Couch-to-5K Zombie Trainer App

A while back I gave my favorable impressions on an amazing little app that actually makes running fun.  Zombies, Run! is a free or subscription-based app that attempts to apply the concepts of gamification to encourage people to run.  Something most of us aren’t very inclined to do without sufficient motivation.  Like running away from dogs or chasing the bus.  You can read my article on it for the full details, but in short it makes the listener the PC & your body is the controller.  You walk, jog or run your way through the story missions, gaining rewards to help build up your in-game town, & occasionally get chased by virtual zombies.  It’s a lot of fun, has made me look forward to getting up at 6 AM to go running before work, & is so far the only app I’ve ever paid for.

However, one day I was scrolling through the various game modes when I noticed there were training missions for 10K & 13K, but no 5K.  I found this odd, as most people start their marathon training with 5K’s, as they’re the shortest marathon distance (that’s a little over 3 miles for those who prefer non-metric).  But after digging around on the apps Wiki page — because of course there’s a Wiki page — I discovered that there is a 5K training app.  Unfortunately, this is a separate app, & is paid only.

But, wishing to improve my overall performance during my runs, as improving my stamina is one of my main fitness goals at the moment, I decided to try to program out.  I completed the 8-week training program yesterday, & wanted to give my thoughts on the program.

For those unfamiliar with the term, a “couch-to-5K” app is one that operates on the assumption that the person starting it hasn’t been physically active.  Hence the couch part of the name.  These types of apps aren’t so much intended for dedicated fitness buffs, but for beginners who want a structured plan to start, or intermediates looking to improve their form.


The Good.  The Zombies, Run! 5K Training app’s storyline is completely separate from that of the main game, with the exception of the first mission when you arrive at Abel Township.  All missions after that take place canonically between the first & second missions in the main app.  The training has its own storyline, & introduces characters that I haven’t directly heard from in the main game (although I paused after Mission 9 of Season 1 to focus on the training app).  The main theme is that, being new to the town, you have to undergo training before you can be sent on Runner missions, which makes sense.  I found each mission interesting, & enjoyed spending more time with the voices on the other end of my headphones.

The missions are very structured.  The program is eight weeks, with three sessions per week.  Aside from the initial and the last week of missions, each week is a repeat workout that gradually increases in intensity.  One major plus for the app is that it instructs you on what to do during each interval.  For example, the first real training mission starts with ten minutes of walking, then alternating between one-minute walk/fifteen-second run intervals, & it instructs you when to change.  I saw some people complaining in reviews that the app never told them when to run, but they clearly hadn’t used it past the opening mission, which is unstructured.

I also felt the intensity increased at an appropriate pace.  For the most part, you’re the one who decides what constitutes a brisk walk or a slow run.  The amount of running increased realistically, & by the end I do feel that my endurance has improved.  It never felt like too much, & the sessions off plenty of times to catch your breath.

The biggest endorsement I can give is that I do feel my endurance & form improved over the eight weeks.  I actually had to increase the distance of my walks to make up for my improved speed.  So if you stick with it & push yourself just enough to feel the burn, I think you’ll get good use out of it.


The Bad.  Unfortunately, the progress you make in the 5K training app doesn’t carry over to the main app.  So you won’t be collecting supplies or building up your base.  I found this to be a bit of a bummer, but not a deal-breaker.

Also unlike the main app, you can’t use an external media source (like Pandora or Spotify).  You can only use an internal media source.  Whether that’s a problem or not depends on what device you’re using.  Personally, I didn’t have a problem with this, as I just loaded podcasts on my phone.  And I saw some people post they simply ran their preferred external media program at the same time.  However, something I did have an issue with music-wise was that the app doesn’t pause the media like in the main one.  In the main Zombies, Run! app, whenever there’s a story bit coming up, it’ll pause whatever you’re listening to, & then goes back to wherever you were.  The 5K, however, simply lowers the volume while the voices talk.  This isn’t so much a problem if you listen to music, but if you’re like me & listen to podcasts, it’s annoying.  I ended up missing chunks of the program.

There might also be an issue with GPS tracking.  I’ve seen some reviews stating it didn’t work for them, but I only had a problem with it once or twice in the very beginning.  After that, even on cloudy days, it worked fine for me.  But you can change the settings from GPS to accelerometer tracking to measure your distance.  Or you can just know the distance of where you run.

And, as I said in the beginning, this isn’t a free app like the bulk of the main app.


