Sunday, November 29, 2009

Review of Your Shape for Wii

3 out of 5 stars

A valiant attempt to create a new kind of Wii fitness game which unfortunately falls flat due to technological flaws.

Reviewer: Nutwiisystem November 29, 2009
jenny mccarthy your shapeLike others, I really, really wanted this one to work. Your Shape is an exercise game that, done properly, could have revolutionized the whole genre. At the end of the day though, Ubisoft bit off a little more than it could chew technologically. The result is a game which is nothing short of amazing those times you can get it to work properly (about 35% of the time), and just plain infuriating when you can’t (the other 65%).

Of course, what sets this title apart from the others is the inclusion of an “Innovating Motion Tracking Camera” to detect your movements. In actuality, this is just an ordinary USB Webcam. (Not exactly a technological revolution, but on the flip side if you don’t have a Webcam for your PC, you can use this one as a “free” one—I plugged it into my Windows XP laptop and it recognized it immediately).

Setup is a snap. You plug the camera into a USB port on the back of your Wii. When you put in the game CD for the first time, you’re prompted to perform a system update (presumably to install the driver for the camera).When you start the game the first thing you see is Jenny McCarthy giving a long laundry list of advice for how to set up your camera. Following these instructions will give you the best chance of success with this game but for reasons I’ll mention below, it may not be enough.

The video version of Jenny is then replaced with a slightly creepy animated version (with way too much computerized eye shadow on). An annoyingly frenetic, peppy cover of Rihanna’s “Umbrella” plays over and over and over again in the background, perhaps the game makers’ way of getting you to make your selections quickly.

Setting up your profile:

You start by setting up your profile. This works about the same as other games in the genre: you type your name, create an optional password, choose your units of measurement (not sure if people understand what “imperial” is, but it’s “not metric”), enter your gender and year of birth, and enter your height and weight. You still have to enter your weight by hand—in this day and age it’s inexcusable for them not to have added some balance board support.

Once you’ve entered all this, the game will turn on your camera and you’ll see yourself on the TV screen. From here, the system will “scan” your body and show an outline of your body. At first I thought this was amazing, but then I realized that the outline of my body was only just based on the height and weight I entered. In other words, the “body scan” is really nothing more than a gimmick. Its sole purpose is probably just to make sure your camera is in the right position.

You select a part of your body you want to work out: shoulders, arms, back, chest, glutes, or legs. For each of these, you can choose whether you want to burn, tone, and/or build strength. Ostensibly, your workout routine will be customized based on what you enter.

The Fitness Evaluation

The next step is taking you through an “evaluation”. Jenny will first ask you your current cardio level (sedentary, moderate, or active), as you how you're feeling, and then send you through some typical exercises of the type you’d do in your daily workouts. And this is exactly where you start to see both the best parts and the worst parts of this game.

The first exercise is a warm up march. I loved how the on-screen animated Jenny is juxtaposed to your video image, so the two of you will literally make the same movements at the same time. Every exercise has an optional tutorial where you can learn how to do it; or, you can just mimic Jenny’s movements.

The first time I did it, it did a fairly amazing job at detecting whether I was moving my legs and my arms. And it wasn’t just looking for random movement on the screen—if I stopped moving my arms but not my legs, the screen would flash “Arms!”, and Jenny would also tell me to start moving my arms. “Okay”, I thought. “This is going to be cool”.

The next exercise was jumping jacks. This was a disaster. Not once did the system properly detect my arm movements. For hours I tried everything possible to get this working. I tried changing into different colored outfits, exaggerating my movements, changing the timing of my movements, standing toward the front and toward the back, and even changing the lighting in my room. Each time, Jenny would yell out “Uhp! Please check out your arms!” and the on-screen report of how well I was doing the exercise would always plummet. My percentage of correct exercises was always in the 30 percent range, even though I knew I was doing all the exercises properly.

The next few exercises were lateral raises, squats, plies with shoulder presses (basically an exercise where you move your arms and legs like a frog and move up and down), and cool-down stretching exercises. They were hit or miss as far as my movements being detected. Whenever it worked, it was amazing. But unfortunately, for every one time it detected my movements, it would fail several times.

