Active Life: Extreme Challenge
The active side of Wii gaming, which focuses on body movement and not being a couch potato, is easily the fastest-expanding genre on the console, appealing to casual gamers, non-gamers, kids and especially moms. Namco has embraced this area with titles like We Cheer, We Ski and especially the Active Life series, which kicked off with Outdoor Challenge in 2008. A collection of sports events, this new release focuses on the unfortunately-labeled "extreme" world of X-Games-style activities, including BMX, street luge and skateboarding, which you play mostly with the Active Life game mat (available in a bundle with the game, unless you already have one from the Outdoor Challenge.)
The game action comes in three flavors, including the Extreme Tournament, Challenge Mode and Free Play (which you can play either solo or with a friend.) Select a male or female avatar (once you complete the beginner course of the Extreme Tournament, you can use your Miis as well) and choose your course. In a nod to casual play, you can just jump into any event with Free Play, which is certainly handy for anyone who wants to sample the 15 events (though actually, it's more like nine, with variations on some of them.) But the main game here is the Extreme Tournament, which offers a small group of courses made up of a several events.
It's not that it's not enjoyable to play some of the events, with rock climbing and inline skating among the better options, but there's not much more to these games that beating the time or score you're up against, and then doing it again on the next level of (quickly increasing) difficulty. Admittedly, the neat Ghost Display option, which shows a ghost version of your previous performance on top of your current run, gives you something to strive against. But when playing with a friend, it's much more fun, as you get someone to compete with, and even against in places, as the speed rock climbing event lets you throw boulders at your opponent from above, and you get to play a mix of Simon and H-O-R-S-E in skateboarding freestyle.
The events vary dramatically, even inside themselves, as double dutch, street luge and rock climbing all require varying methods of play, while you can play several events a few different ways, like double dutch, where you can either simply keeping time with your jumps or follow Simon-like patterns on the mat. The Challenge Mode throws a bit of variety into the mix, offering different, more complex versions of the main events (like a much longer, more difficult street luge track.) These variations certainly extend the play, though in the end it's still just 15 modes of increasingly difficult activities, with the only goal being beating your previous score. As everything is defined for you, in terms of tracks and patterns, the only skill truly valued is physical precision. Unfortunately, unlike the dance and music games built around similarly accurate button pressing, there's no creative mimicry involved here, limiting the entertainment value.
That said, if you're looking for both a physical and mental challenge, this game offers them together, combining memory and reaction-based play with the need to move around in a rapid, yet controlled manner. Though at first, the game seems simple (for instance, in street luge, you can complete the race just five seconds off the record without touching the mat) tackling anything but the base level quickly shows that this is no push-over. And for younger players, who are obviously the target audience, the challenges are likely that much harder, and probably a touch more enjoyable. After all, while I quickly tired of playing street luge, my little girl loved leaning from side to side, guiding her avatar down the course, as the mat was more fitting for her than me.
There's no online play in this game.
I've never had much in the way of success when it comes to pad games, as the response from the controller has always been lacking, despite a mechanism that's as old as video games. Watching my daughter struggle with her Frogger mat, and having little luck with it myself, has been the usual experience with this genre, going back to the days of the Power Pad. For some reason, the way the Wii has delivered on immersive gameplay made me think that the old-school pads would be somehow improved on the console. Well, that didn't quite happen. While the mat is decently sized for a single adult or child, or even two kids playing multiplayer, the eight buttons (plus the +/- switches) just didn't offer the response needed. Frequently I'd be hitting a button (in street luge, you sit on the mat and hit the buttons on either side of you with your hands) and see nothing translated on-screen. There needs to be a forgiveness in such buttons, but here, if you don't hit it just right, you won't register. This was a problem in double dutch, as I'd jump, and end up off the mark, and lose. Requiring someone to jump up and down, in exactly the same spot, and land with accuracy isn't a recipe for fun. That I wear a size-12 shoe and still missed the sweet spot was particularly frustrating (even more so for my daughter and her dainty feet.) The +/- buttons were worse, as I'd pound them after several attempts to make them work with a tap of my foot.
There's some use of the Wii-mote and nunchuk as well, in games where you'd naturally hold something, like kite surfing, BMX and wakeboarding, but the rest of the time it's only there to navigate menus or annoy you, because if the controller goes to sleep, it interrupts your game. But you can't always hold it, because it gets in the way of games like rock climbing. And then, some games you can't have the nunchuk connected, or it hangs in the way as you hold the Wii-mote sideways. If this inconvenient implementation wasn't enough, the game doesn't always recognize your movements (side to side has traditionally been something of a problem.)
The biggest plus of the whole thing is playing rock climbing, as you kneel at the side of mat and hit the buttons with your hands. The memories of cheating at Track and Field with the Power Pad came rushing back.
The graphics for this game are fine for what it is, as the direction cues are easily read and there are no issues with slow-down in the frame rate. That's all that really matters, as you'll be far too busy to look at the settings much. But, if your eye does wander, the cel-shaded style of the game gives it a clean, attractive look, while the backgrounds mix a bright, colorful animated style with touches of intentionally pixelated elements that create a stylized world that prevents complaints of a lack of photorealism. This is not supposed to be real. That doesn't excuse the over-use of lens flares and blurring, but it does a good job of using the Wii's capabilities smartly. The main characters could certainly be smoother, as their black outlines are blocky.
The audio for this game isn't particularly inspiring, mixing forgettable background music with a handful of sound effects that, while appropriate, don't impress the way some recent Wii titles have with their creative use of the Wii-mote speaker and positioned sound. It's another let-down from a company that got it so right with We Ski a while back. The audio is actually the source of one of the most unfortunately memorable elements of the game, as the girl character's disturbing, off-putting cries of "No!" during street luge seem to fit better in one of those creepy Japanese rape games than an extreme sports title.
And in the End...
With the limited options in gameplay and meager incentives to encourage repeat visits to this virtual playground, it's hard to recommend this title for most gamers, but the general audience isn't the target here, a fact made obvious by the box art. For kids, there's a lot of challenging activity to be enjoyed, but once they do it a few times, if the controller issues don't sidetrack, there's a good chance boredom could kick in, and going outside to really jump rope looks like a good alternative. Perhaps that's just the master plan for a series called Active Life.