Swimming? On Kinect? That’s got to be a bit tricky hasn’t it? Where am I going to get the water from? Will I have lie down to play it? If these are your primary concerns, please, take a deep breath and calm down. Thanks to Blitz and 505 Games taking Push the Limit down a distinctively arcade style path, swimming on Kinect can be pleasingly achieved sans water and mercifully without having to lay on the floor flapping around like a tit. Don’t get me wrong, you’ll still look like a tit while playing, but only in a manner comparable to that of other Kinect releases.
After the outrageous success of Phelps at the Beijing Olympics back in 2008, it’s of little surprise to find the lanky swimmer fronting up his own swimming videogame and, in fairness, he’s got to be reasonably happy with the results. While a little short on game modes and perhaps a tad one dimensional, Push the Limit is nonetheless an entertaining and largely successful interpretation of the sport he so ruthlessly dominates.
Races start with you making your walk to the pool in which time you can pump your arms and wave to the crowd a la Kinect Sports. The difference here, is that you working the crowd pre-race serves to fill up your actual race boost meter. It’s a simple twist to a mechanic found in many Kinect titles but one that actively encourages all players to get involved in this pre-race ritual. Once at the starting blocks, races are started by bending over with your arms in front of you. Your angle and the straightness of your arms combined with your timing at the buzzer directly effects your start out of the blocks and has a huge effect on your chances of winning a race (especially in the case of the shorter sprint events). It’s here that the accuracy of the game’s body recognition really shows its quality with the reactions and placement on screen really matching up with your own movement.
This accuracy is continued in the pool, where your strokes are required to match up with a rhythm bar at the bottom of the screen. Although not linked to any great deal of technique and thus not requiring high levels of precision, your inputs do feel as though they are being accurately represented by the actions taking place on screen without any noticeable lag. While this basic rhythm-based swimming does make up a large part of the game, there are a few twists on this to keep things fresh. Due to the tiring nature of the longer races (believe me, this game can put a bead on you), long distance events also have Endurance Laps that require you to hover your hand over specific icons to fill your boost meter. These sections do feel a tad out of place with the rest of the experience but they do offer up some much needed restpite for the more shoulder punishingly epic races.
On the flip side of this, Sprint Races remove the tactical arm waving and rhythm-based stamina-centric swimming mechanics in favour of a purely speed-based swim. Tactics go out the window here as you pump your arms as fast as you can in order to reach the finish line first. While not as involved as some of the other events, these quick fire races can prove hugely competitive and play out more like a full body take on the thumb-burning athletic games of yore.
Other basic races combine both the all-out action of sprint racing with the more considered, core rhythmic approach to good effect – these races begin in a gentle(ish) manner before a basic timing action is required when you reach the end of the pool. Once you have successfully made your turn, you will need to use your Limit meter to go all out for the line with the amount of Limit energy you have based on how much was built up via well timed strokes earlier in the event. Races then end with you reaching for the wall with your hands pushed out in front of you. Like so much of the game, this final push is all about timing with close races often hinging on the timing and accuracy of your final push.
Whatever event you choose to play though, Push the Limit is a game that will nearly always take it out of you. You may not be using your entire body, but making those basic swimming motions is not easy to maintain over long distances. While all four available strokes offer up a challenge, it is backstroke that offers the most demanding physical challenge. Most races are over pretty quickly and the longer races do make those aforementioned concession but be warned, this probably isn’t the best game to play before your head out for a night out…..unless you don’t mind being a bit of a sweaty mess that is.
In terms of games modes, beyond basic race events and split-screen multiplayer for two players (make sure you have plenty of room if you plan on taking on the breaststroke with a friend), Push the Limit offers up online races for up to 8 players, a Party Mode and a slight, but mostly enjoyable, Career Mode. There is also a simplistic but very helpful Tutorial Mode, with the main man Phelps there to take you through the basics before you get started.
Despite Party Mode delivering some fantastic 8 player relay races for any potential parties you might have, it’s inevitably the Career Mode that delivers the real meat of the Push the Limit experience. With 3 seasons to play through, each one made up of numerous events and an end of season games, it does an admirable job of mixing up what is a relatively repetitive sport by design. It won’t last you all that long but the inclusion of experience points to build up your created swimmer certainly gives this mode a little more weight and longevity. While the skill parameter options aren’t exactly varied, the choice to develop your athlete based on your strengths and weaknesses is a welcome addition to the package. Equally, the customisation options, while not likely to trouble EA anytime soon, are certainly deeper and more varied than I was expecting.
Graphically, Push the Limit is competent rather than impressive. The real world swimmers all look reasonably decent, the character models and venues are detailed and the animations mostly impressive. The water effects, however, fail to impress and some of the animations, while decent enough, are clearly canned to the point in which you can have two swimmers paddling in perfect unison at the end of a race. Still, for what it is, the visuals do a solid job of recreating live sporting event atmosphere. The same, however, cannot be said of the audio. If the highly repetitive and consistently lame techno soundtrack doesn’t do your head in, the extremely repetitive voice-over surely will. It’s not enough to ruin the experience, but the audio throughout is certainly the wrong side of annoying.
So, despite a lack of depth (no pun intended), some minor presentational issues and a sense of repetition inherent in the sport, Michael Phelps: Push the Limit represents a pretty decent stab at swimming on Kinect. The emphasis on arcade-style gameplay was a wise one by Blitz and 505 with the movements required doing more than enough to link your actions to the sport without the need for anything truly ridiculous on your part. The Career Mode won’t last you too long but the Leaderboards will provide plenty of challenge for those looking to take things more seriously, while Party Mode and the split-screen options mean that it will always be a viable option when you have friends over. It’s not going to change anyone’s life, but amidst this season’s abundance of racers and shooters, Michael Phelps: Push the Limit delivers a surprisingly pleasant change of pace.
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