At the end of your “evaluation” Jenny will then give you a letter grade, but chances are you won’t be happy, as your grade will be artificially low because the game couldn’t pick up your moves. Based on all the information you provided and your “fitness evaluation”, she’ll recommend a fitness calendar with preprogrammed workouts for the week. You can customize the days and the amount of time you want to spend exercising.

Daily Exercise

From there, you just start up the Wii every day you’re scheduled to exercise and click “Workout” to go to your prescribed workout session.

As other reviewers have said, from a pure exercise point of view, this title is really no different from Ubisoft’s previous title My Fitness Coach. The exercises are “old school” calisthenics moves with names like “double heel jacks” (jumping up and down while kicking your heels) to “turn steps” (walking to the left and right while turning and swinging your arms) to “grapevines” (walking to the left and right while swinging your arms and clapping). The package touts that it has “over 400 exercises”, but the truth is there are just 400 variations of jumping, swinging your arms, moving your feet, and stretching. Not that there’s anything wrong with that—it’s a very complete set of workout routines.

On other positive notes, it really helps that you can see your own video image next to the animated Jenny, to see precisely how she does the exercise. And I do like the attention to detail, for example in how the on-screen Jenny will know “the weather’s getting cold outside” or that "mornings are a great time to work out", as well as how customized it feels (for example, how she’ll put together just the right exercise regimen to satisfy your goals).

The Achilles Heel of this title, of course, is how inconsistently the camera tracks movements. Poor controller response is the cardinal sin of Wii games. It seems that Ubisoft came up with a great idea and put in a valiant attempt to make it happen, but the technology simply isn’t there yet. I suppose the first warning sign was that they signed up Jenny McCarthy to be the star of the game. From Jillian Michaels to Daisy Fuentes, it seems to be the kiss of death for a Wii game when a celebrity is asked to headline a video game. Who knows what this title could have been had they spent the money they’re paying the celebrity for development and testing. I’m not a software engineer, but I wonder if there was anything at all they could have done to improve things, from providing reflective arms straps or leg straps which could be better detected by the camera, to doing more meaningful calibration than they do today, to supplementing the video information alone with Balance Board, Nunchuk, or Wii remote information.

From what I can tell, doing certain things gave you the best chance for success, but they were far from foolproof:
  • Stand in the middle of the screen. Make sure your on-screen image is about the same size as the animated Jenny’s image (stand 8-10 feet away).

  • Make sure the background is plain, and that your clothes contrast against the background (e.g., wear all black if you’re exercising against a white wall and wear very bright clothes if you’re against a darker wall). Clear away everything from the camera’s view.

  • Time your exercises to precisely match the animated Jenny’s on-screen movements. Your own video image will lag, so you need to match her movements. The music is completely useless (it’s just background music with a beat independent of the exercise).

  • Make sure the lighting is such that your images isn’t too bright (e.g. next to a sunny window) or too dim (have a lot of ambient lighting)

  • Make sure there’s nothing else in the image that’s moving.
To sum up? Ubisoft came up with a great idea here, but they just couldn’t get it working. You’ll get essentially the same exercises with the $19 My Fitness Coach, so you need to ask yourself if it’s worth an extra $50 for little more than a generic Webcam and a sometimes-brilliant, sometimes-frustrating experience.

To sum up? A great idea, and if everything worked, I’d be touting it as the new king of the hill. But at the end of the day the poor responsiveness makes it too frustrating to deal with. Exercise-wise, there’s nothing here you can’t get in the $19 My Fitness Coach. So the question you need to ask yourself is, is it worth an extra $50 for a low-end Webcam and the thrill of seeing your own image on-screen, knowing that the motion-detecting technology is frustrating and probably years away from being perfected.


Friday, November 13, 2009

Review of EA Sports Active More Workouts for Wii

5 out of 5 stars

An improved six-week exercise regimen, an impressive number of new exercises that use the leg strap and resistance band in new ways, and some new and very fun fitness activities catapults EA Sports Active back to the top of our Best Wii Exercise games list.

