Motion sensors haven't really been a catalyst for innovative titles as much as they've given us a vaguely new way of playing the kinds of titles we've had for years. At least fitness games appear to be one of the rarities: a genre that can use the likes of Kinect as more than a flailing novelty, imagine that. Fitness games are one of the few genres where motion sensors are used to fill a legitimate hole in the market, allowing for a steady stream of hands-free workout titles that offer exercise routines which aren't lumbered by a controller.
Wii has ruled the market on this for some time. But the trouble with these exer-games, new or old, is that like workout videos it's almost impossible to easily tell them apart. Videos try to bypass this by wrangling in celebrity endorsement, giving you the chance to have quad-toning sessions with Davina. Now this has crossed into games, wheeling out Yank D-lister Daisy Fuentez to teach Pilates amongst others. Regardless, they seem to all blur together in a kind of grey porridge of similar games, so much so that even Beckham's role as "Brand Ambassador" for Active 2 feels a bit devoid of meaning.
Competition between fitness games is typically a matter of constant one-upmanship when it comes to features, and that's where Active 2 crawls out from the rest of the pack. The gear that had come along with the original Active has been chucked out, meaning you'll not have to bother with bizarre leg straps and crap resistance bands that snap apart.
EA Sports Active 2 is now using a wireless readout system based around sensors that are worn around your arms and legs to read your body. On PS3 you'll have three sensors, two for your arms and one for your leg. On Wii you'll have two, with your Wii remote standing in as a sensor for one arm. Xbox 360 only requires Kinect, which already offers full-body motion tracking, voice recognition, and controller-free gameplay so you can legitimately treat your living room as a mock-gym.
If Active 2 offers anything, it's a laundry list of features that should force your eyes to glaze over by the time you're half through reading the back of the box. A heart rate monitor, an online hub to track and share your workout data, the ability to continue tracking your progress, save exercises you've done outside of the program in a log and download further routines. Fitness tips and a messaging system are available, as is access to the EA Sports Active forums.
But more importantly, Kinect is made for free movement; the first exercise I walked in on had the enthusiastic fitness instructor down on the ground, palms to carpet, leg stretched straight back, as Active 2 counted on-screen how many times. 30 seconds later she followed that up with a jog on the Fitness Trail: A short run that has you change the speed, rhythm of your jog at different points. 16.6 calories were to be burned, according to the game. After another minute she was back to the ground doing push-ups. There appeared to be no real restrictions on how you could move, with the game tracking every action you make.
Each routine relates directly to a specific area of your body, some of which include multiple stretches or exercises in one. The bicycle course for example has you squatting to increase your downhill speed, jogging as you make your way back uphill, and moving out of a squatting position to jump. And it's truly a bloody workout. Mid-way through the demo the instructor was already drenched in a film of sweat and asking for a towel.
While it easily counted every push up and every step you made when jogging, the game did struggle to sync your movement to the animation. A boxing exercise seemed to baffle even the kid they had brought in to help demonstrate the routine. He would swing with his right hand to the right hand of the opponent on screen. Yet on screen it was consistently being interpreted as a hit from his right hand to the left. Similarly, in a game of basketball each jump made in real life was presented by a very noticeable moment of lag on-screen. Jump on the carpet, hit the ground, and only then does your avatar jumps to make the shot.
But it's an almost pedantic point when technically it has little or no negative effect on your actual workout. Each movement is still picked up, leaving no question over whether or not you're correctly finishing the routine. In fact many of them require extreme precision, with squatting exercises requiring you to bend your knees to squat at a specific height, as dictated by a bar on screen. You can't cheat with your movement in the game because of how each motion you make is caught by either the sensor of by Kinect itself. Active 2's motion sensors aim is to create a reliable controller-free experience but general philosophy is to offer a legitimate living room work out, and so far the latter seems incredibly successful.
EA Sports Active 2 is due for release on Xbox 360, PS3 and Wii on November 19.