It seems the video game industry either doesn’t want to waste time with this game because of the name/type and labelling it as immediately garbage, or are scared of it (how many men out there want to look at dudes in speedos?) I can understand – heck its swimming - a niche market compared to other sports, but I did take the time to go through it in detail and I was quite impressed and wasn’t sure what to expect. I can’t recall when the last swimming game was made or a title of it as I have never played a prior swimming game, or if there were any as I can’t imagine a regular controller makes a swimming game exciting, however Kinect completely enhances this experience even without water! For those unaware, here’s the synopsis:

Michael Phelps has dozens of world records. You have a Kinect. Congratulations, you can now dive in and find out what other swimmers have known for years: what it is like to lose a race to Michael Phelps. Join the most decorated swimmer of his generation for this interactive Kinect-powered competition that puts you in the pool with the legend himself. Learn how to race like a gold medalist with help from Phelps, who passes along tips that can mean the difference between victory and defeat. Swim through increasingly challenging competitions in Career Mode, where you’ll wind up in a meet against the best in the world, including Phelps himself.

Unfortunately I have to justify my ratings because individuals don’t understand why I rate games the way I do. I do a simple analysis and try to compare them to either a title similar to it, or I look for why the game was created. In this instance, I attempted to figure out why Blitz had the daunting task of creating this title, however what they did with basically nothing is pretty good, especially since the only other Kinect titles they worked on were Fantastic Pets and Biggest Loser. I had nothing to compare it to, but I did realize what they took it as is a racing game and they did a good job with it. This may sound crazy, but I played this and then played Forza 4 after it. I then realized this has Forza like fundamentals. This isn’t the best Kinect game out there, however it is one of the better ones and if you actually read my review completely, you may understand why.

Overview

The concept is fairly simple. Swim some laps using different types of strokes and win the race. However, if it was that simple, this game would deserve a 1. Fortunately, there is a lot of detail to this game. The graphics are great, kind of futuristic, yet modern. The music isn’t too bad, not great but not annoying. Phelps voice is in there as well and he helps you out through the game with tutorials and what not. Kinect is utilized using motions and your voice which work flawlessly for the most part. The way the races work is you have a crowd pleaser where you basically raise the roof and this provides you with a boost. You then dive, swim, turn, swim, push the limit, put your hands down and then finally reach. Even though it is a repeat process it gets mixed up quite often but I mention the details below. The trailer does show a lot of it, if you haven’t seen it, you can view it here.

Career Mode/Gameplay

This is another one of the few titles with a Career mode, however it’s more of a real career than playing through some 10 levels. You will not complete this game in one or two sittings. When you first begin your career, you will be able to choose either male or female, yes this isn’t a male only game, so ladies if you want to change-up to something instead of workout/dancing games, this may be a title for you. The game completely works out your upper body and arms and can become quite tiring if you don’t have a built up stamina. After you choose your preferred sex, you can then customize your character in a lot of detail, from eyes, nose, skin color to swimsuit and hair cap, it’s detailed. You then start your career and enter Season 1 with a nice little intro.

In Season 1, you are still in the learning stage, so out of the 13 events, there are 3 tutorials but not in order, they become available as you progress through the season. The tutorials are just videos that show you the motions required for the different types of strokes (there are 4 total) as well how the races work and other fundamentals such as diving and reaching. It’s actually a good idea to pay attention now because some of the things you are taught, you don’t get to use until Season 2. The first event has you doing a 100 meter front crawl stroke. You first begin by pleasing the crowd. I consider this as raising the roof or alternating arm pumps. The boost mode is kind of cool, if you hype the crowd up in the beginning, you will then be prompted when swimming to use your boost. To do so, you have to yell “BOOST”, and you will get a burst of energy. Make sure your Kinect is not muted, otherwise it does not work, it works all of the time when unmuted so voice recognition is there. After you are done pumping the crowd up, it’s time to get ready.

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The beginning to hype up the crowd!

To begin, you start the dive process. The announcer states “On Your Marks”. This is your queue to bend down in a diving position. The camera then zooms in to build some anticipation. You wait for the gun and then stand up with your arms out on an angle. Amazingly, Kinect detects the angle you arms are at and you want this at the optimum angle, I believe it’s 2-6 degrees from all the angles I did. Too high and you dive high and far, but because you are in the air so long, you fall behind right away. Too low and you just plop in the water way behind everyone else. I also tried to time this particular event. It is random every time and it’s really difficult to jump on the exact gun sound. I had my best reaction time of .4 seconds which was really difficult. On a side note, in season one you are introduced to your first Trial. This particular trial has you do a scoring test with diving. You dive 4 times and try to reach a score based on your reaction time and angle, these trials are just like specific bonus levels.

