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UFC Trainer preview: Grappling with danger


THQ is, apparently, quite interested in making a big impact with its upcoming Kinect exercise game, UFC Trainer. In a large loft in New York City's Chelsea neighborhood a few weeks back, the publisher had nearly a dozen folks -- some from the game's developer, Heavy Iron Studios, some from THQ, some from the National Academy of Sports Medicine, and even one actual UFC fighter -- to show off the game. To be clear, that's about three times the number of people normally showing off a single game to the press. And during my demonstration, I was the only member of the press in attendance.

As if the battalion of representatives wasn't enough to convince me of THQ's dedication to UFC Trainer, I was told upfront that the game had been moved out of its intended Kinect launch timeframe in order to give the developers more time to make a better game. Moreover, UFC Trainer was pitched as "especially for men," being the first exercise game to offer "something new and fresh" with male gamers in mind. I was then introduced to a rep from the National Academy of Sports Medicine who assured me that his institution had "gotten its hands dirty" with the project and left a profound stamp. I was even told by UFC fighter Urijah Faber that, relative to the training he actually does, the game is "really realistic."

What I saw and played of UFC Trainer, however, left me unconvinced that most gamers should pick up the game for exercise -- let alone just male gamers -- and fully convinced that the few folks who do pick this up may actually end up hurting themselves.

Gallery: UFC Trainer (Kinect gameplay) | 6 Photos

Three professional trainers walk players through UFC Trainer -- Mark DellaGrotte, Greg Jackson, and Javier Mendez -- and each offers their own fighting style to compliment the workout routines. My experience consisted entirely of DellaGrotte trying his best to teach me a basic MMA workout in his chosen style, Muay Thai. And thankfully, despite showing very little in the way of actual competence at the actions I was being asked to perform, the game remained confident in me.

Despite woefully underdone punches and kicks performed without a thought in the world given to form, UFC Trainer consistently praised my lackluster performance. For a game so purportedly focused on training and exercise, Trainer did little in the way of teaching me about any of the fundamentals -- proper form, breathing, and stretching. Instead, I learned how to approximate my on-screen trainer's image.

Lead designer Troy Sheets noted -- somewhat worryingly -- when asked about said fundamentals, "Not only do we instruct proper form, but we're also covered with multiple injury warnings before and during workouts. As this is a product for the major consoles, our injury warnings have been reviewed by Microsoft, Nintendo, Sony and The National Academy of Sports Medicine." Sheets further explained that "All of the programs include complete full body warm-ups and cool downs as directed by NASM. Additionally, in our video segments and loading screen texts we reinforce the importance of proper workouts, including warming up, stretching before and after workouts, and proper hydration."

Unlike Dance Central, which allows for mistakes but highlights in red the part of your body that's doing something incorrectly, UFC Trainer simply allows mistakes without correction. It feels gesture-based in this respect. Whereas Dance Central did a good job of teaching gamers how to pull off dance moves, UFC Trainer seems to fail, asking little more than a reasonable facsimile of your trainer's actions.

Sheets confirmed the game's gesture-based movement to me, saying, "Our gesture-based recognition system tracks the skeleton of the user," though he couldn't get into specifics because, "the exact methods for determining success or failure of those gestures is protected under the Microsoft developer NDA." He further noted, "Our product isn't intended to be a perfect martial arts instructor, it's intended to help people get fit."

And, somewhat to his point, I believe the game shows promise with more experienced exercise buffs simply looking to supplement their at-home workout. Not only can the game's 70-ish exercises be customized into a personal workout routine, but a fitness test kicks off the game, helping to assure experienced folks that they're not wasting time. Admittedly, it may also just be fun to faux-fight your favorite UFC combatants in the game's "Hit the Mitts" mode -- if that's your kind of thing.

And I have no doubt that one could very well lose weight from playing UFC Trainer on a regular basis -- one of the demoers, in fact, told me had "lost 20 pounds and probably gained 10 in muscle" since development began -- but I'm also worried that folks playing it without any real exercise experience will end up hurting themselves. Without someone telling you, "Hey, you're overextending your arm and could pull a muscle in your back," what's to stop you from doing just that?

With a June release set in place and a six month delay already under the publisher's belt, I don't expect massive changes in UFC Trainer when it arrives in stores.

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