This is the first time since Kinect’s launch we’ve had to say this, but when playing EA Sports Active 2, you’ll need a controller in your hand. Not to engage in any of the 70 exercises, which are all operated completely controller-free, but rather to navigate the wealth of menu and options screens that stand between you and your workout.
Make no mistake: EA Sports Active 2 is serious about fitness. Coming with a brand new – though, it should be said, completely optional – heart rate monitor, the game begins with a simple fitness test before giving you the option of two fitness programs: a three-week cardio boost and a gruelling twelve-week total fitness plan that should give you all the exercise you need.
If you don’t feel like taking on the pre-programmed workouts, you can create and save your own using any of the available exercises, changing the order and intensity to suit your needs. For users who know what they’re doing with their fitness regime this will be a welcome addition, letting them change the difficulty whenever they like for complete freedom, but for those who might be a little less clued-up on fitness then sticking to the game’s workouts is good advice. The in-game trainer can create a particular workout for you too should you lack inspiration, targeting the particular body area you choose to work on. There’s no shortage of ways to shake things up, which should help to keep you motivated in the long run, as should the Achievements along the way for burning large numbers of calories or reaching other numerical milestones.
Some workouts are exercises wrapped up in gaming disguises: mountain biking is a series of squats, jumps and jogs that’s every bit as taxing as regular exercises, but the Kinect-exclusive dodgeball rarely reaches the active and enjoyable heights of Kinect Adventures’s Rallyball stages, for example. The goalkeeping and soccer striker drills both offer good use of full body tracking, though are really more fun minigames than full fitness drills, but it’s the cardio boxing that disappoints most. Hitting four areas of a heavy bag in a predetermined pattern could be good, but there’s no rhythm involved and your character’s movement feels sluggish: what could have been a sprightly workout becomes dull as you have to wait for the correct quadrant to light up. The original EA Sports Active on Wii did this better, and that’s not something we expected to say.
In good lighting conditions your movements are generally detected well, though in some exercises the margin for error is too slim, forcing you to lower your arms just another inch or two before the rep completes. It should also be said that you need a larger than usual playing space to get the most out of the game, as when performing push-ups or other floor exercises you face the sensor head-on. Your motions are represented on-screen by a customisable avatar and the game generally has a good feel for what you’re doing, but the problems start when you lie or sit down.
Whereas in The Biggest Loser: Ultimate Workout and Get Fit with Mel B a trainer sets the pace for you to follow, EA Sports Active prefers to have the trainer match your workrate, meaning you can’t finish the exercise without completing the set number of reps. Whilst this is a useful method to convince you to perform just one more crunch when your lungs are screaming, when the sensor struggles to read your movements it means wrestling with the on-screen avatar until Kinect picks you up correctly. During one routine the sensor lost us completely, causing us to kneel up to study the on-screen instructions, at which point the game thought we’d resumed our push-ups and allowed us to complete the exercise just by leaning forward from that kneeling position. There’s nothing more galling than being unable to finish the routine despite your best efforts just because the sensor lost your position, and although it doesn’t happen very often it’s worth noting, particularly if you want a regime that'll focus on core body fitness as these workouts focus on floor exercises.
The other major problem with the control set-up is that menus are completely Kinect unfriendly. Whilst you’re able to start your routine easily enough, once the time comes to customise your workout, fill in the lifestyle and nutrition surveys or check out your progress it proves inaccurate and cumbersome, and you’ll be reaching for the pad in no time. Though a mark of shame for a Kinect title, using the buttons speeds up your navigation no end and will undoubtedly help you get the most from your fitness regime.
There’s local multiplayer if you want to team up with a friend to burn off some calories, though as the required area for solo play is so large only the biggest living rooms will likely be able to accommodate this. Unfortunately there’s no online play to help out those with smaller spaces, though you can join workout groups to share your progress with others. These groups let you invite your friends to work towards a common goal, providing statistics on who’s burnt the most calories individually, the team’s combined running distance and more. It’s a nice addition and one that could potentially have plenty of use for groups training for a particular event together or working towards a common goal, but the game’s constant and intrusive need to send data to EA adds seconds of waiting between almost every menu and soon proves a drag.
Checking in to the official EA Sports Active website adds yet another dimension to your workout, letting you track more statistics and progress with charts, graphs and enhanced community features. For those serious about watching their fitness improve over time the groups and online tracker will be useful features for maintaining motivation, but they’re interesting asides rather than key components of the experience.
Graphically the game is nothing special, bringing a broad cartoony look to proceedings that inspires with its bright colours and landscapes, and character animation is decent without being spectacular. While on a HDTV the game’s menus and text are clearly legible, those working out on smaller sets or with CRT televisions might find things a little harder to navigate, so be warned.
Gamers can create their own custom playlists to accompany warm ups, workouts and cooldowns by using the Xbox Dashboard, a welcome and often under-used feature, although the included music is sufficiently energetic to keep things moving.
Navigation problems, a lack of exercises and occasionally wonky motion detection stops EA Sports Active 2 from fulfilling its true potential. At its core is an innovative and surprisingly enjoyable fitness experience, with customisable workouts and the useful heart rate monitor welcome additions to keep your motivation going. There’s no doubt you’ll work up a sweat and come away feeling sore, but enough minor niggles mount up to turn this from great to merely good.