The Verdict.  I personally felt the $1.99 I spent on the Zombies, Run! 5K Training app was well worth it.  My overall performance has improved since beginning, & I feel it’s a great app for beginners who want to work on being more active, but either lack confidence or motivation, or want a very structured program.  I also feel it’s structured program would be beneficial to intermediate runners who are in relatively good shape but want to push themselves to improve.  I’m not sure I can recommend it for expert runners unless they just really like the concept & story — which admittedly is very enjoyable.  It has a few downsides, & overall doesn’t feel as polished a product as the main Zombies, Run! app, but the narrative production value is spot on.

My personal recommendation would be to try out a few missions in the free Zombies, Run! app &, if you feel like your performance isn’t what you’d like or you keep getting caught in those zombie chases, try the trainer app.  But the story is completely self-contained, so no Runner 5’s will be missing out on anything of vital importance if they choose to ignore the trainer.

For those interested, the app is available on iOS & Google Play.

– GamerDame

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Game Review: Condemned Criminal Origins

Having worked in emergency services in the past, I find it endlessly amusing how the media portrays forensics.  While I’m sure employees in actual forensics labs in major metropolitan areas have access to better resources & technology than a 911 dispatcher in a medium-sized county, I can tell you that nothing is as instantaneous as what’s shown in movies, TV shows & games.  I’ve run & entered plenty of articles in NCIC (the federal government’s National Crime Information Center) & even simple searches like pulling up warrants on a person can take a while to go through.  I can’t even imagine how long it would take for a computer to run an analysis on something as complex as DNA or fingerprints & sort through all the records on file.  So it cracks me up when games like Condemned: Criminal Origins have futuristic gadgets that can take high-res photos of fingerprints & measure the chemical composition of blood without so much as a sample.  UV light does not work that way.

Condemned_Criminal_Origins

In Condemned: Criminal Origins, we take the role of FBI detective Ethan Thomas, who specializes in tracking down serial killers in a city run rampant with crime.  After responding to a call from an officer on duty to investigate a grisly crime scene, Ethan quickly finds himself on the wrong end of the bureau after an unknown assailant murders two officers with his gun.  Aided by his lab tech Rosa & a mysterious old man who seems to know more than he lets of, Ethan begins to hunt the killer down to clear his name.  However, while pursuing this “Serial Killer X”, he slowly begins to uncover that there’s more going on in the city, & these random acts of violence might not be so random.

Condemned is a first-person survival horror/action game, with equal emphasis on both features.  While traversing cramped & creepy locals, you’ll find plenty of weapons to arm yourself with to fight off the legions of crazed miscreants, ranging from rifles to 2×4’s.  The combat emphasizes blocking & dodging while waiting for an opportunity to knock your opponents out.  You’ll also come across portions where Ethan will have to use his forensics tools to help point him in the right direction.  The game will prompt players when this is necessary, & the tools can’t be used without a prompt.


Narrative: I can’t help but have mixed feelings for the game’s narrative.  On the one hand, the story is nicely self-contained, with a resolution to Ethan’s main goal while also leaving enough questions open for a sequel (which I’ll be starting soon).  But at the same time, I can’t help feeling that there’s not a lot of progression during the story.  It feels like a lot of nothing happens.  Okay, we’re chasing this mysterious killer, & there’s a clear reason why we go to each level.  But we don’t really learn much about what’s going on until the last few levels.  So I guess it’s a problem with pacing.  What’s presented is interesting, when it’s there, but it mostly felt like the developers came up with the creepy levels first then thought of a reason for Ethan to go there.

14615662939_77fc5a0a5d_oThe characters are average.  Ethan doesn’t bring anything new to the table, but I felt he reacted like a normal person would to the stuff going on around him.  The other characters don’t leave a lasting impact, though they serve their purposes well enough.  I did find myself intrigued about SKX, especially when the game reveals the motives behind his crimes, which is good for aiding the mystery of the game.  But as I stated before, they didn’t utilize it well.  When we actually meet him, he seems so interesting, but that’s the only time he talks to us.  This is one of the few times I think notes or audio logs would’ve been useful.  The game does show what he’s been doing, but it would’ve bolstered the story if we caught little snippets from his mind as we went.  And it may come up in the sequel, but it never answers why he’s chosen to do what he does.  He just went crazy & it’s related to the demon-things, & somehow Ethan’s part of it but didn’t know but the government did.

