Xbox 360 Preview

E3 2010: Kinect

Martin likes it full-bodied

Microsoft's E3 conference, which came a day after a flamboyant celebration complete with resplendent neon ponchos and a charged performance by the Cirque du Soleil, was positively aflutter with Kinect - the new 'real' name for Project Natal. The gaming titan is in love with their new technology, and by spending most of their conference showing it off they're clearly hoping everyone else will be too.

So what do we know? It's out November 4 in North America, though the European release date has yet to be confirmed - European Xbox Community Manager Graeme 'AceyBongos' Boyd said it will still be November those of us who are a bit Atlantically challenged.

The fancy kit integrates into the system well, and Microsoft showed off their jazzed up dashboard and used Kinect to turn on their machine and sign in to Xbox Live. In order to keep everything hands-free, the 360 now responds to voice commands - it all seems a little bit advanced and slightly sinister, as if we were now one step closer to robots enslaving us all. There's also video conferencing support, which integrates into Windows Live Messenger, and users in America will be able to use Kinect to interact with a new (and free) content syndication deal from ESPN Sports.

It's all good stuff, but the whole concept is to take a chunk out of the new breed of social gaming introduced by the Wii: not content with just the core gamer, they now want every Mum and Granddad in the world to own an Xbox 360. I can't blame them.

15 titles have been announced for launch, and a few of them have been detailed so far. A lot of the titles on show - especially Microsoft's first-party offerings - seem to be focused around directly challenging Nintendo's juicy market share on some of their most beloved Wii and DS properties.

Kinect Sports is their frontrunner, which is essentially Rare's unashamed take on Wii Sports. The game has you controlling your Xbox avatars across a number of athletic events, such as long jump, javelin and hurdles, alongside familiar sport games like bowling, football, boxing and table tennis. There are some nice touches, like raising your arms to make the crowd go wild and launching fireworks, but on the whole it looks like quite a routine attempt at replicating the juggernaut that is Wii Sports. Still, why not? The graphics are pretty and the games all look fun. I'd play it.

Kinect Adventures looks like an offshoot of Kinect Sports, and is the source of the rafting mini-game that's been flooding the internet in recent days. 20 unique 'adventures' are promised, but the only other one on show was one that had players being taken along a track, ducking, jumping and sidestepping out of the way of objects and pulling shapes to pick up various coins. The game takes pictures of you as you play, and these can be uploaded to Facebook if you have no shame. Pictures of you looking like a tit in Kinect Adventures will probably fit right in with the other pictures of you looking like a tit in pubs and nightclubs.

Kinectimals is tapping into the virtual pet genre that Nintendogs hase so dutifully enjoyed these past few years. It looks like what last year's Project Milo eventually evolved into, and gives players up to 40 animals to cuddle and presumably take on walks and feed and stuff. It's clearly aimed at children, and Microsoft wheeled a young girl on the stage to play with a cuddly tiger called Skittles. Of course, in the real world tigers are Godless killing machines and under no circumstances should you ever try and domesticate one.

If you've been wondering (and who hasn't!) what happened to avatar kart racer Joy Ride in recent months, seeing as the title was due to be released on XBLA last year, then Microsoft has your answer: it's been transmogrified from boring old controller Joy Ride into shiny new Kinect Joy Ride. Like any good kart racer it's a smorgasbord of bold colours and cute animations, although there seemed to be a distinct lack of power-ups on the grid. I couldn't make out anything that resembled a shell - red or green, I wasn't being picky. The old left-right-left boost was in full effect, as was an ample smattering of gold coins scattered about the level, however control seemed like a bit of an issue and the person demonstrating the game didn't seem to be making an effort to pick any up. The game will support 5 modes, allowing you focus on pulling off things like stunts when you tire of good, old fashioned kart racing.

The best use of the technology looks like it's coming from Harmonix, the company making a game out of busting moves and pulling shapes: Dance Central. CEO Alex Rigopulis even managed to have a cheeky pop at Konami's DDR and Ubisoft's Just Dance before showing some of the gameplay, which featured gorgeous animations and enough colourful flashing lights to make you feel like you'd been transported to a disco in the 70s. It's a simple concept: the game tells you to pull a move and you oblige. The track listing includes Lady Gaga, No Doubt and The Beastie Boys. DLC will be available, and it seems like a perfect opportunity to look gloriously silly with some music in the background. Yes please.

Ubisoft's Your Shape: Fitness Evolved seemed to be the mandatory fitness game of choice. It's a 360 exclusive fitness title, with a UI made up of sleek lines and stylish bubbles that looks like something straight out of the future. It scans your body in with its camera and projects a blob version of you on the screen so you can get some visual feedback of the yoga moves you're (badly) attempting. There's a mini-game where you're punching bricks, and the whole game is set in some kind of beautiful white room that's exactly how I imagine things will look when Apple takes over the planet and Steve Jobs becomes Emperor of the Universe.

While there is currently no confirmation as to what games will make an appearance in Europe, the 15 games announced for launch in the US are the following: Zumba Fitness, Game Party in Motion, Motion Sports, Kinect Adventures, The Biggest Loser: Ultimate Workout, Kinect Joy Ride, Adrenaline Misfits, Kinect Sports, Dance Central, Dance Masters, Sonic Free Riders, Kinectimals, Deca Sports Freedom, EA Sports Active 2, Your Shape: Fitness Evolved.

Of that list, two genres are exceedingly well represented. With 4 fitness games and 4 sports compilations to choose from, the biggest problem for a new Kinect owner might choosing the best way to burn calories and play their tennis minigames.

While it won't be ready for launch, Turn 10 also showed off something for the Dads with a Kinect version of Forza Motorsport. Some racing was briefly detailed, the game able to map its viewpoint to your head movements, but most of the time was spent preening and admiring an admittedly gorgeous Ferrari.

One game Microsoft forgot to show, and possibly the most exciting of the lot, was Ubisoft's Child of Eden. It's being created Tetsuya Mizuguchi, who designed cult classics Rez, Lumines and Space Channel 5. The game looks like a spiritual sequel to Rez, with Mizuguchi donning white conductor's gloves and demonstrating the game at Ubisoft's E3 conference. Child of Eden, like Rez, is a rail shooter with stylised wireframe graphics that generates sounds and melodies as the players destroys enemies. It's absolutely hypnotic, and by the time the demo was over the screen was exploding in gorgeous cascades of colour.

Another title without a release date was an unnamed Star Wars game from LucasArts, which had players use Kinect to slice and dice away at various storm troopers before Darth Vader showed up at the end. Very little else is known, and the game wasn't played live on stage. Still, people seem to still love Stars Wars.

More details of Natal will be released shortly, but the big elephant in the room (and not one the fake ones from the Cirque du Soleil performance) was the cost. It's still being kept firmly under wraps, and Microsoft has confirmed they're not announcing the precise amount of wallet damage to expect for at least a few weeks. US retailer GameStop has suggested $149.99 (roughly 100), although Microsoft are keen to mark this price as speculative.

The real question then, is how much you'd pay for one. Or, as Microsoft would prefer to see it, how much money your Mum and Granddad would be prepared to pay.