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E3 09: How Xbox 360's Natal upstaged Nintendo

Early Monday morning, Microsoft kicked off E3 with a snappy, always-in-motion press conference that announced a great many things. The biggest surprise was the company’s new motion-tracking “Natal” technology, a sensor that scans your body and uses YOU as the controller. Literally no buttons, no sticks, no plastic anything at all. Just your body.

Wait a sec – motion controls? Widening the audience? Remove the barrier between gamers and non-gamers? Didn’t Nintendo do this already, and didn’t we all kind of decide it was a bust as far as hardcore gamers were concerned? Should we even care that yet another company (and then Sony as well) are embracing motion controls? Well, we had a private session with everything Natal has to offer, and here’s what you need to know:

It works as advertised

Seriously, it does. They weren’t faking the onstage demo at all (exaggerating and hyperbolizing maybe, but not faking). The first thing we saw in our demo was last year’s Burnout Paradise running with the scanning portion of Natal. We stood in front of the screen, saw our body scanned into the supercomputers and then played Burnout with nothing but our hands.

We simply moved our hands in calm driving movements to steer, put a foot forward to gas, step back to brake, even juked our arm to trigger the Burnout-standard boost. Of course there was an awkward transitional period, but within a few minutes we were zipping in and out of traffic without incident… well, it’s Burnout, so there were actually several incidents. But they were deliberate.

How does it work? In this case, Burnout was tracking our wrists, so our hands could be fists or open, just as long as our wrists were trying to drive. Natal’s also aware that people don’t have three arms, so if a friend walks by mid-game, it doesn’t then start trying to scan new body parts. It’s already tagged you as the controller.

Microsoft said they are not planning on re-releasing old titles with this new technology (a la Wii’s New Play Control series), they just wanted a frame of reference for E3.

The other game we played, Ricochet, displayed a transparent silhouette on the screen that mimicked our real-life movements. It was, for the most part, truly 1-1 with us, though complicated motions don’t translate. For the purposes of this game though, arms, legs, head and body were tracked and used to bash kickballs into crates for points. Crates and points… all this tech and we’re still using crates and points.

It can handle a lot of movement

When Natal’s head honcho Kudo Tsunoda stood up to show us the ropes, he actually told us to back up. Now, we’ve seen our share of Wii waggle, but this time … man, he was all over the room, flinging arms and legs in all directions, trying to return as many balls as possible. When we got up there, Natal enabled us to react to the game as we would if there was actually an armada of balls flying at us (a regular occurrence, by the way), stretching arms for distant ones or headbutting or winding up for a big-finish kick. The motion minigame vibe did trigger some Wii memories of unwanted waggling, but again, as an idea, this worked.

And after that? Tired. Sweaty. Not a ringing endorsement for gaming maybe, but these demos proved the technology does indeed work. With more time and application, the sports genre could see a whole grip of decent motion-controlled games, plus whatever else devs cook up. Wii Sports could look horribly dated by comparison if it’s all handled properly.

It could out-Wii the Wii

Lets’ be honest here – Wii’s motion controls haven’t lived up to their promises. Even this year with Wii MotionPlus, an add-on device that makes the Wii Remote far more sensitive to motion, the controls feel less responsive than these Natal demos. Granted, Natal is barely off the drawing board and has no full games to play that were built for it, but so far the concept and the tech function as we were told. Which means that even if Natal doesn’t prove useful to the hardcore market, it will enable captivating party games – just like the Wii remote has. If the “casual” market gets wind of it and tries Natal (and has a large living room to accommodate all the movement) the way it has Wii, this could be huge.

That said, part of Wii’s success was its price. Anyone could eat a $250 cost, but Micosoft’s body-scanning laser machine could end up way higher than that (total speculation, but it definitely doesn’t look cheap). So, while Natal may make Wii’s hardware look ancient and crusty, it could end up being too pricey to make as huge a splash. We’re also willing to see what devs do with MotionPlus – it could be that there are some creative ideas for it that we just haven’t seen yet.