So overall, the mysteries presented are intriguing & have real potential, but I felt the strengths were underutilized.  The narrative is serviceable enough to push you forward, but not what it could be.Score: 3


Mechanics: There are primarily three main components to the gameplay: combat, forensics & atmosphere.  The combat in Condemned is often described as visceral, & I feel that’s very accurate.  Although you can come across guns in the game, ammo is extremely limited, so most often you’ll be resorting to melee weapons.  I loved the variety of weapons & how each had their own stats.  Weapons like the fire axe or sledgehammer are slow, but have long range & great stopping power, while something like a small pipe is faster & better at blocking.  My favorite weapons were the paper cutter & clothes rack.  Ethan also has a taser to stun enemies temporarily, allowing you to get in close to disarm enemies.  The first-person camera makes every encounter up close & personal, & you can feel every impact.  It’s jarring, & can be disorienting, but that just adds to the realism in my eyes.  My main complaints in this area are that Ethan moves so sluggishly.  If you taze an enemy, it takes forever to run up to them, & they might not be stunned by the time you get there.  I know it’s standard in a lot of games, but I’m not a fan of pushing down on the left analogue stick to sprint.  It feels awkward to me.  He’s also sluggish about switching from attacking to blocking, even with fast weapons, or switching from using the taser.

561262-condemned-criminal-origins-xbox-360-screenshot-game-switchesI felt that the forensics portions were laughable & poorly utilized, & not for the reasons in my intro.  The game always prompts you when to use the tools, & you can’t use them any other time.  They try to explain this by saying Ethan has a sixth sense for when evidence is nearby, which I’m fine with, but it doesn’t make for engaging gameplay.  It doesn’t help that the game automatically selects the right tool & tells you exactly where to use it at.  And then it tells you what the clues mean, almost treating me like an idiot.  Gee, all these faces are crossed out with black x’s, & they just happen to all be killers.  I wonder what that could mean?

The atmosphere is easily Condemned’s strongest aspect.  My god, can this game make me tense!  Even when there’s nothing going on, I’m just waiting for something to happen.  It’s one of those games that makes you paranoid.  You know something’s coming, & the longer it takes for something to happen, the more worried you get.  For me, the best moments were in Bert’s Department Store & in the library’s burnt archives.  In the department store, I made it my goal to kick every mannequin because I knew some were enemies.  But after clearing the floor, to hear a male voice whisper, “You’re gonna die,” right behind me, just to turn around & find nothing… There was also a moment I accidentally discovered after falling down a hole in the library, breaking my flashlight & waiting for Rosa to get down there.  With my back to the gate, watching the dark shelves, I paused to get a drink, expecting combat, when I saw my objective had changed to, “embrace… the.. truth.. join… us…”.  Then, after the game made me think something was going to happen but didn’t, I turn around to see the gate gone & Rosa standing behind me, but then she hits me!  Then everything goes back to normal like nothing happened.  I love when games mess with me, & it’s moments like that that make Condemned a great example of horror.

So overall, while the forensics were disappointing & I had some problems with the combat, the atmosphere & sheer visceral impact of the melee more than makes up for it.  Score: 4


Aesthetics: Hit & miss.  Obviously this is an older game, so not all of the graphics have held up well.  The character models suffer the most, being big & blocky, both in shape & in texture.  Although you can only really tell when the camera’s close up.  The environments look nice, in a suitably run-down kind of way, & there’s a nice variety of locals.  I also liked that the enemies have very different designs, & their designs reflect their condition in the world.

condemned-criminal-origins-pc-screenshot-www.ovagames.com-1The sound design is also nice in some areas but bad in others.  The ambient noises are spot on.  The music adds to the creepy atmosphere, & more than once my own footsteps through debris scared the crap out of me.  I liked that you can usually hear enemies before you see them, both adding to the atmosphere & letting you know to get ready to fight.  Some of the acting is okay.  Greg Grunberg does a decent job as Ethan’s voice, & for the most part sounds believable.  Peter Jacobs did a good crazy person’s voice as SKX (interestingly, he did several voices for the game that all sound different). But Rosa’s voice, Kimberli Colbourne, always sounded flat.  Funnily, in the closing scene when she writes to Ethan that she’d wired by says he can trust her, her “acting” doesn’t sound different from her usual voice.

Overall, great atmospheric composition, but average presentation everywhere else.  Score: 3


Replay Value: Average.  Although nothing changes in a second playing, aside from maybe changing Ethan’s choice of what to do with SKX in the very end (which doesn’t alter the ending), I can see people replaying this just to enjoy the experience again.  Some of the scares lose their impact, but the atmosphere remains just as tense.  Score: 3


Breakdown

Untitled

Final Score: 3

Final Word: Condemned: Criminal Origins has some excellent horror elements, but its age, meandering story, & poorly utilized forensics hold it back.  However, the nail-biting atmosphere & visceral combat make it a worthwhile experience for anyone who enjoys a good scare.

– GamerDame

Title: Condemned: Criminal Origins
Consoles: PC & 360
Rating: M
Developer: Monolith Productions
Publishers: Sega & Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment
Release Date: November 16, 2005

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Filed under 3, Horror, PC, Reviews, XBox 360