When the Nintendo Wii was first announced at E3 in 2005, I, like many gamers, wrote it off as a gimmick. After all, part of being a gamer was being a slob on the couch, eating the Official Food of Gaming (pizza) and drinking the Official Drink of Gaming (Mountain Dew). Getting up on your feet and moving was unthinkable. But since then, Nintendo has gone on to sell nearly 76 million Wii consoles worldwide. Boy, was I wrong...
Fortunately for Nintendo, it didn't underestimate its ability to harness the casual gaming market the way I did. Previously, casual gaming was limited to a few titles -- maybe Guitar Hero, maybe Singstar -- but thanks to the Wii, there are now tonnes of motion-based games on the market. There are also several different options if you want to buy a motion-gaming device, and they all have their advantages and disadvantages. They are, of course, the Nintendo Wii, PlayStation Move and Kinect for Xbox 360.
The Wii -- unlike the Kinect, which I'll get to later -- uses a controller and a sensor (an accelerometer) to detect your movements. Once you set up the console, which takes about as long to set up as any console does, getting the software running is very simple. Create a profile, make your avatar look like you if you wish, and away you go. You can control the whole system using your Wii remote, so there's no switching between different controllers.
Since all three motion-gaming devices have some kind of sports game, I used those games a point of comparison. Wii Sports came bundled with the Wii console when it was launched, which made it a pretty popular offering. It's essentially a collection of mini games based on various sports, including golf, baseball, tennis and my personal favourite, bowling.
Playing is simple too -- the game tells you how to move your remote in order to win, and if you do a good job of it you get lots of points. Easy, as long as you're relatively co-ordinated. The Wii does suffer from some accuracy problems though, which became frustrating at times, especially when I'd spent 10 seconds carefully lining up a ball in bowling, only to have it unexpectedly curve at the last moment and miss every pin. But that might have been because I'm not relatively co-ordinated.
The controller is also not very sensitive -- you have to move significantly for it to register that you're moving at all, which makes selecting from menu items sometimes confusing. Once you're used to how much you have to move the controller, it's not such a big deal.
The graphics on the Wii certainly leave something to be desired -- they look highly dated. When I went from full HD on my Xbox 360 to the Wii's standard definition, I actually spent a moment staring at the TV in confusion -- I'm just so used to HD that I couldn't understand what had happened. Sure, the Wii came out in 2006, but the first release of the Xbox 360, the Xbox 360 Core, came out a year earlier and had HD support. The world was clearly moving toward HDTV at that point, so I seriously don't get why I have to settle for anything less than 720p, and I'd prefer higher. Most of the in-game graphics are also fairly clunky, and that includes the non-playable characters.
The Wii has been on the market a lot longer than the other two devices in this match-up -- they were both released this year -- and as a result has one serious advantage over the others: its extensive game library. The focus is on casual gaming, largely, but the Wii has been around long enough to sport a few games that are much-loved by even the most hardcore of gamers. Mario Kart and Donkey Kong spring to mind.
The PlayStation Move works similarly to the Wii in that it uses a handheld controller, but unlike the Wii the Move uses a camera atop your TV to track the controller's light-up globular tip. The advantage is that accuracy is vastly increased -- the camera is much better at detecting movement. The downside is that if the room you're playing in is too well-lit, the Move's camera has trouble discerning which light source it's supposed to be following.
I had some problems setting up the Move. The hardware is straightforward to set up, because you just have to plug things in, but the camera doesn't work very well unless you sit it on top of your TV (and preferably at a height of eight feet). I have an LCD TV, as I imagine many people do these days, and it's not very thick, which means balancing the camera on top of it was precarious at best. A clamp or something similar would be nice.
The real annoyance, though, is the fact that you have to calibrate all of the Move's games every time you play. And I mean every time -- if you play one mini-game, then step out and let someone else play in your place, they have to calibrate. If you step in again, you have to calibrate. If you play two different mini-games, you have to calibrate for each one. Each time you calibrate you have to stand in a particular spot and move the controller to different places on your body. It's a whole lot of time wasted.