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Getting ready to dive...

After you dive, you now begin to swim. Yes I thought the same thing, swimming in air is silly, but the process they created makes it enjoyable and I’m wondering if you really swim like the game instructs you, would feel the same with water as resistance? In real life, I have only swam for fun, never competitive so unfortunately I don’t know what its like to be sore from swimming and I couldn’t compare. Anyhow, your first swim is the front crawl stroke. This is done by alternating arms in a forward stroke motion. Seems simple, however Blitz added a little flair to it. There is a beep sensor that beeps when you should be alternating. This is to keep you in rhythm with the strokes. There is a bar with an arrow over it and you have a too slow zone, perfect and a too fast zone. Going too slow will just make you lose. Going to fast eats up your stamina really fast and then you will end up losing the race. The objective is to try to stay in-sync and keep your perfect meter going. You will burn stamina but not as fast. You can even fine tune the perfect zone as being more to the right/top of it, will help you swim a tad faster. Every perfect you receive with each beep, helps increase your “Push The Limit” bar. This can be maxed out to 100%.

If you are in a 100 meter race, you will then have a turn come up. In Season 1, turning is completed automatically. After you turn and start to head back, you have to get back in your swing and match the swim strokes again. You will see the Push The Limit zone coming up then. Once in this zone, you have to swim like a bat out of hell, yet stay in rhythm, I tried flailing my arms and noticed it actually slows you down. Depending on how much you filled up your Push The Limit meter, will determine how fast you make it through the zone. Once you are near the end of this zone, you will come to the Hands Down zone. I waited until the last-minute, drop my hands and then you have immediately have to reach. You can reach out towards Kinect or up, reaching towards Kinect doesn’t work 100% of the time but reaching up does. This gives you a slight advantage to win the race.

After the race you are told, in the water, your placement. You can only continue if you place 1st, 2nd or 3rd. If you fail, you have to restart the race. After you complete the race, you are then presented to your player skill screen. The skills that you can upgrade are speed, stamina, dive, turn and finish. Each skill have 5 points before going to the next level. Unfortunately I did not max out any particular skills, I had my player up to level 8 which took forever but I believe the limit is 10 but I may be wrong. The most skill points you can achieve in any given race is a total of 4. I thought placing 1st would get you the most, however this is not the case. You have to perform your dive good, the push the limit zone, your hands down and your reach. This gives you the 4 points and you have to place 1st. Placing 2nd I believe you can only get 3 maximum but I didn’t test it out as I wasn’t trying to lose. The other note I’d like to mention, as you upgrade your skills, the AI does as well, kind of small feature, but makes it challenging. The final verdict all relies on your real physical stamina. If you can last long, then you can keep winning.

Season 1 is also your beginner difficulty, which they have labelled as Gold. There are 2 other seasons with increased difficulty, Season 2 is Platinum and Season 3 is Elite. Season 3 is challenging and you do need to have your character levelled up pretty far to compete at all without killing yourself physically. In Season 1, as I mentioned there are 13 events. 3 of the events are tutorials, 1 of the events is a trial and 1 other event is a challenge event. Challenge events are interesting in that they have you doing certain things during the match. The challenge I had, was to fill your push the limit bar to 100% using the breast stroke for the first time. Another challenge I ran into later on was to place 1st without using your boost.

After you have completed the season’s events, you can then continue on to the Annual Event. This is a once a year swim competition with the best swimmers. You will challenge Phelps and other known swimmers, it is tough. It’s setup like a championship race in Forza. You first have to qualify the race by placing 1st, 2nd or 3rd. Once you qualify you then do a final heat and the objective is to certainly win. The annual event allows you to win Gold/Silver/Bronze medals like the Olympics. There are 8 different events you can do. You will be introduced to events that you have no idea about as well which Season 2′s tutorials go over, but you don’t know about them yet so some of them are difficult as you don’t know how to play them. You only have to complete 1 event if you want, but you can complete all 8. The crappy thing is if you blow an event, you cannot restart that event without restarting all completed events. This means if you are on event 8, and you have placed 1st on the other 7 and you blow event 8, you can’t retry it. You have to reset all of the events and do them again. For those completionists, this will probably frustrate some. However, after each successful event you still get skill points to upgrade your player.

