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Motion control for big kids Add to ...

The joke of the week in gaming right now is that the PlayStation 3 has become a PlayStation Wii.

There's little denying that Sony's new PlayStation Move control system was sparked by Nintendo's motion-sensitive Wii remote and nunchuk controllers. But while these peripherals may have served as inspiration, Sony has made some significant improvements to the formula.

Let's start with the Move motion controller, which is used in conjunction with a PlayStation Eye camera that helps track movement. It's a sausage-shaped wand with a soft, brightly glowing orb on its tip that automatically changes colour so that the camera can distinguish it from the background environment. The PlayStation Eye can track up to four motion controllers in 3-D space at once, while multiple internal sensors - including a gyroscope, accelerometer, and magnetometer - monitor changes in the controller's orientation, movement, and position relative to the planet's magnetic field.

Lots of big words there, but all gamers need to know is that it's a movement-sensitive controller that is more accurate and suffers less motion latency than Nintendo's Wii Remote, delivering unparalleled one-to-one control over in-game objects.

In fact, the camera-based movement detection is so precise that some games that project an image of the player on screen actually map virtual objects to his or her hand. Games like Eye Pet and Start the Party, for example, superimpose cartoon pictures of fans, fly swatters, blow-dryers, and other objects over the motion controller. The illusion is sufficiently believable that it fooled my brain into thinking I was actually holding the object I appeared to be wielding onscreen.

The motion controller also performs well in more traditional motion control games, such as Sports Champions (included in the PlayStation Move bundle), which allows players to perform such impressive feats as flinging a virtual Frisbee or tossing a bocce ball with shockingly accurate weight, spin, and curvature, or wielding two motion controllers at once to control either a bow and arrow or a shield and sword. I liked using the motion controller in the strategy game R.U.S.E., as well, in which it more or less takes on the function of a computer mouse by allowing players to move a pointer around the screen and zoom down and up from the map with subtle wrist movements.

What's more, the button-layout is surprisingly accessible. A trigger is located under the player's forefinger, while Sony's traditional action buttons - square, triangle, circle, and the letter 'X' - are located around a large thumb-shaped button marked with the PlayStation Move logo. Select and Start buttons on either side of the wand are difficult to reach, but are used so infrequently that they only really caused problems when I wanted to, say, pause a game during a critical moment and had to look to down to find the right button.

One thing to keep in mind, though, is that Sony's motion control system isn't quite as plug-and-play as Nintendo's. Most of the games I've tried require a quick calibration process prior to playing, and one in particular - table tennis - worked well only if I stood a very specific distance (about two-and-a-half metres) from the camera and television, forcing me to rearrange my living room furniture. In fact, you may find you need to move at least one piece of furniture - your coffee table - in most games, since there are times when the move controller needs to be held low to the floor, and the table will interfere with the PlayStation Eye's line-of-site.

What's more - and if my five-year-old daughter is any indication - it could be that improved precision might mean more frustration for younger gamers. The basic swipes and waggles required in games like Wii Sports and Mario Kart Wii have been easy for her to master, but the more delicate actions demanded in some of the mini-games in Sports Champions proved almost impossible for her to come to grips with (though, admittedly, that particular game is for ages 10 and up). Games that required simpler, Wii-like actions, such as some of the mini-games in Start the Party that saw her swatting or jabbing, were easier for her to learn.

While one (or two) motion controllers are all most Move-enabled games demand, there is another piece to Sony's motion control puzzle: The optional navigation controller, which is essentially Sony's answer to the Wii Remote's nunchuk add-on, but, again, much improved.

For starters, it's wireless. Over the last few years the cord tethering my Wii remote to its nunchuk has proven too short for comfort in certain games, become caught on things, and even slapped me in the face in situations that required intense movement. No wire means no lash marks on my cheeks, which wins the navigation controller points right away.

It's also extremely functional. With a thumb-stick, d-pad, a pair of shoulder buttons, and extra 'X' and circle buttons, it essentially replicates the functionality of the left-side of a standard PlayStation controller.

In fact, many PlayStation Move-enabled games, such as R.U.S.E., will allow players to use a traditional PlayStation 3 controller in place of a navigation controller. Keep in mind, though, that as tempting as it might be to skimp and just use a standard controller, Sony's DualShock gamepads are improperly balanced to be held comfortably in one paw. The navigation controller, on the other hand, feels great. It rests nicely along the base of the user's fingers with all of the controls easily accessible by thumb and index finger.

Clearly, Sony has the most advanced and best performing motion control system around (at least until Microsoft's Kinect arrives in November, though that controller-less contraption is an entirely different beast altogether). However, like any new video game platform, PlayStation Move will sink or swim based on software.

The Wii's ongoing success is owed to a succession of incredibly popular first-party titles that have sold tens of millions of copies each, with only the occasional non-Nintendo-made game finding traction. If third-party developers have as much trouble making good games for PlayStation Move as they have for the Wii, then it will be up to Sony's in-house studios to create compelling content.

Sadly, the initial crop of software is a bit underwhelming. I have a roundup of some Move-enabled games available at launch on my game blog, and there are a few worth checking out. However, I've encountered no hardware-moving "killer apps" as yet.

Then there's the price. You can buy a Wii with one remote, one nunchuk, and a game for $179.99. A PlayStation 3 Move Bundle, which comes with Sports Champions, a motion controller, a standard PS3 controller, and a PlayStation Eye, costs $399.99. That's a big jump. Of course, the PlayStation 3 also offers high-def graphics, a Blu-ray player, and media hub capabilities, but the jury is still out on whether these perks are enough to justify the cost for casual gaming families who might only be looking for a little interactive entertainment for family game night.

This could mean that the PlayStation Move's initial success will depend on core gamers, most of whom already own a PlayStation 3 and will only need to invest $99.99 for the PlayStation Move bundle, which includes a motion controller, PlayStation Eye, and Sports Champions. These potential buyers may simply see it as a slightly more expensive game and could potentially justify the cost...assuming they trust that the software they crave - namely, complex action games designed with Move in mind, such as next year's Killzone 3 and SOCOM 4 - will eventually arrive. (If they already own a PlayStation Eye, they can pick up the motion controller alone for $49.99 and begin playing older games that have been updated to make them PlayStation Move-compatible, such as Heavy Rain, Pain, and Flower.)

Will PlayStation Move convert motion control skeptics? If you don't like the idea of standing while playing games or waving your arms around while seated on the couch, there's little chance that Sony's new system, advanced as it may be, will convert you. However, if your primary concern with movement-based gaming up until this point has been precision control, an area in which Move has made great strides, then it just might do the trick. It is clearly the next step in the evolution of motion control, with great potential to make interactive experiences more satisfying for those who enjoy becoming a little physical with the games they play.

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