Nike + Kinect Training: sore calves and a sweaty head

I woke up this morning with extremely sore calf muscles. How sore? The sore that travels up and down your muscles when you walk around.

I blame former American NFL player Alex Molden for those sore calves. Well, not him personally, I’ve never met the guy, but his virtual self in Nike + Kinect Training, the fitness program for Microsoft’s Kinect motion sensor that will get me athlete fit apparently. I think it was the fitness assessment he put me through that bought about those tight calves (and, perhaps, pushing a big gear on the big when I really shouldn’t have been). He was so nice about it the whole time, too.

Disclaimer: These are not my calves. Actually, I don’t think I’d want calves that big.

Nike + is quite a scientific piece of software, unlike other console-based fitness programs  I’ve tried in the past where you might have to wear pick ups on your arms or the exercises were just a little tame: Nike + Kinect Training is based on some serious scientific principles and will push you to your limits (hence the sore calves). By the end of the assessment phase, sweat was dripping off me and my wife thought I’d been soaked with a hose.

That’s console Alex on the left and if it was a screen capture of my workout, that would be me on the right.

The second day (today) was a strength-based workout and it was 30 hard minutes – then at the end of it console Alex asked me if I wanted to do another 15 minutes or try out some challenges so I could brag to my friends! I politely declined: my body had been through enough, what will all the lunges, squats, star jumps, core training exercises, bunny hops, virtual hurdle jumping  and other strength-based moves I’d put my 40+ something body through. Again, the sweat was pouring off me.

I’m impressed with how well Kinect is tracking my body movments, too,  as I’ve been quite critical of Kinect in the past. The voice commands work really well here, too: understanding my Kiwi accent flawlessly most of the time. Sometimes I had an on-screen message pop-up saying “Move back” but sometimes I just couldn’t: I’d moved the furniture as far back as it would go, and a handful of times the Kinect though my jiggling right arm was a signal to pause the game, so it did – mid-session. I just yelled at it to resume session and it did.

Most exercises are 30 seconds in duration, meaning you have to do as many of that exercise as you can in the time limit, or are in reps of 15, and the intensity is high enough to keep you motivated. I also liked how console Alex was able to “notice” that my positioning wasn’t quite right and he’d ask me to correct it – then tell me “Nicely corrected” when I’d done so. Kinect games have come a long way since simple party games like Kinect Sports.

I’m playing golf this afternoon so I’m hoping today’s strength exercising this morning will help in my driving. It’s unlikely, I suspect: I’ll still suck.

PlayStation Plus: a service worth emulating?

A press release this morning announcing that free downloadable copies of Batman Arkham CityLimbo and Vanquish will be available to PlayStation Plus subscribers from December 5 is another compelling argument for PlayStation 3 owners to sign up.

It’s also a strong stance that Sony sees the PlayStation brand as a games player first and foremost. And with the PlayStation Plus service now available to PS Vita owners (who will be able to download Mortal Kombat and Kyhtt Underground for their handheld device from mid-December), Sony is sending a signal to its rivals that it values its user base.

A PlayStation Plus subscription will cost $89.95 for a year (or $24.95 for a 90-day subscription), which gives PS3 owners access to a library of 14 free games, and as many as five new games a month.

Last month, I downloaded Just Cause 2 to add to my instant game collection, and other games that have been offered in the past few months have included Borderlands, Bulletstorm and Resident Evil Gold Collection. Add in 1Gb of cloud storage for both PS3 and Vita, and PlayStation Plus seems like a damn good deal for PlayStation 3 owners, given that a single AAA titles cost more than a yearly subscription.

If there is any catch to PlayStation Plus it’s that the games only remain in your collection for as long as you’re a member of the service and once a game has gone from the service, it’s gone. If you stop subscribing you won’t be able to play those games anymore (but re-join at a later date and they become replayable). If you’re a died-in-wool PlayStation owner, thought, it seems remarkable value.

Dave Hine, the head of PlayStation in New Zealand, told me earlier this year that Sony saw PlayStation Plus as giving gamers ”an opportunity to get an invaluable amount of value in the instant game collection” and that for the $90 annual subscription fee, PS3 owners got 30 times the value of their membership cost if they took advantage of the game collection scheme.

Frankly, a PlayStation Plus-style service is the sort of thing Microsoft needs to look at offering its Xbox 360 owners, especially Gold members who pay around $80 for a yearly subscription. The main benefit for Xbox Live Gold subscribers over their Silver membership counterparts is that they can play games online: Silver members can’t do that.

