Let's face it: every sci-fi geek's most fervent wish is that someday, some genius will invent Star Trek's holodeck in real life. What could be better than going into a sterile little room and suddenly finding yourself at the peak of Mount Everest looking out at the roof of the world? Or better yet, slinging a mean six-iron in the old West with tumbleweeds in the background? Even better than that, what about seats in the judge's booth during the 2005 Coppertone swimsuit finals? As far as I'm concerned, anything that gets us closer to that goal is quite welcome. Sony's Eye Toy and the games using it may be microscopic progress, but it feels like a step in the right direction.
Vaguely similar to a futuristic airborne version of the extreme snowboarding game SSX, AntiGrav uses the Eye Toy for a hands-free control scheme. Play takes place in a series of tracks featuring tall jumps and winding rails, with the board being controlled solely by the motions of your body. Ducking makes the character duck, leaning steers, and popping a head up makes them jump. Tricks are done by getting airborne and then performing specific hand motions in combination with the head movements.
Setting up the unit required no special attention with the exception of turning on all the lights that were already in my living room. The game picked up my face right away (it's the central indicator for movement) and after a brief calibration to make sure I was in proper range of the camera, everything was good to go.
It's hard to describe the feeling I got once the game began. A mix of absolute delight and wonder would be a close approximation. The synergy of leaning left and watching the hoverboarder veer was unlike anything I've experienced before, and it was good. The game made me think about my physical position as well, so I found myself making a conscious effort to stay in the right spot, holding my body just so, and not slouching while playing for the first time in years. On concept and originality alone, the game gets total respect from me. Quite literally, there isn't anything else like it on consoles today. However, I'm a little disappointed to report that my infatuation with the concept and execution didn't last very long.
There are two main modes to the game, one based on tricks and the other on races. The race mode is very dull, no different than the tricks mode except it's required to go through each track three times to advance. The tricks mode held my attention longer, but even that didn't have much staying power because the difficulty curve seemed way off.
As one would assume, the tricks mode (where I bet most players will spend most of their time) is about finding good lines to travel while performing stunts and going for a high score. The first level was handed to me on a silver platter, and I scored almost double the points required on my very first time through. On the second track, I had to replay it at least eight or 10 times before passing it, and even then just barely. Moving on past the third was more like torture than enjoyment. Practice and repetition is fine, but it seems to me that the game should be easier and ask less than it does (or at least have some variable difficulty settings) since it's not very enjoyable to work this hard when I suspect each track would be a single-try cakewalk with a standard controller. In fact, I started to wonder if I was just immensely clumsy, but other people I had invited over ran into the same issue. My feelings might be misplaced, but something like AntiGrav seems better suited as a low-impact party game or geared towards newcomers, but the difficulty curve contradicts it. Or, maybe I do just suck.
Also, I did want to note that the game wasn't always picking up the location of my hands reliably. While calibrating the camera, my hands would be offscreen when my face was in the right place. When my hands were in the right place, my face was off. This is important because hitting floating targets while rail sliding is a crucial part of the game. By holding my hands at various elevations, the character on screen would do the same thing and "tag" these icons. I found it difficult to hit them consistently, and noticed that the game would sometimes misread my position, making my character stick his hand out or back when I was standing still. Missing these icons means losing out on a mountain of points needed to advance. It was frustrating to have such a difficult time with this, and it bled over into the tricks, too. Certain moves require an arm-sweeping motion to activate, and I found my input working only about 50-percent of the time, preventing me from pulling off most trick combos.
AntiGrav is a superb idea and a very innovative use of a new technology, but the jumping and grinding action of the game wouldn't really be that interesting apart from the interface, and it doesn't do anything that you couldn't do better with a controller. With the repetition and the hiccups, it lost its charm remarkably fast. Given the nature of AntiGrav, the Eye Toy, and the concept of hands-free control in general, I wonder if the sort of visual input showcased here will be limited to supporting roles in the future rather than being the main method of control. However, the ideas are definitely worth exploring. So, from a technology perspective I have to say that AntiGrav was a success… even though it's not exactly the holodeck quite yet.