EA Sports Active (Wii)
Just as -- for years -- the PSP was known as the console of choice if you were into arcade racers and bad UMD movies, the Nintendo Wii is now the go-to box for those looking to get in shape. While you can get a sweat going just Nunchuk-ing your way through any number of Wii titles, games like Wii Fit, Jillian Michaels' Fitness Ultimatum 2009 and Gold's Gym Cardio Workout stress the idea that the console can be used specifically for improving many different facets of your physical condition. EA Sports Active is the latest release that hopes to shed your pounds and tone your body between marathon bouts of Mario Kart Wii. In many ways, it's the most complete workout available for the system -- but is that enough to make you want to use the thing?
Here's my background: In addition to having been a game reviewer since -- seemingly -- the late 1800s, I'm also a fitness writer and author, and have had my own personal training business for close to 10 years. On many levels, I'm very excited that the Wii has helped make "fitness gaming" a legitimate gaming genre. On almost as many levels, though, I'm disappointed by the lack of creativity that goes into a lot of these games. Generally, the reason that someone doesn't exercise is that they don't like to exercise. A "game" that throws a traditional workout at them isn't going to get them to move their body. Even though it's received just so-so reviews, Wii Fit is a fantastic game that gets people to move their bodies -- people that may not have been all that excited about moving them before. Active takes a different approach. It's clearly a workout-in-a-box. Think of it as a slightly more evolved take on Ubisoft's My Fitness Coach.
The disc becomes your personal trainer, and either lets you design your own workouts or puts you through a series of workouts based on your desired exercise intensity level and the type of hardware you have. (Active is compatible with the Wii Balance Board. If you don't have one, though, there are still a zillion available exercises that you can do without it.)
In addition to using the Balance Board, Active also throws its own set of toys into your home gym. Wii Fit was weakest in the upper-body strength-building department: It had you doing some push-ups and that was about it. Active ships with a resistance band that lets you do a lot more movements that target the major muscles of the upper body. Unfortunately, you only get one "band," and it's closer to the type of resistance tool used by physical therapists than the type of resistance tubing used by trainers. It won't provide the level of resistance you really need to work the big muscles of, say, your back. Active gives you tips on how to increase the resistance, but doing so also increases the likelihood of the band snapping -- especially if you're a taller person. To really get the upper-body workout that Active is capable of delivering, you'll need to go out and get a couple of high-quality bands of differing resistances. And while the video clips describing how to do the exercises are relatively thorough, doing the movements while also being aware of the necessary -- and sometimes very unnatural -- hand-positioning of the Wii Remote and Nunchuk can be frustrating. A lot of times, you'll do a whole lot more than the prescribed number of reps solely because you weren't holding the controllers correctly.
A more successful new toy is the leg strap that holds the Nunchuk at thigh-level during many of the exercises. It is a very cool use of the movement-sensing technology that shines most brightly in the lower-body squatting exercises. It lets you know when you're dropping your hips to the desired level. (In contrast, doing squats in Wii Fit was almost impossible, due to the narrow width of the Balance Board on which you were supposed to do them.)
While the strength-building chunks of Active are okay, things drop off quickly when you get to the "Cardio" and "Sports" sections. Both of these sections are designed to get your heart rate up and to work on coordination, agility and balance. Unfortunately, if you've played just about any Wii game -- and not just the fitness ones -- you'll find these Cardio and Sports exercises simple, primitive and unengaging. In real life, running laps around a track is boring. Who decided that mock-running on the Balance Board, while staring at the back of your avatar -- who's running on a track -- would be any better? Similarly, the baseball, tennis, basketball and volleyball games all suffer from the same lack of creativity. You swing your arm to hit a baseball or return a serve, and you jump to shoot a basketball or block a volleyball. The amount of timing and coordination required to do these things is embarrassingly minimal.
The main problem I see in the fitness gaming genre is that games seem to have been developed in a bubble. In other genres, developers are aware of what the competition is doing -- and has already done. The various iterations of Rock Band get better and better because the various iterations of Guitar Hero are getting better and better, and it's the same way with shooters and action games. The simplistic Cardio and Sports components of Active may seem cutting-edge and 22nd-century to someone who's never held a Remote and Nunchuk before, but they come across as junior-varsity versions of the mini-games from Wii Sports, which is three years old. No one who's played Shaun White Snowboarding: Road Trip or Rayman Raving Rabbids TV Party would find the inline skating in Active interesting, stimulating or fun. With both of those games, players are continually challenged, rewarded, and -- yes -- working their bodies. And they continue to play -- not because someone tells them that they'll burn 14 calories per minute -- but because the movement is fun to do.
The biggest thing that makes Wii Fit so engaging is that, most of the time, you aren't even aware that you're working out. It ingeniously gets users to do things that will improve their quality of life without their even realizing they're doing them. The game does a great job of candy-coating the vegetables. With Active, there's never an attempt to disguise the fact that what you're eating is vegetables. Active does deliver more of a full-body strengthening workout than Wii Fit -- despite the limitations of the somewhat clunky Wii hardware -- but there just isn't enough to make you want to use the thing on a regular basis. Essentially, if you don't already enjoy working out, Active probably isn't going to change anything; it simply isn't fun enough to turn you into a fitness fan. And if you already enjoy working out, you probably don't need Active -- there are better fitness-related ways to spend $60.
This review is based on a retail copy of the game purchased by the reviewer. He burned four calories during the transaction.