Some of the events you will be introduced are all 4 different strokes which consist of the front crawl stroke, the breast stroke, the butterfly and the back stroke. The back stroke is the biggest pain out of them all, I explain below. Some of the events introduce you to endurance mode as well which you will probably have no idea what to do either. What I recommend, if you seriously want to compete in everything and win, is play every single type of race in a quick match so you can get an idea of what to do.

Season 2 has 14 events, 2 more tutorials which talk about the endurance/sprint modes as well as the back stroke and the turn section, 3 challenges and 2 trials (1 trial is against Phelps, one on one). You will be introduced to the 50 meter sprints. This is just straight up swimming. You dive and swim from point A to point B with no boosts and no push the limits, you have to be careful not to use up all of your stamina. You are also introduced to a couple of other strokes in this one. The endurance mode, which is either 150 meter or 200 meter race, has you race normal until you turn. After the turn, it kind of turns into a mini-game. There are positive energy orbs (+ signs) and negative energy orbs (- signs). You have to use both hands and collect as much positive energy as possible to keep up with the push the limit meter, if you accidentally get negative energy, you bring your PTL meter down, resulting in slowing down. The last thing is turning. During a turn, its slowed down and a meter fills up. Your objective is to push towards Kinect pretending you are pushing off the wall when the meter is full. If successful, you will kick off the wall further and faster, pushing the meter low will make you slower. After you complete Season 2, you then proceed to the annual events again.

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The infamous turn

Season 3 has 17 events, 3 challenges and 3 trials are part of the 17 events, no tutorials in this one. It’s a mixture of all events, however the backstroke is more recognized in this one and its kind of pain, here’s why. You don’t dive like normal, you start in the water. You have to crouch down, arms straight out and wait for the gun. The gun can take 3-6 seconds, and you have to squat which if you aren’t fit, can be uncomfortable. Once the gun goes, you have to angle differently because of being backwards. You then have to stroke backwards, I tried stroking forward to see if it was smart, unfortunately it is. You stroke in a rhythm like the front stroke.

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The dreaded backstroke

The career mode basically covers the entire game, but it is quite in-depth for being a Kinect title. If the career mode isn’t enough for you, it does have multiplayer as well. Also another sidenote, there are 7 arenas to choose from in case anyone was wondering.

Multiplayer

Multiplayer consists of a few different modes. First, you have split screen 2 player. This is just straight up racing between 2 simultaneous players, however you can customize all of your options as type of race, length, strokes, arena, etc.

If you want to compete with some people online, there is this option. I attempted to find someone but at this moment, no one is playing this game online so I can’t tell you if there is lag or what, I was really curious to try it out though. There are online leaderboards as well so it could become a competitive title.

Lastly, there’s a party mode. I had no idea what this was until I went into it. It is an 8 player relay race, two teams of 4. It’s actually cool and fast paced. You take turns swimming against an AI team in a relay. The relay can be switched up so one person can do one stroke, the second player can do a different stroke, I found the mode very interesting and could become quite competitive between friends or family members.

The last mode in the game is Quickplay which allows you to set up any type of race. Again, I suggest this mode if you want to fully compete in the Annual games. Also at any point, you can also reset your career stats if you become bored and want to try again.

Conclusion

I think Blitz did a good job on this game. From the trailers and screenshots, it doesn’t look like a very good game, but once you start to play you’ll realize that it’s an interesting title.  It also is the only Kinect title in the sports genre that completely focuses on your upper body, workout games do, but they alternate. And, Kinect Sports has a bowling mini-game that just uses your arms, but this one is completely different, but a good different. I also noticed it was tiring the first day, but after that it wasn’t too bad. It’s not a super active game but it is arm intensive, there is even a warning about arm activity, heed this warning well!

Lastly, even though there is a career mode, it is only 3 seasons long. Unfortunately, this hurts the replay value. The other caveat that I didn’t think was fair is the achievements are quite – even too – simple to get. If you like achievements, this one is an easy 1000 gamer points. If you want to try this game, I would suggest waiting until the price drops slightly. If you need a new Kinect game and like swimming, then this should be your first choice. It surprised me, in a good way.


This review is based on a retail copy of the Xbox 360 version of Michael Phelps Push The Limit
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