Version tested: Xbox 360
"There's no need to sell your furniture or move to a bigger house, but you'll want to clear some space so you can make the best moves when using Kinect."
That's the opening sentence of an email I received yesterday from Microsoft to mark the US launch of the hardware. There's an accompanying cartoon and it's all very "ha ha, geddit?" in tone, but behind the scenes some of the laughter will be nervous.
Space will be an issue for many with Kinect and Microsoft knows it. Which is why all the promotional videos seem to have been filmed in carpeted aircraft hangars. And yet if there's one group of gamers who should be prepared to call in the removal men, it's fitness freaks.
When Nintendo's Balance Board came in, chairs and tables went out. And having used the first two EA Sports Active titles, with all the lunging, thrusting, squatting, writhing, gasping and weeping that entails, in my tiny studio flat I ought to be as 'Kinect-ready' as the next person.
YourShape: Fitness Evolved isn't lying. Gone are the boards, Wiimotes and thigh straps of yore. It's just you and the imaginary fitness mat you just shifted half your furniture for.
Kinect could not be better suited to active gaming. It's no coincidence that five of the 19 'launch window' titles for the device are exercise-based. And it only takes a couple of minutes to realise that, on a tech level at least, YourShape leaves all previous fitness games behind in the changing room.
Ubisoft has exploited Kinect's real-time motion-capture abilities in what it calls Player Projection technology. Simply put, it sticks you in the game. The augmented reality effect is impressive enough – and if you don't like staring at your own body in startling detail you can apply a range of pleasingly dehumanising visual effects.
But it's when you begin your physical assessment that the penny drops. There's no guesswork with Kinect; no extrapolation based on where a game thinks your other limbs are – it's tracking your skeleton from head to foot.
For a fitness game this has a profound implication: no cheating. With the best will in the world, during some of the more savage workouts in EA's titles – rollerblade jumping squats, anyone? – the temptation and ability was there to cut corners when the burn became too much.
No chance of that in YourShape. If you're not performing an exercise exactly right, the game knows. And it tells you. Many exercises are split into parts so Kinect is used to assess, for instance, if your stance is wide enough, your arms are moving through the full range of motion and if you are moving in time with your on-screen instructor, whose moves you are attempting to mirror.
It's as unforgiving as a real trainer. But the positive flipside is, whereas with previous games there was too much guesswork involved to know if your technique was actually any good, now you'll learn to nail positions exactly to reap maximum benefits while maintaining correct form.
When you begin, Kinect scans your body to measure stuff like chest size, waist and hip line, arm and leg length. It's all very futuristic and exciting. The main things it can't determine that you need to input are age, weight and how frequently you work out (if at all).
After selecting an overall fitness goal, YourShape informs you it has created a personal workout programme for you based on your physical assessment. What that means is practice is that you'll find "recommended" tags applied to routines best-suited to your needs, while being told to avoid stuff that's not really applicable – and in fairness I have no yearning desire for "Perfect legs and butt".
Content is divided into three areas: Activities, Gym Games and Classes. The bulk of the exercises, including your personal programme, are found in the former, which offers routines that from "Sleeves busting arms workout" and "Skinny jeans workout", to plans tailored for women who've recently had a baby.
Classes are split between cardio boxing and tai-chi, with a range of progressively more challenging routines to choose from.
There are four mini-games to play in the "gym" area. In Virtual Smash you punch and knee blocks that appear before you on-screen, while also ducking a swinging pendulum on the hardest setting. The ruinous lag of the E3 demo has fortunately been tweaked here so, while not entirely eliminated, it's actually playable now.
Light Race creates a circle of panels around you on the floor. Segments light up at random and you have to stand on them as quickly as you can, so it's a bit like playing DDR while hammered without the insane tunes.
Stack 'Em Up is a balancing game. You hold up a board and try to catch falling blocks, which are tipped into holes either side, once they open, for points. At harder levels certain blocks are on fire so you must stand on one leg to release water to douse them.
It's a clever example of the augmented reality potential of Kinect, but I really have no idea what it's doing in a fitness game.
Finally, Loop A Hoop breaks new ground in becoming the most humiliating activity I have ever engaged in with a videogame. If you thought hulahooping in Wii Fit made you feel foolish, try watching your actual self on screen rolling hips around in nothing but underpants, twirling another couple of rings on your windmilling arms. If this is the future I want no part of it.
At which point, I should say that, yes, for those of you so inclined, you really could watch yourself exercising naked. Just remember: what is seen can never be unseen.
With Ubisoft's brilliant use of the Kinect technology, YourShape really ought to be the definitive fitness game. But it isn't. And that's because the game around it feels unstructured, basic and, most significantly, fails to offer sufficient motivation.
For all the data Kinect appears to capture when you are scanned, and for all the detail it is tracking you in, your progress is measured in – and Achievements are awarded based on - calories burned. Which is fine if your goal is weight loss, but it's a basic stat games have been recording since DDR incorporated a calorie counter yonks ago.
There's also no easy way outside of pre-prepared programmes to go in and quickly select individual exercises based on specific body parts. Why can't I customise my own workout plan from scratch? Why is there no straightforward way to see which exercises feature in which programme? Where is the sense that I am working towards meaningful goals which compel me to return against my urge to slob out?
EA understood this with Active. Its team looked at Wii Fit and saw that Nintendo's great achievement was to make exercise so much fun it didn't feel like exercise at all: it was stealth exercise.
Wii Fit kept people coming back because it was engaging and fun to play together, not because it was a workout. EA, in making a more serious fitness product, borrowed Nintendo's tactics and turned some of the most punishing regimes into videogame-style levels to distract from the pain.
But the most important feature in Active was the 30 Day Challenge. It was a clearly defined, manageable goal; a reason to switch the game on every day; motivation for people who, for whatever reason, were not exercising, weren't happy with their bodies and wanted to do something about it.
I could marvel over the technical achievement of YourShape all day – and it is for me the most impressive demonstration of Kinect's features out of all the launch games I've played. And as an aside, the development team deserves huge credit also for its excellent gesture-based navigation solution – which is far less annoying than Microsoft's.
But I want a fitness game to make we want to come back day after day, give me a hard but enjoyable workout, and be flexible enough to accommodate my fitness whims.
This PR puff on the official website sums up the problem: "The better you perform, the more you are rewarded with interactive effects such as paint, water, light, ink, confetti, and more. You'll stay motivated and excited – you never know what's going to happen next!"
If that's motivation, I'm off to KFC.
Ubisoft is supporting the game via an online community that will live at yourshapecentre.com, where you will apparently be able to track your progress and compare notes with friends. At the time of writing it's "coming soon". As are the downloadable features in the online UPlay service accessed via a menu I only found by accident it's so buried away in the game.
There are also iPhone and iPad apps coming as well as a push on Facebook. All of this is commendable and could certainly help to engage users with the product.
But as it stands on US launch day, YourShape revolutionises fitness gaming with its amazing use of technology, but fails to back that up with a game that does enough to encourage you to be active. Which is ultimately the whole point.
The good news is that the foundation is here to create a product that could well supersede EA Sports Active as the definitive fitness game. But it looks like we'll have to sweat it out for the sequel to see that.
6 / 10