Review: Michael Phelps: Push the Limit

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Microsoft’s Kinect peripheral, much like the late Jim McKay, has spanned the globe, giving us the constant variety of (motion-controlled) sports. We’ve thrilled to hands-free video game approximations of all the majors and also gone extreme, rocking everything from jungle parkour to hang-gliding. One of the few places we haven’t been yet is into the chlorinated depths of the swimming pool. Enter everyone’s favorite U.S. Olympic bong-hitter swimmer to show us how it’s done.

Or not done, as the case may be. Michael Phelps: Push the Limit purports to give us the sense of what it’s like to swim laps in a speedo and a six-pack with the most elite swimmers in the world. The actual result is closer to rhythm-based repetition, with an appeal that water-logs after a couple hundred meters.

You can opt to race as Phelps (or a host of other swimming stars) in a quickplay race, flap your arms against a friend, or create your own budding swimmer in the game’s career mode. Even though the races come in four stroke varieties (forward crawl, breast, butterfly or backstroke) the short and mid-range meets play out the same. Longer races are broken up with a mini-game that has you trying to earn speed boost by hitting or avoiding on-screen icons with your hands. Hey, just like a real swim meet!

Races that find you starting from the pool deck block—i.e. everything except backstroke–begin with the opportunity to gain a little extra stamina boost by raising and pumping your fists in the air to incite the invisible crowd. This is silly and stupid on several levels—setting aside the fact that no serious competitive athlete would waste that kind of energy right before a race, it’s literally impossible not to gain the “hundred percent” boost that actually only translates to an extra ten percent stamina. And besides, if it actually made a difference in your race performance, wouldn’t every swimmer be trying to play to the crowd? And wouldn’t that look totally ridiculous and dorky?

When the gun goes off, you can score another advantage if you can quickly shift from a crouching position to standing up with your arms extended straight out in front of you at just the right angle. And then it’s time to stroke it.

Rhythm and stamina are the keys to competing, no matter which distance or event you choose. If you can match the movement of your strokes to the timing set by a meter that beeps at you from the bottom of the screen, you can both maintain a reasonable level of stamina and build up an additional boost you can use in what the game calls the “push the limit zone”—i.e. the last 25 meters of the race. If you screw up at any point during the race’s early legs, or miss the timing of the push turn, you may as well bust into a belly float and get ready to restart. Unless you’ve managed to build up a 100 percent boost, making up or maintaining ground on the final stretch is about as common as the Jamaicans winning gold in the 500 meter backstroke.

And here’s where the chlorinated water begins to shoot straight up our noses. The supposed appeal of a game like this is to give those of us who aren’t Olympic-level swimmers the feel of what it might be like to be one. But the meter-based system is fairly strict on your swim form—in other words, simple arm flapping/dog paddling isn’t going to cut it. This gives an advantage to players who are already comfortable rocking a textbook butterfly stroke, which means the game plays more like a swim-training simulator than an exercise casual gamers might enjoy. And it’s hard to imagine that any serious swimmer is likely to opt for 360 time over laps in an actual pool.

Those who want to dive deeper can mess around with the RPG elements introduced in the career mode, which finds you trying to win individual races over the course of three seasons, angling to qualify for “The Annual Games”—where is that Olympic or USA Swimming license when you need it?–to win medals and extra upgrade points to spend on stats like speed and diving. (Phelps’s um, vocal talents appear in the intro to the career mode. His semi-bored monotone suggests a post-competition sportscasting career may be a longer shot than repeating Olympic gold).

Navigating the menus in Push the Limit is also unexpectedly clunky, in part because the icons are so large and stacked close together. Creating your swimmer in the game’s career mode is especially challenging, trying to sneak your on-screen icon around a ton of different categories and sliders.

With nothing but races to rock, the depth of gameplay options here are, if you’ll forgive the obvious pun, awfully shallow. Which suggests that Push the Limit might have been better suited as part of a larger package that included other Olympic sports and star athletes. There’s a reason the number of sport collections for Kinect (Kinect Sports, MotionSports Adrenaline, etc.) tend to outnumber—and outperform–the games devoted to singular sports.

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Pros:
+ Water effects haven’t looked this good since Hydrophobia
+ Tutorials do a good job or orienting swimming noobs to the pool rules
+ It’s the only virtual swimming experience on Kinect

Cons:
– Racing up and down the pool quickly becomes a shallow experience
– Unrealistic touches (hyping the crowd, slapping icons in the middle of a distance race)
– Even with Phelps, lack of a license makes this a bland experience
– Cluttered menus make Kinect navigation frustrating

Game Info:
Platform: Xbox 360 Kinect
Publisher: 505 Games
Developer: Blitz Games
Release Date: 10/11/2011
Genre: Sports — Swimming
ESRB Rating: Everyone
Players: 1-2
Source: Review copy provided by publisher

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About the Author

Aaron R. Conklin has been writing about games and games culture for more than 15 years. A former contributor to Computer Games Magazine and Massive Magazine, his writing has appeared on IGN.com and in newspapers and alt-weeklies across the country. Conklin's an unapologetic Minnesota sports fan living in Madison, Wisconsin, home of the Midwest's most underrated gaming vibe.