With all the “suck for Luck” hubbub in the NFL and the protracted NBA lockout, you may have forgotten about a little thing called the Summer Olympics. You know, that little international event that will consume London this coming summer? The last time the Summer Olympics hit, the world was mesmerized by U.S. swimmer Michael Phelps, who broke all manner of medal records. Well, much like star NFL and NBA athletes are featured on video game covers, now Michael Phelps too has his own game, an Xbox Kinect-exclusive title called Michael Phelps: Push the Limit. And no, it’s not referring to any of his post-Games “extracurricular” activities.
In Michael Phelps: Push the Limit, the “limit” is the physical endurance required to dig deep and finish out a race as quickly as possible. Using the Xbox Kinect hardware, players use heir bodies to mimic real-life swimming motions to portray Michal Phelps as he takes on the rest of the world in all the possible strokes (freestyle, backstroke, butterfly and breastroke). Spread over the course of three seasons, the game has Phelps — and thus the player — competing against increasingly difficult swimmers and, between each season, tackling an Olympic-like tournament.
The game isn’t just flailing your arms about, but actually timing and positioning everything properly to succeed. Everything starts with players leaning over to get in diving position, then standing up quickly when the gun goes off and putting your arms out I front of you at the proper angle as if you’re trying to break the surface of the water with a dive. The game quickly calculates your angle and speed, and the on-screen action is based on that performance. From there, you mimic the real-life stroke motions with your upper body until the end of the race. Pretty straightforward stuff, really.
To ensure you don’t look entirely spastic, the game uses a stroke meter that watches how quickly you’re moving your arms and determines whether you’re moving too slowly, too quickly or just right. Timing is everything here, because the faster you swim, the more stamina you use up. If you run out of stamina, you can’t swim as quickly and thus suffer from a poor performance. If you time the beats perfectly in the center, you add boost to your “Push the Limit” meter, which can be drained a la nitrous for the last 25 meters of the race. You will invariably look spastic at that point, but at least it serves a gameplay purpose.
Depending on your performance, you’ll earn Stat Blocks, which you can use to upgrade certain aspects of your swimmer (speed, stamina, turn, dive, finish). The upgrades don’t seem to really improve much, to be honest, in spite of the obvious appearance of leveled-up meters, which makes me think it’s more cosmetic and psychological than anything else.
Occasionally in a race you’ll encounter some odd Endurance Rounds that cause you not to swim a stroke, but to use your hands to “swipe” at little floating energy icons with both hands. This is while Phelps is in mid-race, mind you. Sprinkled amid all the good energy balls are negative energy, which you want to avoid like landmines. In theory these probably were designed to break-up the monotony of the swimming motions, much like a mini-game, but they’re actually a bizarre variable to throw at you in the middle of a race, and they yank you right out of any in-race immersion you may have been feeling.
After you complete the first dozen races in each of the three seasons, you enter an eight-event Annual Games where the competition really heats up. You can choose whichever type of race you want based on the strokes from the preceding season(s), then start with a Qualifier, just as you do in the Olympics. If you finish in the top three, you move on to the actual race that counts.
The Annual Games are an interesting and fully optional twist, but it’s bizarre that you never encounter competition this good during the “regular season.” In the Annual Games the difficulty ramps up incredibly fast, starting with the first Qualifier you ever encounter. The increase in competition isn’t a bad thing, because the seasons can start to feel a bit dominating, but the game should’ve given you a round or two to see how good the rest of the AI world truly is.
In seasons two and three, you get to learn the butterfly and backstroke, which introduce some additional challenge because the Kinect-friendly motions aren’t as easy (as would be the case in real life) and because the competition gets increasingly tough as well. Whereas in season one you might have breezed through the races and nabbed first place each time, in seasons two and three — even with a fully upgraded character at your respective point in the game — you’ll find yourself in third and fifth places regularly and retrying races ad nauseum to nab first. Rather than focus on the weird energy ball thing, the developers should have focused on a bit more AI balancing. And recording more than three post-race commentary snippets, too; that part of the game gets old fast.
A few other nagging pieces are relatively minor, but they eventually add up and don’t help the game’s cause. For instance, every single loading screen shows Michael Phelps in a Speedo. In fact, it’s the same exact picture each time. Couldn’t the developer have instead cycled through a bunch of stock art of Phelps in a real-life race, which would’ve been a hoot for the Phelps fans who are likely the only ones who’ll buy the game anyway? In fact, speaking of Phelps, the occasional in-game video tutorials that demonstrate the swimming motions show Phelps in a Grizzly Adams-like beard that doesn’t look anything like the Michael Phelps we Olympics fans know and love. For a game that basically tries to build Phelps’ brand before the next Summer Olympics, Michael Phelps: Push the Limit doesn’t exactly scream “hero.”
The gameplay is what really matters, I suppose, but although the swimming motions are pretty intuitive, the ramp-up in difficulty and lack of true leveling-up render the game a bit tedious after a while. That, combined with the nagging issues above, make it hard for me to recommend Michael Phelps: Push the Limit even for the biggest of Michael Phelps fans.
Platform reviewed: Xbox 360 (Kinect-exclusive)