Milo & Kate is way creepy

By now you’ve seen/heard about Peter Molyneux’s little-boy simulator and decided it’s um… unique. We didn’t step up and chat with Milo, but we saw Molyneux do so in a private room, displaying the range of Milo’s face and voice recognition powers. He can pick your voice out of a group, even attempt to guess your emotional state by the tone. After a brief introduction, Milo was interacting with people in the room on a first-name basis. Weird. Cool, but weird.

Molyneux stressed that Milo & Kate (Kate being the unseen dog) is a game, with goals and a narrative. Talking with Milo earns you more money to spend on his various pursuits in a slightly Sims-esque fashion, and you’ll see more of his world than a tree and a swing.

Finally, this isn’t necessarily a game that will ship. All the Natal stuff was concept and may or may not end up at retail. Based on the fact that we saw a mysterious man behind a curtain (possibly monitoring Milo’s vitals), we can hazard a guess that Natal as a whole still needs a lot of time left in the oven.

Now that E3’s big reveal has happened, we don’t expect to see much more of Natal for quite some time. Hell it could even be next year’s E3 before we see more. Until then though, this is everything we know about Microsoft’s latest foray into the mainstream.

Jun 3, 2009

46 comments

  • CLEIP - June 7, 2009 12:44 p.m.

    The tech totally kills the wii, but it`s taking it to far. I mean the good thing about thee Wii´s controllers is that they are not all motion controllers. you know the are perfect for shooters and sword fights and stuff, especially with the motion plus, The Natal doesn't work for real games, for that you need buttons as well.
  • mikedemyx - June 7, 2009 8:02 a.m.

    Honest to god how much is microsoft paying you for this? All they ever do is copy people THEY SUCK! HALO SUCKS! Sony and Nintenod for life! This will fail so bad like every other microsoft item ever and it won't beat Wii. Wii is the greatest thing ever. And I know what's next microsoft will make a game called crossanimal! a ripoff of animalcrossing? and steelred! rip off of redsteel? sounds about right. GO FUCK YOURSELF MICROSOFT.
  • adertysohck - June 6, 2009 1:44 a.m.

    umm... can i molest milo? plz?
  • IAMinFAMOUS - June 5, 2009 5:42 p.m.

    This could be interesting when combined with a controller to keep hardcore games. Voice commands and maybe throwing grenades in a FPS along with using a controller to move and shoot could be interesting. Also instead of picking voice commands in RPGs maybe now you could say them. I don't think that Natal itself is good but a combonation could be pretty awsome.
  • NanoElite666 - June 5, 2009 4:05 a.m.

    @Vagrant: The first Uncharted used the Sixaxis for controlling the arc of the throw, but that was it. And it was a bit awkward to use as well, especially when under fire. Anyways, I was just thinking of ways that motion-sensing like this and traditional control could compliment each other, and that was the first idea that popped into my head.
  • GrantG - June 5, 2009 1:42 a.m.

    Milo "destroyer of worlds" scares me. SUCK IT Wii!
  • R0CKWELLS - June 5, 2009 1:37 a.m.

    When is this Natal project hitting the shelves? I'd get one for my home 360.
  • Jokebox231 - June 5, 2009 1:33 a.m.

    The question is, will the devs make good games? The Wii looked good at the begining, but then all the third parties showed up and havent stopped making party/casual/minigame games, and its ruined the system. Nintendo has made some good games (and some not so good games) but a lot of their games are good. Microsoft will probably be able to make some good games for this, then, the party/casual/minigames will come and destroy it for actual gamers.
  • haytradyl33 - June 5, 2009 12:06 a.m.

