Version tested: Wii
Something strange happened last April. I started running. Outside. Three times a week. Regular as clockwork. The same month, Nintendo launched Wii Fit. No coincidence. I've barely touched Wii Fit in the last year, but I'm still running.
However thick the layer of dust now on the balance boards of early adopters, if the continued soaraway success of Wii Fit tells us anything, it's that there is at the very least an appetite amongst Wii owners to be healthier. Of course, for others there remains an appetite to binge on KFC until chicken fat dribbles from their squinting, bloodshot eyes, but such is the nature of gaming's ever-broadening audience.
The genius of Wii Fit is that it made exercise fun, just as Brain Training did it for maths. Aside from all the yoga flailing and straight-faced routines, it was packed with charming, foolish, unmistakably Nintendo mini-games that were a lark to play, especially with others, and effectively tricked you into physical exertion without you thinking about it.
EA Sports Active wouldn't exist without Nintendo's prior success here. Wii Fit proved not just that there's an audience for virtual fitness (let's bury that dreadful 'exergaming' tag for good, please), but that it can also sell squillions. (Wii Fit is currently number 4 in the UK charts, over a year after release; two spots, incidentally, above EA Sports Active).
A PE teacher in a former life, this was an opportunity too good to miss for the newly installed overlord of EA Sports, Peter Moore. But the two products are vastly different. And before I get into a more detailed analysis, let me be clear: EA Sports Active won't have you grinning like an idiot (more likely crying); it won't be whipped out at parties for a laugh; and I certainly wouldn't play it with my mum; but, if your goal is fitness rather than pure fun, it's currently the best you can buy.
EA's been keen to draw the distinction between Wii Fit's "eastern" approach to fitness, all holistic and yoga-fuelled, offering up an abstract "Fitness Age" to chart your progress. Active is much more targeted and goal-oriented. It's an interactive trainer that barks encouragement and advice at you through a routine, just as one would in a real gym. There are no hula hooping Miis; there's no penguin slide; there's no yoga. It is, as it says on the box, a "personal trainer".
Active doesn't have anything as fancy as a balance board to come bundled with (although it supports it), but it is packaged with a leg strap and a resistance band. The former is secured around your thigh and features a little pocket for the nunchuk, which measures leg movements during certain exercises. The latter is used for upper body training, the band placed under both feet, its ends gripped in either hand along with the nunchuk and Wiimote.
In general the exercises in Active are focused on increasing strength and stamina and promoting weight loss (performance is measured in calories burned rather than by an "age" marker). The best place to start, and a brilliant feature, is the 30-Day Challenge: a month-long workout programme designed to deliver real improvements while systematically introducing you to the various types of exercises on offer.
Already, I've stuck with this far longer than I remained regularly committed to Wii Fit, whose novelty wore off dramatically after the initial buzz. Each day you have the option to choose between a low, medium or high intensity workout and whether you want to use a balance board in certain exercises. Then your trainer (you can choose a bloke or a bird, real people, with wholesome, pearly white American grins) offers up info on today's list of exercises, how long the workout will take, and a projected calorie burn target (which seems set deliberately low to give you an extra smug bonus when you exceed it every time).
You can easily remove any exercise you don't fancy. Since getting into the groove with it, I've taken to ditching the running-on-the-spot cardio in favour of going for an actual run around my local park first, then getting stuck into my Active session.
And your trainer is a surprisingly effective motivator. While I love scampering around the streets of W9, I wouldn't be caught dead doing lunges, squats and the like of my own accord. I simply lack the motivation. But when my TV is barking at me to push it harder, showering me with pre-recorded praise, it genuinely works. And that's exactly what people pay personal trainers to do.
Out of the box, Active's much better at lower-body workouts. Anyone unfortunate enough to follow me on Twitter [I'm not putting in a link - Ed] will have read frequent post-session updates on the burning pain searing through my thighs after another series of brutal leg drills. Inline Skating is a particular evil: starting from a squat position, the lower you are the faster you skate, and once you reach a ramp you have to jump in the air and immediately land back in the squat position. After my first 'high intensity' session, my legs were in agony for two days. There's just no way I'd push myself to complete 24 'stunt jumps' without either this game, a real trainer, or 10 pints of lager as a completion bonus.
By placing the nunchuk in the leg strap, Active is able to determine how low you are crouching, which is essential for squat- and lunge-based exercises, as it is for cardio-based routines like high knees.