Reviewer: Nutwiisystem
November 13, 2009

EA Sports Active: More Workouts is the much-anticipated sequel to EA Sports Active. Unlike what Nintendo did with Wii Fit Plus, EA Sports did not port the exercises and fitness activities from the old game to the new, but actually give you 30 brand new exercises and 6 new fitness activities that weren’t in the original.

While it’s designed for people who already own EA Sports Active (it doesn’t come included with a resistance band or a leg strap for the nunchuk), you actually don’t have to have the original game to play it. in other words, if you choose to purchase a resistance band and leg strap separately (you would need to get the EA Sports Active Multiplayer Pack), you can play the game on its own.

When you start the disc up for the first time, if the system detects that you have a profile from the original EA Sports Active, it’ll let you import it in just a few clicks. Something else that’s new in EA Sports Active: More Workouts is the use of trophies to motivate you. You even get a trophy for successfully importing your profile :)

One improvement is that you can now use the Wii Balance Board to check your weight. In this sense, they’ve caught up to games like Wii Fit and The Biggest Loser. Speaking of the Balance Board, it’s still optional for use in the actual exercises—you can certainly do most of the exercises without one. That said, if you do have one, they did an excellent job of incorporating it into the exercises, and it definitely enhances the experience.
You start out by recreating your profile. Once again, you can customize your on-screen character. You’re still limited to only a handful of body types, skin colors, and hair styles, but for some reason you now have 25 caps to choose from and 24 pairs of shoes.

Once again, you can choose a male or a female trainer, still the same somewhat creepy animated figures who shout out encouragement to you.

Once you get to the main menu it looks about the same with the same catchy music. The biggest difference is that instead of a 30-day challenge, you now have the option to take a 6 week challenge.

The new 6 week challenge is a vast improvement over the 30-day challenge of the original, more in lines of the type of training program you’d sign up for in a gym. For those who found the workouts in the original too easy, you’ll be pleased to know that you still have the option to choose intensity levels of easy, medium, or hard, and hard really is hard. The workouts are expertly designed to focus on different muscle groups more intensively throughout the workout, an improvement over the original where you’d work on one set of muscles and then alternate to another. One other major improvement is the ability to choose the days of the week to work out, rather than being forced into every other day. For me, I chose Saturday, Sunday, Tuesday, and Thursday, mainly because I’m too busy during the week to take more than two weekdays.

Setting up a 6-week workout.

Another improvement is the Journal. This is where you can keep a virtual diary of your diet and exercise. When you click on the journal, you’ll be able to take daily surveys which ask you questions such as “how many glasses of water did you consume yesterday” and “how many restaurant/fast food meals did you eat”. Like a personal trainer, the Wii will give you advice based on your answers. There’s also a place in the journal where you can enter other physical activity you did outside of EA Sports Active More Workouts, letting you choose from a wide range of activities from walking and running to dancing and yoga. By selecting “Other”, you can record workouts you did in other Wii games.

The reporting tools are also pretty impressive. You can look up a weekly fitness tracker that shows calories burned, a chart of your weight, and the number of workouts, total exercise time, and number of miles covered in your EA Sports Active workout.

EA Sports Active More Workouts has a huge array of new exercises. Something I found impressive is that while they didn’t reproduce the exercises from the original, they came up with 30 completely new exercises that work out every part of your body, from lower body to upper body. One other nice addition is a warm-up and cool-down period, instead of rushing straight into the more intense exercises. Something else that impressed me was that they thought of new and creative ways to use the resistance band. For example, to do one-arm rows, you’re instructed to fold the band in half and step on the band in a way that you really do get great resistance on your biceps.

Other new exercises using the Leg Strap and the Resistance Band

The highlight of the title has to be the new fitness activities. As with its predecessor, EA Sports Active More Workouts has some great fitness activities: water skiing, paddle surfing, cardio boxing, step aerobics, squash, and an obstacle course.

One of my favorite new fitness activities: Obstacle Course

As with the fitness activities of the original, the fitness activities are so much accurate simulations of the sports activities as they are clever ways to get you to mimic exercise movements (like squatting and lunges) in repetition without realizing you are. It’s tedious to go through dozens of reps of squats and arm movements; on the other hand, it’s a blast to be doing it playing a fast-paced game of virtual squash.

