Educated folks say that swimming is the best exercise available for humans because it requires the use of many different muscles. Although it’s a recreational activity by nature, taken advantage of during hot and sweaty summer months, a competitive sport has also developed from the water-based activity’s principles. If you’ve followed this competitive form of swimming or the summer Olympics over the last several years, then you’ll surely know that Michael Phelps (an American swimmer) is its crowning achiever. Having won several gold medals on the world’s biggest athletic stage, he’s decided to show us gamers what it takes to be on top with Michael Phelps: Push the Limit – available exclusively on Kinect.
Before we dive arms first into the depths of this review, I need to make something clear: I love to swim and have done so hundreds of times. There’s a pool in my backyard and a lake up north which have both seen many cannonballs from this geeky gamer. It’s a personal favourite activity and sport. Though, there’s certainly no way I’d ever make it onto an Olympic podium. Despite being a sound swimmer, I’m admittedly a tad on the slow side. Due to those reasons, you’re surely thinking that I’d be the type of person who would be interested in trying a swimming simulation game like Michael Phelps: Push the Limit. That would be a correct assumption to have.
Upon inserting this disc into my Xbox 360, curiosity swept into my mind. Actually, it had been there for a while, occasionally showing its face whenever thoughts about this game would surface. Push the Limit is the first aquatic simulator for Kinect, with Blitz Games going where no video game developer has ever gone before. It’s a risky venture considering how niche of an audience a game like this would attract, so I must admit that confusion swept in too. How would it be? Could video game swimming be as fun as real-life dives and breast strokes? The answer is an unfortunate no.
With swimming normally allowing for varied skill and immense freedom, one would figure that it would be tough to adopt into a performance-based video game. Creating a structured movement registry would be an interesting venture in itself. Michael Phelps: Push the Limit succeeds in creating a lengthy career mode with varied events, but it fails where it counts. Real-life swimming is easy for those who know how. This motion-based game makes it feel ten times tougher than it really is. Even on its gold (easy, I guess) difficulty option, races are brutally difficult.
The first time I played this game, it was incredibly hard to get the hang of. For a game aimed at the casual market, it’s strange to discover just how imprecise its movement-tracking is. Then again, the bulk of this problem stems back to a lack of the most important thing in motion games: the tutorial. It must be said that a tutorial video is available, though no proper gameplay tutorial mode exists. The aforementioned brief glimpse at how the seasoned pros do it is very basic and lacks detail. You’re supposed to watch someone perform the simple maneuvers, then jump right into your first race. Funny enough is the fact that only one type of stroke is shown while the game possesses at least four.
To swim, players are expected to stand in a certain area in the sensor’s field of vision, swinging their arms like they would in real-life. A swim to the beat mechanic was added in, but it’s more of a problem than a helpful asset. There’s a notable beep which goes off at regular intervals, telling the player to move their arm at that exact time. Your success in this venture is shown via a half-circle indicator below your created swimmer. The middle part of it features a blue rectangle, which is where you want to be. Keeping a stride up that stays within its length will earn you extra boost energy for the final push. Most importantly, it will also keep your stamina at a reasonable level. If you’re to the left, then forward progress will be a slow struggle. A right-facing indication means that you’re swimming too quickly, which results in a noticeable loss of stamina.
In longer races, pushes are required. Upon reaching one end of the pool, the player is shown an underwater view. It’s then that a time-based indicator pops up. A quick push at the right time can send you out ahead of the pack. Similar pushes become a necessity during backstroke races, with reaches helping you to hopefully make it to the finishing side first. All of it sounds realistic and good on paper. It’s just too bad that things don’t work when you’re in the virtual blue water. The pushes and reaches work well, though the speed swimming final pushes are the worst part of it all. The game seemed to lose all ability to read my movements once the final stretch came upon us.
Prompts are shown during races, but the player’s utilized avatar almost always looks like a baby fish as opposed to a ten pound adult. I tried all sorts of different movement styles, speeds and stances, but I just couldn’t keep up with any of the competitors who were in close-by lanes. Bending over to get into position worked, as did raising my arms to a level field in order to instigate a perfect dive, though it was a bit iffy sometimes. Once my chiseled, cap-wearing virtual athlete hit the water, things became less competent. As you can surely expect, frustration occurred quite often as the retry button became a well-used tool.
In addition to a career mode filled with single events, annual games and championship races, Push the Limit also includes single race event and multiplayer options. Since single race exhibitions don’t require any sort of detailed analysis or in-depth descriptors, we’ll move onto multiplayer, where local and online play both factor in. I tried jumping online twice, but couldn’t find anyone on the servers, leaving that as a facet of the game which couldn’t be explored. However, I did have a second person jump in for versus and party mode gameplay, with the latter being a team-based relay event. Surprisingly enough, the swimming mechanics seemed to improve during local versus action, though they still weren’t great. My friend tried single player as well, and had the same exact issues I did.
Like always, my intention going in was to give Michael Phelps: Push the Limit a fair shot, which I believe I did. I took my time and attempted to learn how this game works, but no change in my physical speed or movement style changed my final placement. Nor did any of those alterations make the mentioned issues dissipate. Screwing up would result in a complete stop, which was always incredibly debilitating because it’d take forever to get moving again. I waited and ended up downloading the title’s first update when it became available, but it didn’t seem to change much. You may be wondering if I calibrated my Kinect before playing, which I actually did – a couple of times just to make sure it was correctly done.
To be fair to Blitz Games; the rest of the package isn’t too bad. Its visuals are pretty shiny with some decent character details amidst nice-looking and varied pools. It was neat to be swimming during that first indoor race, with a thunderstorm going on outside. The same goes for Push the Limit‘s rooftop environments, detailed arctic pool and nice firework effects. Overall, its presentation aspects are pretty solid and tend to be hard to complain about. Though, one interesting visual detraction is the fact that your swimmer’s torso remains relatively rigid during pre-race fan salutes. The player gets to wave his or her arms in order to get the fans excited, though only your arms move realistically. It’s a surprisingly big part of the game, doling out a stamina boost if done correctly.
If Michael Phelps: Push the Limit was refined and had its movement mechanics corrected, this review would most-likely be more favourable. During my time spent swinging my arms along to its beat, I noticed the building blocks for what could be a pretty competent swimming simulation. Unfortunately, gameplay precision issues prevented that from occurring with this inaugural release. If you love swimming, I recommend going to a public swimming pool or buying one of your own because this game won’t satisfy your needs. It’s quite a workout, but doesn’t swim like the fishes.
This review is based on an Xbox 360 copy of the game which we received for review purposes.
Unfortunately, the majority of the game's motion-sensing mechanics don't work very well, making it difficult, confusing and just not a lot of fun to play.