Monday, January 31, 2011

Review: EA Sports Active 2

Combining gaming with fitness is an ingenious premise, don't you think? All that criticism about gamers being slovenly and bone idle go out the window thanks to the latest generation of consoles and developers' impetus to get us up off the sofa and stretching, sprinting and sweating in front of our televisions.

It's perhaps a little misleading to class EA Sports Active 2 as a game. Instead, it's a fitness title, aimed at both beginners and diehard exercise fanatics that should really help to boost your health levels should you keep "playing". Although it's now available for the Wii, PS3 and Xbox 360 - as a recently converted fan of Kinect, Megabits couldn't resist the temptation to put the 360's version through its paces.

After a thorough playtest, our muscles agree that it feels just like going to the gym. There are over 70 exercises of varying difficulty available - although the non-360 versions apparently boast a few more. Even if you have only a few minutes to spare, that's no excuse: workouts last from a few minutes to almost an hour, and include your typical lunges, squats and stretches. More advanced exercises include floor work, mountain biking, football skills, dodgeball and boxing to boost your cardio. Alternatively, you can commit to a longer term program designed by trainers that will keep you puffing for three or nine weeks.

Within the hefty-looking packaging (it comes in a decent-sized box) EA have included a funky-looking heart rate monitor (and batteries), as well as a tension strip to make those exercises even more taxing. Being a gadget freak, these "freebies" more than justify a price tag that is slightly higher than your typical new release. Once you’ve synced your console with the monitor and strapped it on to your arm, your heart rate pops up onscreen and - along with a calorie counter - tells you whether you're efforts are really making a difference to your wasteline.

The main menu shows an array of options, although this can be slightly tricky to negotiate if you rely solely on the Kinect sensor – my recommendation is to keep a conventional controller handy. From this screen, you can dive straight into a preset routine or get one specially generated for you. If you don't fancy doing certain exercises (or your achy limbs can't take any more) you can deselect them as required. Besides exercise, another section explains how to adopt a more healthy lifestyle - a simple click and you're whisked off to a personalised nutrition guide and diary, which keeps track of your efforts and makes helpful suggestions. Like a lot of EA's titles, there's also the option to build up a profile, customize everything about your appearance, and even head to the game's website to check your progress and share results with friends.

After watching simple tutorials, your trainer (male or female, depending on preference) talks you through each workout. It's all set against subtle background music and takes place in a variety of outdoor settings akin to those fitness television programmes that feature beautiful people on some beach somewhere in Austrailia. Graphically, it's nothing exceptional but it does the job nicely and sets the scene. Initially, with all that music, it’s all very calming and relaxing... until the gentle warm up exercises are over and the real work begins. I guarantee you’ll quickly build up a sweat and feel the burn – which at least goes someway to justify your purchase; EA Sports Active 2 actually seems to work.

The software uses the Kinect motion controller fairly effectively although you need heaps of space in your living room for it to work as it should. There are occasions where lag is noticeable and the sensor fails to pick up movement (it doesn't seem as accurate or sensitive as Your Shape: Fitness Evolved, for example, or Dance Central for that matter).There's also a frustrating glitch that sometimes sees your workout suddenly interrupted and the menu screen pop up for no apparent reason – although forums suggest that turning off the voice recognition solves this. Some of the exercises and arm movements also fool Kinect into thinking you want to Kinect pause screen to come up.

As mentioned above, it’s also far easier to dispense with the arm waving when trying to negotiate the multitude of menus and refer back to the conventional controller – a bit of a shame considering Kinect’s “you are the controller” claim. Saying that though, none of these issues should be a deal breaker.

Floorwork is also a little hit and miss, with the sensor occasionally failing to pick up my frantic gesticulations. Sometimes my reps were ignored by my increasingly agitated onscreen trainer (she wasn't really - but beneath her grin I knew she wasn't happy) and I was forced to turn in a few more to reach the target - frustrating at the time but ultimately it's an additional boost to my fitness levels!

There are a multitude of sports and fitness that have already made their way on to Kinect but EA Sports Active 2 is one of the more comprehensive packages.
If you stick to the training program and resist the temptation to give in and return to your usual spot on the sofa, you'll quickly feel the benefits.

EA Sports Active is certainly better structured than the other fitness titles currently available and does feel like you've got a personal trainer right there in your home. At the cost of little more than a single month's gym membership, it's well worth a try - just make sure you take regular breaks and drink plenty of water as those muscles are gonna ache! Mine still are.