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PlayStation 3 Review: EA Sports Active 2

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It’s not easy getting old. Your metabolism slows down, it’s difficult to party past 10 pm, and then suddenly one day you realize that all the music you listen to comes from a different decade. I first became acutely aware of my own aging recently when I noticed an odd nasal protrusion in the mirror. The time had finally come: I would need to pluck my nose hair. Quick grooming tip for the readers at home: be prepared for a good cry.

This year marks the 25 year anniversary of the Nintendo Entertainment System, arguably the first system to really bring console gaming to the masses in North America. So I know I’m not the only gamer contemplating the big three-oh, and perhaps not alone in deciding that one has to work out another part of the body besides one’s thumbs.

Enter EA Sports Active 2. It aims to be the in-home personal trainer for gamers.

The timing could hardly be better. Pioneered by the Nintendo Wii four years ago, motion gaming is the big thing this year, with both Microsoft and Sony putting their own spin on it. Sony’s Move and Microsoft’s Kinect have developers scrambling to grab a piece of Nintendo’s hitherto unchallenged market share of the motion gaming market, with fitness games being one piece of that. Surprisingly, though, EA’s cross-platform release isn’t designed to work with any of the three major consoles’ motion controllers. Instead, Electronic Arts is already thinking of the next stage in motion gaming: hands free.

Three unobtrusive, adjustable straps attach to the forearms and right thigh of the player, wirelessly connecting via USB (in the case of the PS3 version of the game). One of these also doubles as a heart-rate monitor. You only need to use a controller to start your work out: your on-screen trainer will take you through your full routine without any additional button presses necessary.

The use of custom peripherals also suggests a consistent game experience across platforms. The graphics (which are more than adequate), should not be overly taxing on the less powerful Wii, and since the motion tracking is built into the hardware developed for the game, there should be no danger of kinks exclusive to the PS3 and Xbox 360, both motion-gaming neophytes.

More importantly, the hands-free gameplay sets EA Sports Active 2 apart from other fitness titles. You quickly forget the motion sensing straps are there, safely allowing for more intense work-outs than are possible with remote controls in hand. It also allows the use of real-life work out equipment: many exercises make use of the included resistance band, but there’s nothing stopping you from using an actual rope for skipping exercises, or adding small weights to aerobic routines.

Because the game is “watching” what you do, you can be as quick or as leisurely as you want with any given set of exercises, but you have to do each and every one of your reps to move on. This interaction is what a fitness game can offer than a fitness video cannot. Your trainer will always wait for you, and along the way, (s)he’ll give you gentle feedback on your pace and tips on your form. This isn’t always perfect, the boxing exercises, for example, seem overly sensitive to registering any incidental movement as a jab, for example, but it’s pretty good on the whole.

Of course, I can list off gameplay features, aesthetics, and menu design until the cows come home, but that doesn’t tell you if this game is a good buy. There are additional criteria to be considered for a fitness game, and the foremost of these is the question: will this improve my fitness?

This is a fair question, though it needs some qualifications. There was a lot of talk when the Wii was first released about how nice it would be to see gamers getting up off the coach, with the assumption that there might be health benefits. Indeed, even something as simple as making a five-minute walk to the grocery store each week rather than driving is likely to produce some positive effect, if not a large one. But nobody’s working up a sweat with Smooth Moves. It’s like playing charades instead of cards. Yes, you’re being more active, but you’re not “working out”. And that’s fine, because these games are simply about having fun. It’s not that you aren’t burning a few calories at the same time, but the operative word is “few”.

For a fitness game, however, this will not do. We want to know if there will be a noticeable difference in our fitness level. Assuming we stick with our routine and really push ourselves, will we actually feel better; will we actually look better? I’d love to finish the nine-week program so I could tell you exactly how much progress I’ve made, but I don’t want to delay this review as much as that. But I think I can still make a reasonable judgement on the matter.

Based on anecdotal evidence, I would guess that one of the two biggest problems fitness newcomers make is slogging away for hours at low-intensity workouts that give very little “bang for the buck”. (The other problem would be overdoing it and either getting hurt or burning out early into a fitness program.) I also know from personal experience that it is possible to get an intense (and brief) workout, and achieve real gains quickly, without a gym membership, and without a lot of equipment.

I did a brief stint in the Canadian Forces during my younger days, and during our basic training, we were whipped into shape relatively quickly, without using anything more than a parade square. Running, push-ups, sit-ups, chin-ups, squats, and a handful of other exercises proved remarkably effective. So the hypothetical idea of clearing some space in your living room, popping a disc in your favourite console, and getting a serious workout isn’t just wishful thinking. But it does require efficient workout design.

EA Sports Active 2 was developed with the help of professional trainers, so I went into my first workout with high hopes. I selected average intensity, and this would prove to be the right decision. Show a little modesty folks. Don’t jump into extreme mode if you haven’t exercised in six months.

My routine seemed a little intimidating at first: 28 different exercises? Yet the estimated time was only 30 minutes. The first few exercises were simple stretches and easy cardio, and I was beginning to think this might be a cakewalk. After the warm-up came some skipping, some squats, running in place. Within a few minutes, I was panting, and my heart rate had reached a good clip. Several more minutes after that, I was counting down the minutes until cool-down.

Each exercise was short and intense, not overwhelming individually, but as soon as one was done, it was time for another. Compared to a gym experience, wiping down the machines after each exercise, adjusting the weight before the next, it’s pretty fast-paced. But it’s also well-paced, giving you a chance to catch your breath, but not enough time to slow your heart.

I finished my first day feeling slightly nauseated, which is typical for me when exercising after a long break, but otherwise doing not too badly at all. The next day I had the expected muscle stiffness, but surprisingly little soreness. Compared to the cursory stretches I might have done on my own initiative, my trainer’s more thorough cool-down paid dividends for me the following day. By the time of my next scheduled work-out, this time focusing on the upper body, it already seemed as if I had increased my wind, and the resulting stiffness was even less. By the end of the first week, I was feeling like a million bucks.

It’s worth noting that my full exercise routine requires almost no equipment, no special location, and could be done by me alone, at least in theory. But I wouldn’t know where to begin. Anything I might throw together simply couldn’t compete with the thoroughness and efficiency of what my trainer put together for me. I have trouble even remembering which muscle group to work on in a given day. This game takes all the guesswork out of it for me. Additional features like online work-out groups, the ability to log and track other physical activity outside the game, and a daily nutrition survey are icing on the cake.

This game can’t create motivation where none exists – no fitness plan can do that – but it is a viable alternative to a gym membership or a real-life personal trainer (which is probably outside the average person’s budget). This game is more than a novelty, an introduction to fitness, or an inspiration towards starting a feel work-out program. It’s a fitness game that truly has the potential to make you fit. So I have to recommend it.

  EA Sports Active 2 is rated E (Everyone) by the ESRB.

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About J.J.S. Boyce