Your Shape: Fitness Evolved 2012
For: Xbox 360 (Kinect required)
ESRB Rating: Everyone (mild suggestive themes, violent references)
That hissing sound you hear? That’s your resolution to get in shape slowly seeping out of the room as the new year starts feeling familiar and the excitement of 2012′s first week gets pushed out of the way by life as usual. Gym memberships are expensive, finding time to go to the gym is a hassle, making a plan is hard, sticking to it harder. Seeing progress requires saintly patience, and on top of all that, exercise for exercise’s sake is often really boring.
Thank goodness for, of all things, video games — and particularly this one. After a year of good-but-not-great fitness games releasing for Microsoft’s Kinect, “Your Shape: Fitness Evolved 2012″ gets pretty much everything right en route to knocking every aforementioned excuse off the table.
The polish is immediately apparent, too. In addition to not being a complete pain to navigate using Kinect (voice control would have been nice, but it proves unnecessary), “Evolved’s” main menu very cleanly lays out a staggering array of workout programs, games, virtual classes and other tools. Inside each of those menus lies a large array of programs organized by intensity and the goals they help fulfill. The offerings — targeted strength training, yoga and dance classes, training programs for specific sports and numerous others — are terrifically comprehensive, and “Evolved’s” uncluttered and intuitive presentation of all these options is extraordinary.
“Evolved’s” My Zone section allows the game to build workout plans for you based on your needs and availability, but they aren’t binding: A game-wide stat tracker gauges your progress against your goals, and it does so regardless of which programs you engage or ignore. Additionally, most programs are on the short side, making it easy to jump around and diversify your workout as wildly and impulsively as you please.
Though “Evolved” can only do so much to make its straightforward workout programs fun, it at least does a good job of keeping hassles at bay. A trainer demonstrates each exercise as he or she calls them out, and while the game’s grading of your form isn’t always accurate, it’s close enough to keep you minding your form without growing needlessly frustrated doing so. Kinect calibration happens quickly and automatically, and “Evolved” works well regardless of lighting and whether you have a surplus of room or just enough.
The ability to jump between programs is additionally welcome in light of “Evolved’s” suite of games and special events, which provide a fun means of breaking up straight-faced workout routines. A block-punching game provides a physically intense way to unleash some aggression, while a rhythmic stepping game evokes the spirit of “DanceDanceRevolution” without the need for a dance mat. An amusing jogging game lets you run through VR recreations of storied cities, while a block-balancing game lets you employ your newfound yoga skills in pursuit of a high score.
“Evolved” provides multiple difficulty settings and a scoring system for each of these and its other games, but it offers the same courtesy to its traditional workouts as well. The periodic tendency to misread your form will dock your scores unfairly now and then, but past that inconvenience, the constant presence of scores to beat and other meters of progress — along with in-game badges and Xbox 360 achievements — allows “Evolved” to continually dangle and dish rewards beyond the simple promise of fitter days ahead.
Should you not wish to do it alone, “Evolved” also includes in-game tools — and a companion website, yourshapecenter.com — that let you stack your progress against that of your friends and the world at large. The games also support four-player multiplayer, though only offline.
Invizimals: Shadow Zone
For: Playstation Portable
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (comic mischief, fantasy violence)
Price: $40 (includes PSP camera accessory)
Augmented reality is neat, and Sony’s PSP camera accessory — an adjustable camera that pops into the top of the PSP and can be adjusted to be a front- or rear-facing camera — is pretty nice as well. “Invizimals: Shadow Zone” uses the latter to create a game based around the former, and as a demonstration of all that cool tech, it’s certainly a proof of concept.
Whether it amounts to more than that will come down to your interest in monster-collecting games and your patience with a story that has you watching the game as much as you play it.
“Zone” arrives a year after the original “Invizimals,” and most of the essentials remain the same. It’s a “Pokemon”-style game, and when you drill that story down to its bare bones, the object — collect Invizimals and pit them in battle against other Invizimals — is the same.
The difference, of course, comes with how you discover and track those Invizimals. Instead of exploring an expansive game world, you’re walking around your own world and panning the camera around until you spot an augmented-reality Invizimal frolicking around your furniture or other surroundings. (They favor bright colors, so if your surroundings lack any, it may be wise to correct that before hunting in vain.)
Upon spotting one, you have to lay down your trap card (bundled with the game), and once you do that, one of a handful of rather simple minigames commences. Complete that, and the Invizimal is yours to customize (name and color scheme), upgrade and employ in battle.
“Zone’s” fighting portion also differs from “Pokemon’s” in that it’s more real-time combat than not. Attacks are mapped to buttons instead of menus, but a need to recover stamina between moves lends an air of turn-based strategy to the fight.
Problem is, there isn’t much more to the fighting than the threadbare description implies. Because the Invizimals appear in augmented reality and in relation to the trap card, you can’t move them around the space with the analog stick. Outside of basic and strong attacks and a block button, there’s little nuance to the fighting, and that doesn’t change as you advance through “Zone’s” storyline.
Nor, for that matter, does the act of trapping Invizimals, which is neat until the tech’s novelty wears off. Though “Zone” offers incentive for those who absolutely must collect every single Invizimal for no other reason than sheer compulsion, it never builds on its mechanics in any substantial way, nor does it introduce new concepts as things progress.
That’s a problem when you spend as much time watching as you do playing.
“Zone,” like its predecessor, tells its story through first-person live-action cutscenes, and if you got into the first game’s story, you’ll be happy to know it delves even deeper into Invizimal mythology this time around.
If, however, you didn’t like that story, “Zone’s” incremental advancements over its predecessor are bound to disappoint. The AR tech works better this time around, but the game’s inability to take that tech and expand on it is hard to defend in light of how simple those mechanics are.
“Zone’s” competitive multiplayer portion (two players, local wireless or online) consists of a pretty straightforward versus mode and a tournament option, while a co-op mode (local only) allows two players to team up and complete select quests together. None of the modes eludes the aforementioned problems that bring down the story mode, but it’s still nice to have the option to put your custom Invizimals up against those of a friend.
For: Playstation 3 (via Playstation Network) and Xbox 360 (via Xbox Live Arcade)
From: EA Sports
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (comic mischief, mild language, mild suggestive themes, mild violence)
Though Midway’s “Blitz: The League” games were head-and-shoulders deeper than “NFL Blitz” ever was, the one thing it couldn’t provide — the NFL license — was the one players wanted the most. With both the franchise and license now in EA Sports’ hands, that no longer poses a problem. And while this “Blitz” lacks some elements — roster management, injuries, story-driven seasons and giggle-inducing illegal late hits — of those other games, the arcadey spirit of those original “NFL Blitz” games returns in immaculate condition. The old rules (seven on seven, 30-yard first downs, two-minute quarters and no penalties) still apply, and a game of “Blitz” plays so fast and loose with football conventions that you need not even like football to get a kick out of this. Also per usual, it’s a game best enjoyed with others (four players, online or offline). In addition to basic pick-up games, the new “Blitz” includes some clever and surprisingly deep modes for collecting star players, assembling dream teams and pitting those teams against other players’ rosters. For solo players, “Blitz’s” A.I. offers a good (if not always situationally sharp) challenge. And while it isn’t as robust as the multiplayer modes, the Gauntlet Mode — a ladder-style season complete with “boss fights” against teams of fantastical characters — is fun in its own right (especially when you beat those mascots and recruit them to your team).