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Kinect: Microsoft's answer to the Wii

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After a year of speculation and a blockbuster presentation last night, Microsoft officially revealed (most) of the important details surrounding its motion-control camera — once dubbed Project Natal, now called Kinect — to assembled gaming press and industry today in Los Angeles. The camera system will debut in North America on Nov. 4 with 15 launch titles and will be compatible with all current Xbox 360 consoles. Curiously, Microsoft did not announce a price for the Kinect, although gaming blog Kotaku is reporting that GameStop is charging $149 for Kinect pre-orders. As a kicker, Microsoft also announced that a smaller, slimmer version of the Xbox 360 (in a shiny black case, with a 250 GB hard drive and wifi internet capability built in) will be shipping to stores today for the same $299 price as the old Xbox 360.

But back to Kinect. Is it worth all the hype? Depends on what kind of gamer you are.

If you’re already impatient that I haven’t yet mentioned the big game title announcements and first looks at Microsoft’s presentation today — I’m talking about Halo ReachGears of War 3, Call of Duty: Black Ops, Metal Gear Solid: Rising, Fable III, etc. — then you are likely going to be sorely disappointed by the Kinect. There wasn’t hard-core, shoot-’em-up, dense and sprawling and graphically intensive game among the Kinect demos we saw today, although Microsoft did announce an exclusive Star Wars Kinect game that will debut next year. Even though the short swing-your-lightsaber-and-use-the-force demo looked a bit rudimentary, both my colleague Jeff Jensen and I wanted to play the game immediately. Mostly, though, the feature Kinect games were essentially Xbox 360 versions of Nintendo Wii titles. And that is entirely the point.

The Microsoft presentation was, in fact, split right in two, with the first part devoted to the “blockbuster” hardcore gaming titles, all Xbox 360 exclusive in one way or another, all designed to reassure the regular gaming press and loyal Xbox 360 gamers that, yes, we will take care of you, we promise, stop message-board flaming us about Kinect please please please. Of those titles I listed above, the most promising by far was Metal Gear Solid: Rising, a sword-slicer that appears to literally allow you to carve up anything — cars, buildings, humans, watermelons — every which way you’d like. The trailer for the game earned the biggest, most spontaneous cheers from the assembled audience. (For more info on the entire presentation, you can check out the live-tweets I did of the event on my Twitter feed: @adambvary.)

But then the presentation shifted away from the hardcore gamers, and to that elusive “casual” gaming audience that Nintendo’s tapped so successfully. This is where Kinect comes in, and where it really started to shine. Wanna watch a movie via Xbox Live? Wave to your Kinect camera, select the movie title with your hand, and suddenly you’re watching Alice in Wonderland. Need to pause? Say “Xbox, pause.” Move your hand to move back in a scene. Say “Xbox, stop” to go back to the main menu. Say “Xbox, play music,” and there’s Justin Bieber, singing his moppet head off. It worked so well, and so seamlessly, I honestly began to wonder if Microsoft was making good on its evil genius grand plan for the Xbox 360 to become the elusive “everything” box for all your home electronic needs.

As for the Kinect games, like I said, most were essentially polishes on games the Wii’s made popular over the last four years: Bowling, ping pong, racing a car by holding an imaginary steering wheel, etc. etc. That said, four games did leap out at me as actually making good on Kinect’s promise to deliver something truly new to the world of gaming:

1. Kinectimals: A virtual-pet game that felt more intuitively interactive than anything else I’d ever seen — pet your baby Bengal tiger, tell it to sit and roll over, hide from it and make it look for you through your TV, and jump rope with it… although I could’ve just been won over by the ridiculously adorable girl who was demonstrating the game.

2. Kinect Adventures: Like the Wii Sports games, this is just a collection of adventure sport centered mini-games, but these require you use your entire body to collect tokens and jump over obstacles.

3. Your Shape: Fitness Evolved: A fitness game that blows Wii Fit out of the water thanks to Kinect’s precision mapping of your entire body. The in-game avatar also gives players the first full picture of how Kinect’s three separate cameras see you, and I gotta say, it was more precise and dimensional than I was expecting. It really does look like a proto version of the Holodeck.

4. Dance Central: Think Dance Dance Revolution meets So You Think You Can Dance, and you’ll get an idea of this dancing game, which is destined to become a major party favorite. The initial release will feature 600 moves and 90 routines, and includes a “break it down” mode that teaches booty-shaking novices how to get their groove on.

My colleague John Young will be along shortly to share his experience actually playing many of these games at last night’s Kinect multimedia extravaganza. Meanwhile, you tell me Popwatchers — does the Kinect sound like a must buy for the holiday season? Or are you more keen on snapping up the newest Halo and Call of Duty game when they hit stores?

And be sure to check back at EW.com tomorrow for updates on Nintendo and Sony’s big E3 presentations. I’ll (hopefully) be reporting from both of them live via Twitter: @adambvary.

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