It's official: Motion control sensors are the future of gaming. Microsoft wowed the world this week at E3, with a demonstration of Project Natal, a full-body motion control system for the Xbox 360. Not to be outdone, just one day later at E3, Sony demonstrated its own next-generation motion controller for the PlayStation 3. Sony's controller is a wireless, microphone-shaped device with several buttons and a glowing sphere on the top. The motion controller's sphere is tracked by the PS3's PlayStation Eye camera, and, based on Sony's demo, the controller looks like it can be used in almost any gaming genre.
Sony representatives said at E3 the company believes "some experiences still need buttons," and so it developed a controller that looks more advanced than Nintendo Wii's motion controllers, but stopped short of going completely device-free like Microsoft. Sony also used live demos for a variety of gaming scenarios, while Microsoft's live presentation included more basic gaming situations.
But if these motion control systems from Microsoft and Sony end up working in the real world as they were presented at E3, what would that gaming experience be like?
With that in mind here is my totally theoretical imagining of what gaming with the Xbox 360's Natal and the PS3's motion controller might be like in the real world if they worked with any type of game imaginable.
Sports: Madden NFL
PS3 Controller: Sony didn't say anything about voice control, so calling plays and switching them on the fly in Madden NFL will probably be done with buttons and the controller's directional pointer. But perhaps using the PlayStation Eye, the PS3 will be able drop your image into an NFL uniform as your team gets ready to move the ball forward. Uh-oh, looks like the bad guys are going for a blitz -- you change your play on the fly and the sphere at the top of the motion controller changes color to confirm your new play. You hit the "X" button to snap the ball, run back with the controller in your hand, and quickly toss the ball (without letting go of the controller) to your receiver, who catches it as you go down under a pile of defenders.
Project Natal: Project Natal is not only a body-motion sensing device, but also has voice control built into its functionality. During Microsoft's E3 demo, the company said you would be able to call out plays in football games. So imagine standing in front of the TV in a quarterback crouch, the roar of the Xbox 360 crowd ringing in your ears as you scream, "Red 35, Blue 22, hut, hut, hut!" Taking advantage of Natal's 3D motion control sensing, you run back, leap over that Mac truck headed straight for you, run forward a bit, pull back your arm and toss the perfect spiral to Randy Moss who takes the ball to the end zone for a touchdown. Pure magic.
Theoretical Winner: Project Natal. If Natal works as promised, then the Xbox 360 football experience would be far as close as you can get to the real thing without a holodeck. The downside is you'll lack the tactile sense of having something in your hands as you throw.
Fighting Games: Street Fighter
Project Natal: Here comes Blanka and it looks like he's ready to shock your Ryu avatar. Before it's too late, you jump off your living room floor with a whirlwind kick, and then deliver a stinging power punch. You give him a few more good smacks before falling to the living room floor, too tired to continue. Blanka comes at your avatar and you try to punch, but Blanka blocks it with ease and the game is over before you know it.
PS3 Controller: Blanka is coming at you again, and you block his first attack and fight back with two controllers in you hand. You hit a button combination to do a flying kick and that sends Blanka reeling back for a moment. He's coming again, so you hit another button combination and that really weakens him. You move in for your finishing power punch, but your hands are sweating so much you can't get your fingers on the right buttons in time. Blanka recovers and comes back at you with a vengeance.
Theoretical Tie: While Natal may give you a more interesting gaming experience, I think there will be some difficulty merging in-game fighting moves with real-world motion. So the Xbox version is likely to be a far more intense workout. The PS3, on the other hand, is able to let you do special moves with controller buttons, but you'll probably have to grip two controllers to fully control your avatar. Holding two controllers could get tough as you progress through the levels.
First Person Shooter: Call of Duty
Project Natal: It's almost dawn and you have to attack the enemy outpost; it's now or never. You crouch down and crawl silently along the carpet, but an enemy soldier is up ahead. You reach back and grab your rifle, and from your living room floor you take aim and -- how do you fire? There's no trigger and no buttons. You shake your gun to simulate rifle kick back, but it doesn't fire; you try again, and this time you get off the perfect shot.
PS3 Controller: You hit the button to crouch and point the controller toward the TV to move forward, creeping through the brush. You stop just in time to see a whole enemy squad heading your way. You grab the grenade launcher, take aim with the motion controller, and press the "X" button to fire. The bad guys are gone, but you sure made one heck of a mess; time to hit that run button and change positions.
Theoretical Tie: If Project Natal works as advertised, you should have more fun ducking and hiding your way through the various game stages of Call of Duty. But the lack of a physical fire button may be a big, and possibly unsolvable, problem for Project Natal. The PS3 controller, on the other hand, allows you to move your weapon freely and fire, but you wouldn't have the seemingly limitless movement possibilities with Natal.
Role Playing/Adventure Games: A Star Wars Lightsaber Duel
Project Natal: With no physical controller, you probably wouldn't be able to turn your sword on and off -- but you came to battle the Sith anyway, so what does it matter? With full-body motion control you might be able to do any number of moves, including spinning, kicking, and maybe even those Jedi power jumps.
PS3 Controller: Here comes Darth Vader ready to battle again. You quickly tap a button on the controller to turn on your lightsaber, and away you go. With buttons on the controller you can do any number of special moves, and it probably feels better to have a physical object in your hands as you battle the ultimate movie villain.
Theoretical Tie: The gaming experience will probably be fairly similar. The PS3 would win on sword control since you have an actual object in your hands, but Natal could allow for more imaginative moves.
Classic Arcade Games: Donkey Kong (Nintendo)
PS3 Controller: There's no need to actually jump with the PS3, but there would be a lot of one-arm pointing to move your avatar forward and up those ladders. Sony could allow you to jump by jerking the controller up, but that would get tiring pretty quickly for your arm. The PS3 motion controller's experience could be a little more physical than the original, but it's likely you would still be using an arcade style jump button.
Project Natal: It's time to save your damsel in distress, but that gorilla is in a foul mood. Your jumps in the real world get Jumpman over fast moving barrels. You can simulate climbing a ladder to move forward, and jump up to grab the barrel-smashing hammer. It's more like a 20-minute aerobic routine than a video game, but man, is it fun.
Theoretical Winner: Project Natal. Natal's full-body motion control has the potential to reinvigorate numerous classic video games that require only jumping, running, and punching, like Pitfall, Donkey Kong Jr., Sonic, and Q-Bert. As for the ultimate classic, Pac Man; well, using that with Natal might just make you dizzy.
Real World Problems
Even though Microsoft's Natal has more potential, at the moment the advantage goes to Sony since the company was able to display a workable motion control prototype under a variety of gaming scenarios. Microsoft, on the other hand, didn't display any live advanced gaming scenarios, like hand-to-hand combat, at E3.
The PS3 motion controller also has a general release timeframe of spring 2010, while Microsoft has not announced a release timeline at all for Natal. However, if Natal proves to be a flexible controller system that works across all gaming genres, then Natal on the Xbox 360 will be light years ahead of what Sony is doing. Let's just hope the pricing of these devices doesn't reach as high as each company's aspirations.
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