The vast majority of upper-body exercises require the bundled, pilates-style resistance band, which is used for bicep curls, tricep kickbacks, shoulder raises, rows and the like, with the nunchuk and Wiimote measuring range of movement. I've never used a resistance band before, but I found the packaged one to be fairly useless - and no one could ever accuse me of being muscle-bound. It's even more pronounced during high-intensity workouts, where the leg exercises leave me wincing with exhaustion, while some of the extra-long arm routines end up more like lengthy stretching sessions.
You can, however, pick up stronger ones fairly cheaply, and it's something blokes in particular should consider if they really want to work it like Wolverine. The tutorial videos themselves are straightforward and easy to follow, and if you're mucking up a workout, you can skip out and check the video again with a single button press.
During exercises, Active also does a generally impressive job of monitoring your performance and letting you know if you're doing something wrong. It's limited, of course, to measuring movement either in one hand or both, and one leg, but unless out of some perverse vendetta against your terminally grinning trainer you are deliberately trying to cheat it, it works just fine. There are exceptions - I've had frequent issues registering side lunges, and occasionally it will lose track of what you're doing.
A further problem is with the connecting cord between nunchuk and Wiimote, which can reach its limit all too easily during certain upper body exercises, unless you're cursed with t-rex arms. One exercise requires you to raise alternate knees while snapping both arms down around it. Frankly, I'm too worried about snapping the cord to concentrate properly. But this is a minor bugbear in the grand scheme of things.
Outside of the gym, Active has a bunch of mini-games to mix things up. I've already mentioned Inline Skating, which should be called 'lacticacidboarding'. Elsewhere there are variations on boxing, tennis, baseball and basketball. Boxing's the most fun, a lively cardio workout where you punch specific targets, before switching to the bag for a frantic pummel.
As noted, you can enjoy a perfectly good workout with Active without ever needing the balance board, but if you have one buried in the back of a cupboard, it can be used to add an extra dimension to certain exercises. In boxing, for instance, kicking the heavy bag is added; while in tennis, by moving alternate legs off the board, lunges are worked into the routine.
It's also worth adding that you can workout with a friend, although to take full advantage of this you'll need to shell out another GBP 15 for an extra leg strap and resistance band. You'll know if that appeals to you.
Beyond the 30-Day Challenge there's a sizeable list of pre-set workouts of varying intensity, length and focus, and you have the option to create custom workouts incorporating as many or as few exercises as you like. There's a decent number of exercises in there, and you can mix and match easily enough, but it's a shame there's no option to download new workout plans and routines. No doubt EA will flood the market with billions of standalone spin-offs, but the option for more modest updates would have been welcome.
Once you've created a fitness profile, and chosen a blandly designed, lifeless avatar (it won't win any awards for art, and if you want something to stare at I'd suggest The Girls From Liberty X Toned), you're given a journal which records your fitness regime and offers up basic graphs to track performance.
Here you can also add in additional physical activities (like walking, swimming, yoga etc.), and fill out a 'lifestyle survey', which asks you routine questions about how many meals you've scoffed, how many glasses of water you've sloshed down, how stressed you feel and so on, then shares vapid nuggets of feelgood philosophy about how you should probably sleep more. Sadly, there's no check box for "I would have, but I decided to neck a bottle of vodka and play OutRun until 4am"). It's there if you want to use it, but I'm not convinced it's a great deal of use in its present form.
It should be obvious that Active, like any other fitness title, isn't a miraculous shortcut to marathon-smashing superfitness. And, far more than the charmingly diverting Wii Fit, you really have to want to get fit for it to work for you. But a little will can go a long way in Active. As it stands Active is better on legs than arms, you'll probably need to buy another band if you want to take it seriously, and it's more about gurning than grinning. And that's the point. This is even less a 'game', than Wii Fit. It is, as we've established, an interactive 'personal trainer'.
Should you buy it if you already own Wii Fit? Should you buy it instead of Wii Fit? Mileage always varies, and existing Wii Fit owners will know whether that's working for you. But if you're too poor/lazy/ashamed to join a gym and want to start burning calories while reducing your legs to melting jelly, Active wins hands down.
Wii Fit Plus is coming, with the promise of a bigger focus on targeted fitness. I tried it out earlier this week (check out next Monday's EGTV Show to see it in action), but only mini-games were available which, while undeniably entertaining, offered zero insight into its more serious fitness credentials.
So for now, while there's plenty of scope for performance enhancements, Active's the best there is. I'm still running. But, unlike the weeks after Wii Fit arrived, I'm also still playing.
8 / 10