
We saw a tiger-petting game called Kinectimals, which was demoed by "young daughter". If you fall over, it does the same and sticks its legs in the air. If you jump, it jumps. You can throw an imaginary ball to play fetch with it. It looks adorable.
There's a dancing game, which looks like Just Dance, from MTV Games. You have to do dance moves like the Elbow Throw, the Guitar and the Rockout on command, all to a funky beat. If you fail a move the music slows and your instructor breaks it down for you. Once you nail it the track speeds up again.
Then there's a stack of mini-games from what we believe is called Kinect Sports (no prizes for guessing which game inspired this one). We saw a 200 metre hurdles game, which involves running on the spot and timing jumps. We saw a javelin game, which involves running on the spot and pretending to throw a javelin. We saw a beach volleyball game, which involves moving your arms about and occasionally jumping up to slam the ball. We saw a 100 metre sprint, which was exactly the same as the hurdle except without the hurdling. And we saw a football game, which looked like the worst of the lot - you stand still, pass, shoot, and occasionally save a shot if if you're in goal. It didn't look like you could tackle.
And then Kinect's world première was over. We clapped for the hippy dancers and made a swift exit.
Kinect still has a lot to prove. The tech is squarely aimed at the family, pitched as "something for everyone", an enabler for those intimidated by the traditional video game controller. But what is there for the hardcore gamers to get excited about? We saw nothing of Lionhead's Milo and Kate and Fable III, which Peter Molyneux has confirmed is Kinect-enabled. We've seen nothing from Rare to get the hardcore blood pumping. We know Kinect will be released in November, but still don't know how much it'll cost. At least we do know there's a Kinect Star Wars game in the works and it looks ace, and we can video chat with our mates over Xbox LIVE.
Suddenly there's even more pressure on Microsoft's Monday evening press conference. Until then, well, at least I can say I've worn a poncho at a preview event.
Kinect is due out in November 2010.
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