The title of the latest app to launch itself into the VR fitness space; Les Mills BodyCombat, put me in mind of classics like Daley Thompson’s Decathlon or, for an even more obscure reverence, Brian Jack’s Superstar Challenge but it turns out that the eponymous Mr Mills is actually the fitness world equivalent of Tom Clancy, in that his name appears all over the marketing but he never actually appears, partakes, or has any involvement in the delivery of the products that bear his name.
And with that marketing in mind, and before the review proper begins, I want to get something off my chest, and I’ll start by saying this: I’m not in good shape.
About two years ago, I was in pretty decent shape because I was making an effort to look good in my wedding photos. But 4 months of furlough followed by 20 months of working from my sofa has put me in the worst shape of my life, and I’m very keen to find an enjoyable way to put that right.
As with so many other health, wellbeing, and so-called body positivity products, the marketing materials for Les Mills exclusively feature healthy, skinny, beautiful people who probably don’t have a resting heart rate as high as 27bpm between them.
Please don’t mistake this for bitterness. I get that the imagery is supposed to be aspirational. Still, when every single person pictured on a poster, TV sting, or trailer for Les Mills BodyCombat (in all its various iterations) appear to have about 2% body fat and flawless skin, it doesn’t really endear the ‘Les Mills’ brand to those of us who don’t get up at 5 am for a quick triathlon before enjoying a breakfast of kale juice and onion powder. The people behind the Les Mills brand claim to champion “A Fitter Planet” yet seem to think this can be achieved by targeting their range of products at people who are already painfully fit.
All that notwithstanding, Les Mills BodyCombat is a fitness app that can be enjoyed by people of all health levels. Workouts range from 5 minutes to half an hour and come in one of three intensities. A total of 30 programmes come with this ‘one-time-purchase’ version of the product. Although a subscription model is, predictably, on the way, the publishers promise that this standalone version will always be available and will receive free updates.
You begin Les Mills BodyCombat by entering your personal details; your height, weight, age, etc. This is apparently so that the app can tailor recommendations and track targets. I, however, saw no real indication of how this might be working during my time with it.
With the admin out of the way, you are greeted first by the painfully enthusiastic Rachael, then the slightly less irritating Dan. Both instructors demonstrate the basic foot positions and boxing motions required to get you started with a lot of enthusiasm and personality. However, as a cynical Brit, I have a violently allergic reaction to being patronised. So getting told I’m “awesome” because I can tell left from right and throw a jab makes me break out in hives.
The basics of the app will come as no surprise to anyone who has played Beat Saber, Box VR, or even Ring Fit Adventure on the Nintendo Switch. You jab, hook and uppercut various targets as they scroll towards you. Barriers to squat under or lean away from are soon added to the mix, along with various other types of target designed to keep things interesting.
There are Sky Punches that let you unleash your inner Emilio Esteves and Battle Rope Punches that let you thrash out at the ground like a stroppy toddler. There’s even a tricky move that has you imagine grabbing someone you’re not very fond of by the ears and smashing their face into your kneecap. This is the only move in the experience that is ‘technically’ difficult; I couldn’t get a knee hit to register at all until I accidentally smacked a controller into my thigh. Even now, I continue to complete this move by kneeing the base of my hand (which is slightly less delicate than a Quest controller). Even though I’m unsure this is the correct technique, it works. When there’s a combo count and high score table in view the whole time, I don’t care that I’m getting the same workout, whether it registers or not, because I want to win!
These score and combo features are by no means unique to BodyCombat, but they are one of its biggest successes.
As you wait for your workout to load, six other torturees appear around Rach or Dan as they encourage you to stretch, shake it out, or otherwise prepare for the rigours ahead. These other players aren’t actually ‘live’. They aren’t enjoying the same class simultaneously, but the presentation does a good job of making it feel that way, and during play, their scores are updated as if they were playing along with you. The little beep that sounds when you drop down a place on the scoreboard genuinely serves to refocus your attention on maintaining a combo and hitting hard to get the maximum points. It’s a small touch, but it works well as motivation.
It’s audio queues like this that Les Mills BodyCombat does exceptionally well. You always know when you whiffed an uppercut, dropped a combo or bumped into a wall. Little things like this are hugely important in any experience, but when the tempo picks up, and the targets are coming thick and fast, it’s imperative that you don’t have to break focus to see what else is going on. Visual queues are well used too. The targets are a kind of conical drum shape, so it’s always clear how you need to punch them. I particularly like that you can see your shadow on the incoming walls, allowing you to accurately position your body to avoid it. The different effects used to illustrate how well a punch landed are also instantly recognisable and easy to interpret. There’s nothing particularly groundbreaking here, but the quality of the execution should be applauded.