I have a Gold Xbox Live subscription but to be honest, I don’t do a great deal of online gaming so pretty much it’s $80 wasted, but if Microsoft offered free game downloads for that price and for the duration of my subscription, it would become a more attractive proposition for me. It would prove an incentive for me to remain a Gold member.

So, who else has tried out Sony’s PlayStation Plus service and what are your thoughts? Would you be keen to see other hardware makers, such as Microsoft, offer a similar type service for their hardware?

Quick review: Little Big Planet Karting

Little Big Planet Karting
From: Sony
For: PlayStation 3
Classification: G
Score: ***

Sack boy, that hessian-covered floppy toy, has become something of a bone fide superstar for Sony. He’s a real celebrity in the world of virtual game characters.

He’s bounced through worlds of jelly and magical puppets and ridden through spooky tunnels in a mine cart: now he can add kart racer to his resume as an activity he’s tried when he eventually retires from adventuring and settles down for the quiet life.

LBP Karting feels like a Little Big Planet game, with the soothing voice of Stephen Fry gently offering advice as the narrator and tracks that have a painterly feel to them, adorned with whimsical monuments to silliness like wrapped presents and spinning wheels. This is unmistakeably a Little Big Planet game.

The premis is simple, though: race your kart around the track to victory, using a variety of jumps and short cuts to cross the finish line first.  The story involves Sack boy having to rid Craftworld of the Hoard threat.

As with all kart racing games, you’ll start in last place on the grid and have to race your way to the finish but the racing can become frustrating at times as the computer-controlled opponents are incredibly aggressive, especially when they pick up offensive weapons (driving over a weapon will enable it).  I lost count how many times an unavoidable missile slammed into my Sack boy from an unseen foe behind me, with no way to avoid it,  forcing a re-spawn a few seconds later – only to be shortly followed a few minutes later by another missile.

Also like all racing games, learning to drift around corners is a must so you learn early on the need to master being able to slide around corners: do it for long enough and it’ll give you a speed boost.

The co-operative play is fun, but then any game that lets you beat a family member who is sitting right next to you is always fun and as in the other games featuring Sack boy there are prizes to pick up. There’s also a track level editor which, like the other level editors in other LBP games, is intuitive and masses of fun.

After a while, though, the racing starts to feel a little familiar and then it clicked: the developer behind the Little Big Planet Karting is United Front Games, the studio that made that other PS3 racer that features weapons and jump pads to speed you to the finish Mod Nation Racers. The two games share a genetic link.

LBP Karting is a solid kart racing game but with Mod Nation Racers having come before it, it almost seems like a repetition of that game but set in the Little Big Planet universe. It’s solid without being remarkable.

I tested out LBP Karting using both the standard controller and Sony’s Move steering wheel, a T-shaped peripheral with a slot that you plug Sony’s Move motion controller into.

Unlike a normal racing steering wheel, the Move wheel isn’t circular but has a handgrip either side but the right one twists – perhaps it can be used in motorcycle racing games as a switch beside each grips lets it be swung up, almost taking on a handlebar-like appearance.

Above the left-hand grip is the familiar Sony controller D-pad, above the right grip is the face buttons (circle, cross, square, triangle. It also has two triggers and two bumper buttons as well as a start and select button. There are also paddles for any racing games that call for manual gear changes. I used the Move steering wheel in several co-operative races in LBP Karting and it works but it was almost too sensitive: the slightest touch in either direction would send Sack boy and his kart careering off in the desired direction.

Halo 4: a new more human Master Chief

I’ve approached this review of Halo 4 differently from other reviews.  I could have done the traditional “gameplay, graphic, sound, MP” review but I didn’t want to. I didn’t want to tread the tried-and-true. Halo 4 is about the relationship between Cortana and Master Chief and I wanted to get that across. Read it and let me know if I’ve succeeded or whether you think I should have just done a traditional review. Oh, I have touched upon Halo 4’s Spartan Ops content or multiplayer: I haven’t had time to look at those yet.

Also, I’ve done my best to avoid spoilers – I think I’ve succeeded. Apologies if I haven’t.

At it’s very heart, Halo 4 is a kind of  love story.

