When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me….well….or so it says in Corinthians 13:11. I’m inclined to disagree with this adage however, having spent quite some time playing with the latest toy from Sony’s London Studio…but what exactly is it? Is it a dog? Is it a cat? Is it a monkey? Well…it’s nearly all these things, but let’s just call it Eye Pet for now shall we?
There’s no escaping the fact that the full potential of Sony’s PS Eye camera has yet to be realised. While the Playstation 2 saw a fair number of titles, few managed to raise themselves above gimmick-status; pickings on the Playstation 3 have been equally slim, with a smattering of titles supporting in-game video, and a handful of fairly rudimentary games downloadable from the Playstation Network. In fact, it’s probably fair to assert that the vast majority of PS Eye’s have sat redundant for quite some time. So it’s with an air of hope and expectation that we arrive at EyePet – could this be the title that finally brings true augmented reality into our living rooms? The short answer is ‘yes’; SCEE London Studio’s EyePet genuinely marks a step forward for the Playstation Eye – at the very least from a technological stand point – and hints at promising things to come when the (still officially un-named) Playstation wand project leaves Sony’s labs.
For the uninitiated, EyePet is best described as a next-generation Nintendogs. As with Nintendo’s puppy simulator, you are given the simple task of caring for and playing with a pet, but in this instance inputs are based on the video-feed from your camera and the SIXAXIS rather than a stylus. Following a clear and concise introduction by a chirpy and likeable scientist who walks you through the basics of setting up your living room and camera, the pet is your responsibility. At this point, I should emphasise that EyePet is (unsurprisingly!) not a game for the hardcore and is squarely aimed at the younger gaming market. That being said I can foresee many a parent getting on the floor with their siblings and playing along.
For the majority of the time, gameplay is restricted to your living room, with the EyePet only breaking from the borders of your television in brief forays into the sky. Despite this small playing field, SCEE London Studio flexes a generally impressive degree of imagination in supplying a broad range of ways to interact with your virtual charge. Things start simply enough – with the pet confined to an egg, you play some basic sequence-memorising games, tickle and rock the egg and eventually coax the little fella out into the harsh light of day. From this point onward, the game is broken down into ‘days’ which are gradually unlocked as you complete challanges (it seems strange that the PS3’s in-built calendar is not utilised). As you progress, more options are unlocked, ranging from simple gardening games (complete with interactive watering can) to a treadmill to a simple bowling game. Most interesting are the drawing games, in which the pet will copy your designs and turn them in to fully controllable cars, planes, robots and puppets.
It’s not all fun and games however, with your pet requiring a degree of care. Fail to feed, wash, conduct regular health checks and style your pet results in one unhappy puppy-kitten-monkey-creature thing! The latter offers a generous degree of customisation, from changing the length, colour and style of the pet’s fur, to dressing him in silly hats and bomber jackets; awards for completing challenges are also frequent and generous in quantity.
Although requiring a certain suspension of disbelief, interacting with the game works naturally enough, with the pet reacting believably to tickles, strokes and more energetic slaps; it will also follow your hand, leaping and pouncing as a cat would with a ball of wool. The game’s repertoire is expanded with the inclusion of a ‘magic card’, which sounds reasonably exciting, but in reality is nothing more than a rectangular piece of plastic with a white square printed on it. When held up to the camera, EyePet will track the square and overlay various 3D objects on the screen so as to match the cards movements. This for the most part works astoundingly well, with the camera picking nearly every movement of the card and the illusion that digital objects have a real world presence can be genuinely startling.
In all honesty, the camera technology performs admirably throughout; even when things go wrong (and go wrong they do!) it often adds to the charm; we are after all, supposed to be interacting with an animal, not a precision piece of industrial equipment. For example, occasions when your pet misreads your sketches and produces a series of colourful blobs rather than your painstakingly designed car, come across as endearing rather than frustrating – and getting to then drive the misshapen blob-car can’t help but raise a smile. Obviously these foibles need to be ironed out if the PS Eye is to have a future beyond virtual pets and shallow curios, but for EyePet’s purposes, it more than does the job. The pet itself is also wonderfully realised, genuinely bordering on Pixar-quality levels of animation; The emotions that flash across its face – from surprise, to sadness, to anger, to laughter – are convincing, charismatic and easy to read.
Sadly, there’s a chance that EyePet may be overlooked, branded a tech demo, a gimmick, and nothing more than a showcase for the Playsation Eye before being shoved to the back of the cupboard or put to sleep by your local Eye Vet. I think that this would be a great shame; minor technical quibbles aside, it’s all at once charming, engaging, innovative, interesting and humorous and perfectly pitched at its target audience (namely kids and adults with kids!), not to mention reasonably priced. If you are a child of a certain age, it may also prove to be one of the most enthralling and magical experiences you will have on the current crop of consoles – the two-year old I tested it on was both fascinated and suitably entertained by the pet’s antics. For the more cynical, cold hearted adults among you, let me leave you with this thought: Dog owners have kept themselves and their pets entertained for millennia with games of ‘Fetch’! – EyePet on the other hand can, with practice and tuition, sing the tune of Nirvana’s Smell’s Like Teen Spirit! Beat that, Fido!
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