Hands-on with Project Natal

Guest writer Helen Lewis plays with Microsoft’s new motion-sensing camera attachment for the Xbox 360.

Yes, yes, I know what you’re thinking. I have played Microsoft’s much hyped add-on for the Xbox 360, Project Natal. That makes me — wait for it — post-natal. Ahahaha. Do you think Paul is insensitive enough to write a headline about how I’ve got ‘post-natal depression’? Only time will tell.

First off, a caveat: all I played was one slightly buggy smash-the-blocks game, for about ten minutes. But it was enough to reveal both some of Natal’s selling points and its flaws. The good bits were authentically good: if you’re impressed with your Wii being able to sense what your controller is doing, this is ten times more spangly. It can sense the movement of your joints, so your arms, legs and head can all be used for gameplay (I scored a particularly athletic headbutt in the game I played).

It can also ‘lock on’ to you, so if your other half finds it hilarious to stand behind you while you’re playing and do a Michael Flatley impression (as they undoubtedly will), then Natal will just ignore them. As should you.

Finally, it can spookily sense whether you’re male or female: at the demo, female players were represented by an avatar with a ponytail. I imagine that could lead to some consternation (and in America, lawsuits) if the computer decrees that you have the childbearing hips of a lady, despite being called Geoff or Steve.

What about the bad stuff? Well, the early hardware we saw seemed more than a little buggy. Frequently, a player would walk in front of the detector, only to be represented on screen by an Avatar that looked like Quasimodo’s more deformed younger brother auditioning for a job as a contortionist.

Of course, this — and the often discussed ‘lag’ that many reviewers have mentioned — could be nothing more than teething problems. I’m more worried about whether or not Xbox owners want the kind of casual gaming experience Natal represents. The project is a clear attempt to move Microsoft’s tanks onto Nintendo’s lawn, but will anyone buy an Xbox on the strength of it? And how well will it work alongside a controller?

There’s no way, on current showing, that you could play an FPS using Natal or even a rhythm game such as Rock Band, although I’d love to be proved wrong. So it seems likely that Natal use will be limited to Wii-style sports games, and we’ll all be hanging on to our controllers for sometime yet.

That said, the most interesting part of the pre-launch build-up will be when Microsoft hears back from the third-party developers, who are getting their hands on Natal in June. If Harmonix or Lioncraft can work out a really cool way to incorporate Natal into their games, then who knows?

Of course, any review comes down to one simple question: should I pay money for this? And the answer is — at the predicted £30 — hell yes. I can’t honestly see me browsing my Zune library with the flick of a wrist, but I know that when I have friends round — particularly non-gamer friends — it’ll be much easier to get them to play if I don’t need to spend ages explaining the difference between ‘right bumper’ and ‘right trigger’.

By Helen Lewis, in