Not a love story where boy meets girl, they date for a bit then elope off together, ladder in hand, but one where the boy is a hardened soldier, who does what he is told without question and can wield a DMR rifle  like no other, and the other is an artificial construct, who acts like a mother, a sister and a confidant to the boy. They share an inseparable bond, the sort of bond that could only be formed when you’ve experience what the boy – Master Chief  – and Cortana – the girl – have experienced.

They’ll do anything for each other and Halo 4 is about Master Chief and Cortana and the bond they share.

At the end of Halo 4, there’s a message from 343 Industries, the fledgling studio embarking on the new Halo trilogy, just before the credits roll. It opens: “Every great journey begins with a small step. This is our beginning”. And what a great first step this game is, even if it feels a little familiar at times.  That said, Halo 4 feels like a Halo game should, plays like a Halo game should but 343 have infused it with a little of their own DNA.

There was no doubt that 343 had a lot of pressure to deliver a great Halo experience, especially after the phenomenal job former custodian Bungie did. For me, though, this is the best Halo game yet: better than Halo 2, better than Halo 3. This is the only Halo game where I really connected with the Master Chief and  Cortana.

Set  four years after the Halo event, the game’s opening salvo begins with the Master Chief being woken from five years of cryo-sleep by Cortana.  The UNSC ship they’re on is under attack from a rogue group of Covenant  who have abandoned the peace treaty between their race and the Covenant. Halo 4 is also a game about a new enemy, the Prometheans. Right off the bat, Halo 4 is visually stunning game with a level of richness and detail in the environments I’ve not seen in the series before.

Embedded all through the game, though, is the relationship between Master Chief and Cortana. She’s old now: most constructs only last seven years service but she’s into her eighth year. “I won’t recover from rampancy [an AI form of Alzheimer’s],” Cortana tells the Master Chief as her behaviour gets more and more erratic. Master Chief suggests a solution:  “Don’t make a girl a promise you can’t keep” she replies. It helps that Cortana is voiced, again, amazingly, believably, by actress Jen Taylor. She is the star of this show.

This time, too, Master Chief seems to be coming to grips with his human side and prepared to make his own decisions, rather than do what his superiors tell him.  Halo 4 lets us in, just a little, into the psyche of battle-weary Master Chief who, up until now has suppressed his human side. He’s now reflecting on his humanity. I connected with Halo 4 unlike any game in the series before it.

I keep going on about the relationship between the Master Chief and Cortana but for me that’s the focal point of Halo 4. Yes, there are enemies to kills – and the combat is very good – and objectives to complete, but at times I thought that 343 was playing it just a little safe in terms of game play: sometimes when I entered a complex I just had a feeling that I’d have to push three buttons  and they’d be lots of enemies between me and my objective, and generally I was right. Maybe they will take more risks with the other two games in the series.

To me, the dominant thread throughout the game  is the relationship between soldier and AI: where it has got to after 10 years together. In one poignant moment, as Cortana stares out at an artificial sun, fighting to keep her rampancy under control, she says to Master Chief: “Before this is all over, promise you’ll figure out which one of us is the machine.” It was a moment that struck a chord with me.

But at the risk of being accused of glossing over the other aspects of the game, I should get down to game play specifics, I guess. You’ll see that I haven’t addressed the game’s many multi-player modes or the episodic Spartan Ops content. I just haven’t had the time to even look at those yet. I’ll do those soon.  I promise.

The Covenant Elites seem smarter this time around, more agile – or perhaps it’s that my reflexes aren’t what they used to be – and when it comes to confrontation with large foes, like Hunters, I’m more likely to take the cowards route and stand back from a safe vantage point and bombard them with explosive weapons than take them head on. Don’t judge me for it.

As you’d expect, there’s vehicular combat: flying a pelican is great fun as is the mantis, a bipedal mech armed with rockets and a gattling gun. You can also drive a Scorpion tank sometimes, if you want: I used one as much and as often as I could. It saved Master Chief getting tired from walking too much.

And not only is there a new development studio but also a new composer behind the soundtrack, British producer/musician/composer Neil Davidge. For me, though, apart from one tracks, Arrival,  Davidge’s work  just doesn’t match the lofty compositions of Marty O’Donnell, the American composer who created Halo’s memorable soundtrack. The audio, too, must be mentioned: weapons sound meaty, vocal work is done superbly and things just sound wonderful.

At the end, though, I keep coming back to the relationship between Cortana and Master Chief. That’s Halo 4 crowning glory. Sure, the game play is solid and the visuals rich, but the story of Cortana and Master Chief is the meat here. And I liked that.