Some people love working out at the gym. There is something about the sweat and strain that just makes them feel good. I am not one of these people; I work out not because I enjoy it, but because in between workouts I feel stronger and less prone to aches and pains. EA Sports Active is just like working out in the gym; it makes me sweat, it works my muscles and it’s not the least little bit of fun.
How the Game Keeps You in Shape
Unlike Nintendo’s popular Wii Fit, which focused primarily on balance and coordination, Active is centered entirely on strength training and aerobic exercise. Activities include lunges, squats, bicep curls and beating a virtual punching bag.
Most exercises in Active involve either holding the Wii remote in one hand and the nunchuk in the other or holding the remote while the nunchuk sits in a holster wrapped around your thigh. The latter is used for exercises like lunges or jogging in which the game wants to know when you move a leg. Most sports exercises, such as hitting tennis balls at a target, involve holding the remote and nunchuk in your hands.
Wii Fit relied primarily on its high tech balance board, but one of the most important Active elements is a decidedly low-tech “resistance band,” which is a length of flat rubber that attaches to cloth handles. If you’ve ever had physical therapy there’s a good chance the therapist gave you a resistance band to work with; I’ve heard you can also buy them at sports stores. The band is used for things like bicep curls; you stand on the resistance band, holding a handle in each hand as well as the remote and nunchuk, and as you exercise it feels somewhat like lifting weights.
Active uses a fairly low-resistance band; after using theirs for a couple of weeks I swapped it for a heavier band I had lying around. I’ve also heard of people wearing wrist weights to supplement the resistance band or simply using free weights in place of it.
Because of the resistance band and the lunges, Active really works the muscles. It is weak in some areas - nothing really works the abdominals (I do a few crunches on my own) or the back - but it definitely works your arms, legs and chest.
Active also has some exercises that will take advantage of a balance board if you have one, such as an inline skating section where you must lift one leg to make a skating avatar avoid kicking obstacles on a road.
The first time you do an exercise you can watch a video showing you how to do it. While the forced smiles of the video’s male or female models look uncomfortable, they do tell you what you need to know. For most of the exercises you will see your avatar mirroring your movements while a picture-in-picture view of your “personal trainer” (a virtual version of the model from the video) leads your movements.
While you exercise, this personal trainer will constantly praise you – “this is super dedication you’re showing me!” - but these encouraging statements seem arbitrary rather than coming out of your specific actions, and I wish the settings had an option called “turn off insincere compliments.”
There is also a calorie counter onscreen that tells you how many calories you are burning as you workout.
You can choose from a variety of exercise routines focused on various aspects of working out or create a custom routine out of all the offered exercises. I began with the “30 day challenge,” a good introductory routine that gives you a chance to become familiar with Active’s various exercises.
Who Says Exercise Should be Fun? Not EA Sports.
Sometimes your personal trainer will remark, “You’re showing you can get fit and have fun doing it!” But if there’s one thing it can be said of Active, it’s that the game makes little effort to make any of this fun.
This is a radically different approach from Wii Fit, which had a talking Wii balance board and balance mini-games in which you would do things like guide a raft down a river by shifting your weight. Even the Active exercise routines that could reasonably be expected to be fun, like dance aerobics or tennis, are boring, offering none of the challenge or variety necessary to make them enjoyable.
On the other hand, Active gives you a much better workout than Wii Fit. When I took a break from the gym to check out Wii Fit, I felt it left me in worse shape than if I’d just stuck with the gym. But after three weeks with Active I felt I was close to the shape I’d have been in if I’d gone to the gym instead, although my gym’s weight machines work muscles not touched by Active. I wouldn’t give up the gym entirely, but I feel safe replacing gym visits with Active on days when I just don’t feel like going outside.
Conclusion: A Good Way to Stay Fit, if All You Want to Do is Stay Fit
Besides the basic workout, Active has a journal to track other exercise you’ve done (walking, dancing, etc.) and describe your eating habits. The game then awards you a medal for the day based on your workout plus your journal answers. There’s not much point to it; you can review your answers, but if you skip a day you can’t fill in information for that day at a later time, so only the most conscientious will have a complete activity record. You can give yourself the goal of always getting a gold medal, but a lot more could have been done with the journal, which feels very bare bones.
Bare bones is a good description for Active. The game gives you a good workout, but doesn’t seem to care about much else. There are little annoyances, like not being allowed to disconnect the nunchuk when playing tennis (expect to whip yourself with the nunchuk cord), and odd oversights, like the lack of guided stretching at the end of your workout (make sure to do a little on your own).
I have a few other concerns. I wonder how long the “resistance band” will last; EA Sports gives it a 90 day warranty, but it seems reasonable to me to expect a year’s worth of exercise before you have to blow money on a replacement. And I wonder if shoving the nunchuk repeatedly into that tight holster is going to wear down the analog stick, which gets shoved back and held there.
Still, Active does what it sets out to do; it keeps you in shape. And if you love exercise, then you might even think it is fun. For the rest of us, Active could best be described as an acceptably torturous way to stay fit.