    @ edgar9217 Who knows what Nintendo can do with this? They haven't announced anything really for it yet. And I agree with everyone for the most part. The only way I think Nintendo can come back enough to make more sales is to incorporate Wii Speak into future games. Maybe even give out a patch so you can use it in Brawl, MK Wii, etc. Finally, on Project NATAL, I think it's a pretty cool idea, but I've seen some of it before (remember that Eye Toy gathering dust in the corner?) but remade. I predict that it's gonna attract casual players, and tick off real gamers who bought the 360 instead of the Wii to AVOID casual gamers. One more thing: PS3 has motion controls too! From the 10 min. I saw, it doesn't outdo the Wii OR Project NATAL
  • cart00n - June 4, 2009 6:43 p.m.

    The first thing I thought when I saw that trailer start was, "Wow, I'm gonna need a bigger living room." I think this controller is gonna be revolutionary. It's obvious to me that this is the next big step on our way to virtual reality and/or the future that the sci-fi genre has been promising us for YEARS. Remember that scene in "Total Recall" where Sharon Stone is practicing her tennis with a hologram? THIS is THAT! Only without the hologram. We're THERE people! Next stop, flying cars and jetpacks!
  • tevezisgod - June 4, 2009 12:52 p.m.

    You are absolutely right gamesradar, because introducing an all new functionality to a console towards the end of it's cycle has done just so well in the past. For example the sega-cd or the 32x or the eye-toy.
  • solidocelot - June 4, 2009 12:16 p.m.

    and a lot of wii games do that with the nunchuck
  • Howetzer - June 4, 2009 11:10 a.m.

    @ Brett E. I'm just curious....is the entire article devoted to the PS3 motion sensing anouncement shortly forthcoming? One would think about a day after this article was posted you would have had someone demo it and write up an article for it? Seriously, is there going to be an article done about it? I am curious to see how it really works now that we know how the MS one works (and of course how much you guys Looooove it).
  • PS360Rulez - June 4, 2009 5:56 a.m.

    You people are not looking at this the right way. Dont consider this a complete replacement for a controller. Think of this. You are playing raindow six and instead of having to use the gay d-pad to call commands you simply tell your squad what you want them to do. It would make it so much more imersive. You could still shoot and move with the controller. Also when a charachter looks at you they would actually be tracking your face. How friggin crazy would that be. Then when you are using the offline features such as music or video you just turn of the controller and flip through the menus with your hands. This would just make everything seem so much more fluid. In tandem with a controller this will blow the wii away and provide a more imersive experience than my PS3 would be capable of. Im psyched.
  • edgar9217 - June 4, 2009 4:29 a.m.

    I wanted to mean before the Gamecube not after. i make that mistake.
  • mentalityljs - June 4, 2009 1:51 a.m.

    i can only imagine what Mortal Kombat would be like using Natal!!! I think i just jizzed in my pants =D
  • jballboy88 - June 4, 2009 12:58 a.m.

    the thing about natal is that it has no fps support [its just impossible to do fps without a real trigger] and has no "off" button (if ur doin an fps like sony showed w/ the ps3mote, and u move your hand [the cursor] across the screen to highlight & direct people on the battlefield, they clicked a button to toggle between highlighting ppl, directing them, and just moving a cursor. with no buttons its impossible) --and its just unnatural to play a game without a controller. thats just weird. and uncomfortable. and appeals to the casual player, which is a totally different demographic than the xbox already gets
  • CoD_22 - June 3, 2009 10:57 p.m.

    is it just me or are all these comments from 11 months 30 days ago?
  • Jokebox231 - July 20, 2009 12:53 p.m.

    Many of you are a like "oh this is so awesome, is going to be the best motion control ever and make games amazing". This is the same things you said about the Wii, and now, we all know it has failed. So, for those who think this will work, dont have too high of hopes, history will repeat itself, this WILL become a hive of casual games. Natal isnt going to be what you hoped for, just as the Wii isnt. Decent games will be made for this, just as there are decent games for Wii, but that wont stop it from hosting games in which you flail around like a dieing chimpanzee.
  • GamesRadarBrettElston - June 9, 2009 8:08 p.m.

    @ Howetzer Sony didn't offer one-on-one time with their motion technology. What you saw during the press conference is all we know. Can't write firsthand experience about something we've never used. When they let us play with it, I assure you we'll have something to say.

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