Version tested: Wii
I gave a talk on videogames at a conference a couple of months back. Only, it wasn't a games event. It was the annual conference of the National Obesity Forum at the Royal College of Physicians, and I was blathering on about active gaming.
That I was invited as a gamer to present to an audience of medical experts is palpable evidence of the impact Wii specifically has had beyond gaming itself. One in four British adults is classified as obese, and with reports suggesting fully half of the population will look like professional darts players by 2050, suddenly some very important people outside of gaming are starting to see it as part of the solution, rather than the problem.
One particular moment in my session stood out. I asked for a show of hands: "Who owns a Wii?" Roughly 75 percent of the audience raised an arm. "And Wii Fit?" Only a small number dropped. "How about EA Sports Active?" One solitary hand remained aloft.
This is both predictable and revealing, and gets to the nub of whether, as a console owner, you are a Wii Fit or an EA Sports Active person. Some stats: Wii Fit was the biggest-selling game on any system in 2008; it was the biggest seller for the first six months on 2009, shifting over 2.5m units in the 18 months since launch. That's not far off one Wii Fit for every Wii sold in the UK, an astonishing achievement for an exercise title. Presumably Nintendo execs keep fit by rolling around in all the money.
EA Sports Active, released very deliberately into Nintendo's slipstream back in June, also got off to a flyer, shifting close to two million copies worldwide in its first few weeks on sale. More Workouts, out last Friday, limped in at 35 in the Wii chart, however, 13 places behind the original, while Wii Fit Plus rides high at number five in the all-formats listings.
There are many reasons why Wii Fit is more popular: brilliant, blanket marketing; first to market; tied in with the purchase of a balance board. But the key difference is that it's fun first, fitness second. In the same way that Brain Training made maths fun (it's my six-year-old niece's favourite game), Nintendo has done the same with certain forms of physical activity: it's stealth exercise.
With that in mind, if you want a game that will improve measurably your fitness through punishing, structured workouts, EA's offerings are streets ahead of Nintendo's. That was true of the original Active next to Wii Fit, and it remains the case with More Workouts up against the recently released Wii Fit Plus. Put simply, Wii Fit won't make you fit by itself, whereas Active actually might.
So let's look at what's changed in More Workouts (rather than regurgitate the basics, it's all there in my original review ). The first thing to note is, it's only five months since Active: as the name implies, this is very much an expansion of what came before, rather than any kind of major overhaul.
Holes have been filled. Each workout session is now bookended by warm-up/cool-down exercises. This is sensible as the high-intensity workouts in Active can be taxing, so structuring in a little stretching out is responsible - and all too easy to ignore unless you're being told to do it.
More variety here would have been welcome, but the primary purpose is to get the user into the general habit of easing into and winding down from a workout.
Taking half a step in the direction of Wii Sports Resort, EA has tried to 'theme' More Workouts, setting it in a "luxurious tropical location". The art style is so joylessly functional you won't care, but this allows EA to add in new watersports events like paddling and waterskiing, plus a resort-based obstacle course.
The latter is a great addition, providing variety within a single event. You run between gates, stopping at each to perform a different activity on the spot, like lunges or (the surprisingly fun) skipping. Running in the original Active became a chore, not least due to the narcoleptic visuals, so any variety is a boost. (Incidentally, the cycling in Wii Fit Plus is a great example of how Nintendo's 'stealth exercise' trickery can counter the essential boredom of running on the spot).
There are 35-odd new exercises in total: balance board owners get stuff like step aerobics and press-ups, while Active staples like cardio boxing have evolved into something altogether more engaging.
I despise sit-ups. Even during the periods in my life where I've been a regular gym goer, I'd sooner share a sauna with a LAN party than rock backwards and forwards on the floor 'crunching'. Newly included ab exercises are EA Sports Active at its best: encouraging and motivating you to do the things you've spent a lifetime dodging.
As I write, there is a profound ache rippling through my abdominal area from the 20-minute high intensity ab session I nearly killed myself with yesterday. It's inconceivable that I'd do that without my unremittingly cheery virtual trainer chirping instructions and words of encouragement. This is precisely why these products work.
Leg raises - lying down, legs straight and parallel, lifted slowly up and then down without touching the floor - are remorselessly, savagely brutal. If you've tried the first Active, think 'jumping squats' levels of burn. Accordingly, the sense of achievement afterwards is epic.
Active's strongest single feature was the 30-Day Challenge: a month-long fitness programme skilfully deploying just the right balance of carrots and sticks to urge the user to stick at it with the promise of real improvement.
In More Workouts this becomes the 6-Week Challenge: it's longer, obviously, and more varied, but the goal remains the same. And being able to plan ahead and choose rest days (Monday: workout; Tuesday: McDonald's; Wednesday: 10 pints of Stella, etc.) makes it easier to adhere to. Making a pledge to yourself and the game is psychologically powerful and you will be compelled to avoid the guilty pangs of a skipped session.
While it's a more rounded experience than before, many of the same issues remain. The resistance band is still useless for blokes, and you will need to purchase something better to reap any notable benefits. Furthermore, the journal remains a half-hearted affair, offering very basic diet tracking and nutrition factoids, and never really approaches being the useful tool it could and should be.
The game's ability to detect motion from the controller is also still hit-and-miss at times, particularly in registering the nunchuk when it's slotted into the leg-strap, though in general it acquits itself very well. MotionPlus is a clear opportunity to enhance the experience and really ought to be supported next time around.
Should you buy it if you already own the original? Retailing at 25 to 30 quid, it's hard to justify such an outlay for content which on PS3 and Xbox 360 would surely be offered for substantially less as DLC.
It is, however, clearly a better-rounded experience than its predecessor, so is the obvious first-timer choice. But bear in mind it doesn't come with the resistance band and leg strap this time, which need to be purchased separately, adding another 15 quid to the asking price.
It can't engage and enchant groups in the way Wii Fit does, nor does it attempt to. But as I said the first time around, if you are serious about improving your fitness levels and have neither the inclination nor the funds to join a gym, Active is currently the best of its kind.
8 / 10