The Move is also almost too sensitive. It becomes really difficult to move the controller to different menu buttons when moving your hand a centimetre sends the cursor on screen flying. At times I had to hold my arm still with my other hand to steady it.
The Move's sports game is Sports Champions, which does a good job of distinguishing itself from the Wii's sports title, and of showing off the capabilities of the hardware. You can do things that the Wii can't do -- for example, you can play a realistic archery mini-game, which you could never do on the Wii because it just wouldn't be accurate enough.
The PlayStation Move is a cool device, but I can't shake the feeling that this isn't the 'revolution' Sony touted it to be, just an evolution of a failed product, EyeToy. It's a better choice than the Wii, and if you don't own a PS3 already, you have an excuse to buy one and play a hoard of other, non-motion-controlled games. If you already own a PS3, the Move is a much cheaper choice than buying a new console. Just don't forget that if you want to play with a friend, you're actually going to have to buy two Move devices because the controller essentially is the device -- something you don't have to worry about with Kinect -- and to be honest, the motion consoles are boring without a friend to play with.
If you've read our December/January issue, you'll already know that I was won over by Kinect, despite my initial pessimism. It works a little differently from the PlayStation Move or the Wii, and it makes a huge difference. When you play Kinect you don't need any kind of controller -- you don't need to hold anything at all.
Kinect has an infrared camera that tracks your body's movements, and the software blocks out anything in the background it determines is not a person. It's essentially old technology -- a couple of webcams and some code -- but all of a sudden it's been developed into something that's very futuristic (and very Minority Report).
The technology is far from perfect. The setup takes a lot longer than the others do initially, but once you train it to recognise your face no matter where you are in the room, you can just step in front of the sensor and it will identify you and sign you into your Xbox LIVE profile. Creepy or cool? Either way, it's a bit easier than choosing your profile every time on the Wii (or, hell, on the 360 when it's not running Kinect), and a lot easier than calibrating every two minutes as you have to when using the Move. It's essentially a lengthy initial setup for a long-term payoff.
Kinect has some serious drawbacks that will need to be resolved in the next version. The key one is lag, which occurs when the finicky sensor isn't set up right -- and very occasionally when it is. The lag is only half a second, and may not annoy a non-gamer, but if you're used to gaming you'll definitely notice.
Like the Wii, Kinect has accuracy issues. Sometimes you'll think you've hit a ball, but nope! You missed. Winning at table tennis seems to require you to just move your hand back and forth rapidly. There's also the issue of play space -- you need a lot of it, definitely more than you need with either the Wii or the Move. It'll be okay in most living rooms -- except in tiny apartments -- but you might have to move a couch or two.
Kinect's game library is obviously lacking, since it launched in November, but that will quickly change. One Microsoft exec also told PC World there were games in the works for hardcore as well as casual gamers, so both groups could potentially be catered for in Kinect. For now, though, the Wii's library is far superior.
However, there are so many advantages to Kinect that all my complaints about it seem petty. Because your body is essentially the 360's controller, you actually have to use your whole body. That means when you're running in Kinect Sports, you're not just moving a controller up and down to simulate running -- you're actually running. When you play Kinect it gets the heart racing, and it's fun. Really fun.
Rather than repeat everything I've said about the devices, here's a little anecdote: I recently had a group of friends over to try out the Wii, Move, and Kinect. One of them owns a Wii and loves it so much he has all the accessories -- steering wheel for Mario Kart, plastic gun for Overkill. But everyone there, my Wii-fan friend included, agreed that Kinect was the best of the three devices.
He even said he was going to buy himself a Kinect, despite already owning a Wii -- quite the endorsement, if you ask me.
The thing with both the Wii and the PlayStation Move is that they've suddenly ceased to be relevant. With Kinect offering such an exciting new experience, both are pretty much done for unless they find their own way of going controller-free, or make their devices so perfect that they're just way more awesome to use. Considering Sony only released the Move in September, and Nintendo is apparently refusing to work on the Wii 2 until they sell another 15 million -- which they're not likely to do -- it doesn't look as though either company will be catching up anytime soon. Long live Kinect, I say.