Let's not beat around the bush, the Xbox 360's Natal demonstration basically owned E3, and anyone that says otherwise is potentially delusional and quite possibly a Sony fanboy (or some terrifying combination of the two). We enjoyed Sony's briefing, and some of the platform holder's new games will no doubt be ace - but in terms of raw impact there's no arguing with the genuinely inspiring taste that Natal left in the mouth.
Sony did of course show off their own motion technology at the LA bash, but it looked more like a gradual if impressive evolution of the Wii's already groundbreaking approach, rather than the fresh start that Natal seems to herald. Surprisingly, then, one of the new Sony games in the works that does in some respects seem a little closer to Microsoft's efforts is EyePet - the new AI driven virtual pet 'game' being created in house using the PlayStation Eye. Not only does this simulation put the player in the game mirror-style, but they can also interact in the game world using just hand gestures, and even draw pictures for passing 'through' the screen.
The EyePet audience may be firmly non-traditional, and the game is certainly no Milo (there's no voice interpretation to be had here), but if the stunts EyePet does pull off are mere gimmicks by comparison then they are certainly very impressive gimmicks.
Let's start at the beginning. EyePet's premise is simple enough. The game sees you creating a virtual pet - a small (and absurdly cute) monkey on this occasion, and then interacting with them in a number of ways via the magic of the PlayStation Eye. So, the first thing you'll be doing in the game is creating and customising a new pet.
The first thing that's obvious once your monkey arrives on screen is that while this might be a game aimed at the Wii generation, visually speaking the title is firmly a PlayStation 3 game. The monkey itself is crisp, heavily stylised and brought to life with wonderfully organic animations. In the game world you can interact with your monkey, move him or her around, and place it different situations using the 'magic card', which looked wonderfully tactile and playful in the demonstration we were shown.
Kids will no doubt go mad for this colourful friend, and the spot-on stylisation combines with the camera-based gameplay wonderfully to immerse the play in the experience; helping them forget this is simply a game and not a real creature to be cared for. One of the other nifty tricks up EyePet's sleeve is the ability for players to give toys to their pet. Some of these are in-game objects, but others can be drawn and then copied by the pet. In this way, our monkey drew a plane based on our own poor attempt, which was then magically turned into a real cardboard craft for our pet to fly.
Enjoy quality time with your pet and they'll remember it when they're sleeping through dream bubbles, which highlight happy times you've spent together. Meanwhile Sony are planning to roll out a sizable online community portion with the game, allowing people to share videos of their pets, collect items, and more besides.
Technologically, EyePet really is something of a marvel - and while Natal may take all this potential so far much further, this experience will be available in October while the best estimates predict Natal's debut in late 2010. As kids games go this is a title that is clearly trying to offer something new, and I fully expect a few grown adults to be seduced by these cuddly creatures, thanks to the playful and realistic method of interaction.
More on EyePet as Christmas nears.