When it comes to the world of swimming, there's no bigger name than Michael Phelps, but even his mighty reputation isn't enough to secure Michael Phelps: Push the Limit a gold medal.
Any game that starts with a warning that it's physically draining even by Kinect standards should set alarm bells ringing, but Michael Phelps smartly rations your physical exertion: at the poolside you hype up the crowd by waving your arms about, essentially a warm-up disguised as something more exciting. Bending over initiates the starting dive, where your reaction time and angle of your arms determines the quality of your start: fast and straight for a quick dive, slow and low for a poor one.
After that the real effort starts: the stroke. All four major strokes are represented here, with the front crawl being easiest and the backstroke proving particularly difficult, though really it's more about rhythm than technique. A bar at the bottom indicates the ideal stroke rhythm: go too fast and you'll burn up all your stamina, but too slow and you'll lag behind. Hit the rhythm just right and you'll earn energy for your Push the Limit bar, which comes into play as a final push where you're encouraged to go all-out for a few seconds.
The races aren't always short sprints though: longer races give your arms a rest by offering endurance laps, where you can stop stroking and instead hover your hand over on-screen icons to refill your boost meter. This jars with the rest of the action, feeling more like a rejected Elite Beat Agents than a sensible inclusion in a swimming game, but at least it gives your arms a rest.
Developer Blitz Games wisely avoided trying to turn this into a swimming simulator — you don't use your legs at all for one thing — and the arcade-style races are fast and over pretty quickly. That's most of the problem too: considering you're only ever swimming in a straight line, races don't end up with much tension or sense of excitement, and you'll either race ahead or get stuck in the pack. They're disappointingly dull in that regard: for all your physical effort you want some great drama to go with it, but the game rarely delivers, even in multiplayer.
There's a fairly standard career mode in which you compete in different distances and strokes to earn experience points and develop your swimmer, but it's far too easy — even if you lose a race, you can try it again as many times as you like. Once you get to the end of season games, if you fail to qualify for the next race you can reset your performances and just try again. It feels less like a career and more like a series of rewindable races.
Graphically the game rarely excels, though the muscular models are admirably constructed, even if the water effects leave a little to be desired. The sound is atrocious however, with the same repetitive techno song and an incredibly irritating voiceover — "optimum dive!" — that you'll be wanting to turn down as soon as possible.
Phelps isn't the disaster it could have been: it picks up your strokes accurately and feels pleasingly smooth when you're in a good rhythm. It's just a shame the game's lacking the crucial element of tension that makes sports games worth playing: you'll care less about the outcome of a race than whether or not you're going to strain your back, and that's never a good thing.