Squash, a clever way for you to do lunges and arm motions

The controls are spot-on. Unlike games like The Biggest Loser and Jillian Michaels Fitness Ultimatum 2010, which passively “check” to see if you’re making the right movements once you’ve made them (and often give you false positives and false negatives—if I hear Jillian Michaels one more time yelling at me unjustly I’m going to scream). EA Sports Active More Workouts actually responds to your exact movements as they’re making them. And if you mess up, it doesn’t yell at you.

The game, of course, takes place on an island which seems to be a trend. After visiting Wuhu Island in Wii Fit, Jillian’s Island in Jillian Michaels Fitness Ultimatum 2010, and the virtual Biggest Loser Resort, I feel like I’ve worked out all over the Carribbean. But I admit, there’s something soothing about escaping for 20 minutes a day with the sound of the surf pounding on the shores.

All in all, I was impressed with EA Sports Active: More Workouts, so much so that it will once again regain position #1 in the list of Best Wii Exercise Games. While it may not be as “fun” as Wii Fit Plus, and the graphics aren’t as good, the workout regimen itself is a tough one which really gets you working out, and the fitness activities are a good balance of fun plus an effective workout. It’s not a game you can play with the family (although there is an option to exercise with someone else, side by side), but on the other hand it does the best job of any Wii Exercise Game to balance fun and fitness.


Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Review of Jillian Michaels Fitness Ultimatum 2010 for Wii

3 out of 5 stars

A good title for die-hard fans of Jillian Michaels and her intensive, no-holds-barred approach to exercise. For all others, there are much better choices out there.

Reviewer: Nutwiisystem November 10, 2009

There’s an expression that goes “fool me once, shame on me, fool me twice, shame on you”. According to Majesco’s own press releases, over 600,000 of us were burned by Jillian Michaels' Wii game from 2009, by just about all accounts one of the worst Wii titles ever released, with terrible graphics and unresponsive controls. So the new burning question is: is Jillian Michaels Fitness Ultimatum 2010 any better?

jillian michaels wiiThe answer is yes, but mainly because you couldn’t get any worse than the 2009 version. There are enough improvements to keep it off our ignominious Worst Wii Exercise Games list, but overall, the game is still not up to the quality of the top games on our best Wii exercise games list. If you are a die-hard fan of Jillian Michaels, it might be worth getting this title. Otherwise, you’re better off getting one of those other games.

Overall rating: ***
Exercise value: ***
Fun: **

And now, for a breakdown of the good and the bad.

The Good:
    • The game is fairly well organized.

      • A “Workout Area”, contains the main exercise portion of the game:

        • “Island Overview” allows you to quickly do one of 18 random exercises in one of 9 different environments, ranging from a cascading waterfall to a sunset on a pier. Great for if you want to exercise in a hurry and don’t want to have to go through a lot of menu options.

        • “Single Exercise” allows you to choose the specific exercise, location, music, and number of reps.

        • “Circuit Training” lets you choose from five combinations of exercises that Jillian herself recommends for Total Body workouts, working out Abs, or working out just the upper or lower body. You can also customize five of your own circuits.

        • “Resolutions” allows you to create a customer workout schedule over time for up to six months, or use a schedule that Jillian herself made.

      • “Jillian’s Locker” is very obviously something that the programmers stuffed into the game to make it appear more substantial. It isn’t substantial at all (The Biggest Loser for Wii, on the other hand, did it right).

        •  “Outfits” contains outfits that you can dress your on-screen Jillian in. More of a gimmick than anything else, and the interface is confusing to navigate.

        • “Diet Tips” is pretty useless. It contain tips on setting goals, food, and eating out. There’s an entire menu option dedicated to only 7 tips total.

        • “Exercise Tips” is the same, but with 7 tips on setting Goals, Time management, and Mind.

      • “My Info” is an interesting area where you can set your profile (height, weight, age) and then see your stats (how much you exercised using the game and a chart of your weight loss over time). Overall I actually prefer the more “professional” presentation of Jillian Michaels Wii game over the cartoony approach of Wii Fit, but again, the user interface is atrocious, with non-intuitive buttons and difficult controls.

