Michael Phelps: Push the Limit
A surprisingly good Kinect fitness game that’s both entertaining and a decent workout.
Michael Phelps: Push the Limit takes the odd idea of having a swimming simulation video game and actually makes it work, resulting in a game that’s both fun and can provide a decent workout.
I admit, like most of you probably are, I was really, really skeptical when I first heard of the game Michael Phelps: Push the Limit for the Xbox. After all, swimming is something done horizontally in the water, while playing video games is something done vertically in the air. But surprisingly, they actually made it work. It’s a very enjoyable game–provided you go in with the right expectations. You’re not going to become a better swimmer because of it. But you will enjoy an excellent and realistic simulation of what it’s like to be a competitive swimmer, and as a bonus you may get some decent upper body exercise out of it. Another bonus: there’s no chance of drowning playing it.
The game opens with this disclaimer:
Playing Michael Phelps Push The Limit Safely
Please be aware that this game requires a high level of upper body activity. Take a break if you feel fatigued. In addition to the standard safety instructions, note that Michael Phelps Push The Limit is a physical sports game and therefore can be tiring over even a short period of play. We recommend users perform some simple warm up exercises and stretches before play, particularly for upper body movement and rotation. Be sure to follow any on-screen instructions and advice. If you experience any adverse physical effects, stop playing immediately and seek professional medical advice.
Something tells me some lawyer somewhere got paid an awful lot of money for coming up with these six sentences. But it’s pretty good advice.
When you start the game your menu options are pretty simple. You can select “Quickplay” which lets you start competing in swim meets immediately, customizing all aspects of the race including your swimmer, your stroke (front crawl, butterfly, breast, back), your venue (a number of attractive fictional swimming venues such as a New York or LA rooftop by night), your distance (50, 100, 150, or 200 meters), and your level (there are three levels of difficulty, Gold, Platinum, and Elite).
You can choose a swimmer from a list of swimmers with varying levels of skills, the first being Michael Phelps himself, of course. There are a number of other swimmers who I first thought were actual Olympic swimmers but after Googling the names it turns out they’re just the names of employees of the video game company that developed the game. It would have been nice, especially with the 2012 Olympics coming up, to have actual venues and swimmers, but my guess is they just couldn’t / wouldn’t pay the licensing fees that would have been necessary to get the world’s greatest swimmers. A shame, because that really could have helped boosted awareness of the sport.
In the course of playing the game you’ll see several tutorials that’ll teach you the various things you need to know to play.
Basically, here’s how the game works:
1) To start the race, in some venues you can “pump up the crowd” by waving your hands, which will give you a little boost during the game.
2) You stand on the starting block and crouch down. A disclaimer on the screen will remind you not to strain your back. As with real swimming, the timing of your dive off the starting block is critical. To “dive”, you basically stand straight up and hold your hands out horizontally. The system does a pretty good job of detecting your timing (displayed in milliseconds) and your arm angle (angle your arms too low, and your dive will be too deep, angle them too high and your jump will be too high).
3) You then start “swimming”. You basically stand upright and mimic the swimming strokes, trying to time them to a beat and an on-screen display. The strokes are all very similar to real life; for front crawls you alternate moving each arm forward over your head, for butterfly you move both arms forward together in a circular motion, for backstroke you move both arms backwards together in a circular motion, and for backstroke you alternate moving each arm backwards over your head. I was surprised at how accurate the Kinect tracking was–when I accidentally did a breaststroke instead of a butterfly, the system knew right away and stopped me cold in the water.
At the beginning of the race it’s important to time your strokes carefully to avoid overexerting your on-screen character and to build up your “Push the Limit” energy gauge.
4) On Platinum and Elite levels, you need to master the turn. Basically, as you near the end of the pool a gauge will fill up, and you need to push forward with your hand when the gauge is at its fullest. The better your timing, the cleaner the turn.
5) For long-distance (200m) races, you’ll hit an “endurance lap” which is the only part of the game that’s not too realistic. Little icons will appear on the screen and you need to hit them like in an arcade game to build up your strength.
6) Towards the end of the race you’ll hit the “Push the Limit” zone. This is where you just flail your arms as quickly as possible.
7) Finally, as you near the end of the race, you’ll be told when to put your hands down and then to reach for the finish by sticking your hand out at the right time. Again, as in real swimming the timing of your reach can make all the difference in a close race.
In “career mode” you design your swimmer’s look, customizing facial and body features. You then go through a series of swim meets; if you place first, second, or third in the races, you’ll be allocated points which you can use to improve your swimmer’s diving skills, stamina, speed, turn skills, and finishing skills. You go through three “seasons” of swimming events, with each season culminating in the “Annual Games”, which are set up very much like Olympic races. You can choose which events to compete in, swim a qualifying heat, and then if you qualify you can swim for a medal.
Gameplay can actually get surprisingly competitive and physical. After playing through season 1 of career mode, I was actually sweating and my heart was pumping, especially after the “Push the Limit” part of each race where I often found myself behind a couple places and had a sprint madly to try to place in the top 3. What I appreciated about this is that it wasn’t just gratuitous activity–it was a pretty good representation of what goes on in an actual race, both in terms of the pacing you need to do at the beginning of the race, the sprint you do at the end, and the timing of the jump, turns, and reaches. And believe it or not, as I type this I can actually feel my muscles have gotten tighter not unlike the feeling after a good swim (albeit not as intense, of course).
The game is not without its flaws. You need a minimum of about 8 feet of space in front of the Kinect Sensor or the game will constantly stop and tell you you’re too close; of course this is a common ailment among many Kinect games, but then again games like Dance Central managed to make it work. At one point the sensor lost track of me completely as I was competing for a gold medal in one of the Annual Events, so I ended up finishing dead last. There were parts of the game that required me to shout commands to the Kinect Sensor (such as “Boost!”), but the microphone wasn’t picking me up, resulting in my falling behind in the race. Also, while the lawyers were sure to put a disclaimer saying that it was important to do upper body stretches, I wish the game could have incorporated that as an option (which could even have added to the realism of the gameplay, as I’m sure the stretches players need to do are similar to those that swimmers do).
The biggest risk in playing this game is probably developing some kind of tendonitis. What happens is, when you swim in real life, the water provides real resistance to your muscles. But when you play this game, you’re swinging your arms through the air with no resistance, and you’ll be able to do it much longer without getting tired. Ultimately, that can cause painful soreness to your joints and tendons. Usually, the prescription is just a week of Advil and staying away from video games. But of course, the best thing to do is avoid it in the first place by doing proper stretches and taking breaks. Something else you can do is use hand weights, which will provide the necessary resistance and of course is something you can do easily on the Kinect that you can’t on other video game systems that use controllers.
It’s curious that 505 Games chose October of last year to release this game. In a lot of ways it’s a game ahead of its time–9 months before its time to be exact. One figures that when the 2012 Olympics in London start on July 27 that swimming is going to get a lot of attention, especially with Michael Phelps saying it’ll be his last Olympics. Hopefully for them by the time July comes around this game will still have some legs so they can cash in on the quadrennial intense interest in swimming.
Overall, I give this game a solid four stars, provided you go in with the right expectations. It’s not a game where you’ll learn much about proper swimming techniques or skills. But it is a fun game for anyone who follows the world of competitive swimming, either casually or assiduously. And if you’re looking to use your Kinect for working out, while it may not be the most intense workout, it’s fun and gets you moving. It’s a great way to supplement other decidedly more monotonous fitness games with some upper body exercise, and could give you a serious workout if you pair it with some light hand weights.