      "Total Body" circuit training part 1. A pretty neat run through Jillian's island with Jillian.
    • While you’re doing each exercise, the game will show an animated Jillian performing the exercise, showing you exactly how to do the exercise, complete with the Wii-mote or the Balance Board. You can use a 3-D camera to rotate and view exactly how to do it from any angle. This is a neat feature that isn’t available on other games.

    • The exercises on Jillian Michaels Wii game are definitely more intense than the ones you’ll find on games like Wii Fit Plus or EA Sports Active. There’s are nine exercises that use the Wii Remote (water pump, sledge swing, hip twist, oblique, side lunge, back kick, jumping jack, squat jacks, running) and nine that use the balance board (boat pose, crunch, swing kick, lunge kick, bicycle, side plank, pelvic thrust, push-up, closed push-up). Use of the balance board is optional.

        "Total Body" circuit training part 2. Running through various other exercises.
      • For the Wii, the graphics are pretty good. Even though the Wii cannot display high resolution graphics like the PS3 or Xbox, they do a fairly good job of displaying full-motion video. The exercises are all done in environments with rich graphical experiences and great background audio. When you’re running through the jungle behind Jillian, you really feel like you’re there running through a lush jungle. When you’re on a dune overlooking a beach, you can see the wind and hear the surf pounding against the shore.

      • There is something cool about the way that Jillian serves as your “personal trainer”, leading you through intense exercises, shouting out positive reinforcement when you do well, and berating you to push harder when you don’t. The game does capture her intense, all-out style quite well.
      The Bad:
      • The game is still very spotty in its use of Wii-Mote or Balance Board to judge how well you’re doing the exercise. While it’s improved over the 2009 version, it’s still not always very accurate nor useful. For the most part the controller really doesn’t add much. There’s a ton of trial and error to figure out if you’re doing it right, and even if you do figure it out in most cases you’re on the “honor system” to do the exercise right. Sometimes just flicking the remote lightly will trigger compliments from Jillian; other times you’ll swear you’re doing the right thing, but Jillian will berate you for not doing it right. As an extreme example, for the “Swing Kick” exercise, I was graded as having done 20 reps. I earned 161 “power points” (as meaningless to me as the “Wii Fit Credits” from the original Wii Fit), and I was graded with 80% accuracy. That’s great, but here’s the problem. While the exercise was going on, I was nowhere near the balance board—I was sitting 10 feet away writing this paragraph!

      • For any given exercise, once you press the “Start” button, the on-screen Jillian will start doing the reps for the exercise very rapidly, regardless of whether you are doing them properly or even doing them at all. Worse, there’s no ability to “Restart”, you have to either Pause or Quit.

      • The “how to” tutorial for each exercise consists of just a “before” and “after” picture of the exercise, with a long description of the exercise which you read on screen. The copy is generally descriptive enough, but it misses the point. If I wanted to read how to do the exercise, I’d buy one of Jillian’s many books. Why not just use the same animation that’s already being shown with the actual exercise, with narration over it to describe how to do it? It just seems awkward and backward to make someone read long blocks of text on a Wii game.

      • As you’ve probably noticed I said several times, the overall user interface design is horrific. There are a number of awkward or non-standard ways that controls and interface elements are programmed. For example, the programmers of this game didn’t even do something as basic as allowing you to scroll through text descriptions using the arrow buttons on the Wiimote—you have to point to a tiny up and down arrow on the screen to scroll through the text. The programmers didn’t bother to program it so you can use the arrow button on the Wii-mote to navigate menus. So you have to point-and-click at buttons, which for some reason are so tiny it takes several seconds to line up your cursor in the exact right place and click..

      • There are a limited number of exercises (9 balance board, 9 Wii-mote). This pales in comparison to the exercises provided in The Biggest Loser.
      To sum up? I’ll give it 3 stars out of 5. There aren’t any huge innovations here. You’ll find that Wii Fit Plus is funner, EA Sports Active is more precise in its controls, and The Biggest Loser for Wii has a much larger number of intense exercises. The main reason you’d want to get this one is if you are a die-hard fan of Jillian Michaels and enjoy the idea of her acting as your virtual personal trainer.