Music obviously plays a big part in the experience, and it’s all fairly unremarkable but entirely appropriate high energy workout music. Would I prefer to have been sweating it up to The Clash? Of course, I would. Does that actually matter? I honestly don’t think so. With this type of activity, it’s more important that the accompanying music guide your tempo and rhythm, and the music in Les Mills does that very well.
Dan or Rachael, and usually both, in turns, guide you through each workout in a way that only seasoned fitness instructors can: With enthusiasm, knowledge, gusto, and not one iota of self-awareness. To their credit, for every time this is unintentionally hilarious, it’s twice as often genuinely helpful.
You are prepped for each new sequence before it arrives and always made aware of any stance changes. Dan, in particular, is very good at imparting tips on maintaining good form to get the best results.
The biggest problem with the instructors is their complete lack of interactivity or branching feedback. This is a shortcoming the Les Mills instructors have in common with those of the subscription-based Supernatural. The sessions themselves are entirely scripted, so they will continue to tell you how completely you’re ‘smashing it’ even if you stand stock still, miss every punch, and let every barrier smack you in the face.
Of course, if you do that, you won’t score well, and that’s when you will get a remark actually tailored to your performance – a ‘You’ll do better next time!’ or ‘So close!’
Like those in Supernatural, the fully-scripted instructions are a genuine frustration. Not only do they completely ruin immersion when you’re struggling, but, even more importantly, they don’t capture failure during initial tutorials – and after these have played out, they cannot be repeated. This has left me in the previously described ‘kneeing my hand’ situation when a more interactive lesson or the simple ability to review the tutorial might have helped me understand the correct method. I think it’s safe to assume that slowly giving yourself a dead leg isn’t the proper method.
The menus in Les Mills BodyCombat are another area that could use some fine-tuning. Each of the thirty sessions is available to play at any time. They’re subdivided into groups, and you select the workout you want within that group by moving left and right on the controller thumbstick. This all works fine. However, vertical movement is achieved with the usually reliable ‘grab’ technique of clicking and holding a trigger before moving up and down to scroll. Here the execution is flakey. There is a scroll bar on the right side, but it doesn’t appear to be interactive, so you’re left-clicking and pulling at various parts of the menu in the hope that it will ‘catch’, and you’ll be able to scroll to a different part of the menu.
Other interactions are minimal but functional and easy to use. Clicking a workout will show you its specific moves and advise how you did the last time you completed it. A progress panel details calories burned and where you stand on a self-defined workout goal for the week. There’s also a ‘Level’ here that seems tied to your total score, but it’s not really made clear what this is for or if it has any impact outside comparing yourself to other users.
Frustratingly, there is no ‘recently played’ section. With every workout having a similar, cliched title, this is a sorely missed feature. You can, however, favourite a workout to make it easier to find, and this is very welcome.
The amount of value you will get from this ‘one-time-purchase’ version of Les Mills BodyCombat will greatly depend on how often you feel the need to change up your workout and your tolerance for the same music and instructor’s patter each time you play. The latter is an issue for me, and I would welcome the option to shut them up once I had the hang of a workout I enjoyed and wanted to repeat often.
In terms of content alone, there’s no doubt that you’ll get more for your $30 here than you would for the equivalent value of in-the-flesh BodyCombat classes or Gym membership. The ‘gamification’ of this concept is definitely more engaging than a Youtube video could ever hope to be.
During a session, when things are going well, and you’re in the moment (our friend Dan calls it ‘The Flow’), Les Mills BodyCombat is as good a workout as you could hope to find anywhere in VR. As is the case for many others, it’s vital that I’m distracted from the fact that I’m exercising. Ask me to kick a football around, and I’ll still be playing when the sun goes down, ask me to jog two laps of a track, and you’ll get a very blunt and very negative response. With Les Mills, the activities themselves may not be anything new; the punch squat, combo, repeat loops have been seen many times before, but Les Mills BodyCombat does a good job of providing an entertaining distraction from the effort it requires you to make.
In their presentation, BodyCombat‘s workouts feel very gamey. Still, both games and workouts require you to fail, learn, and build from your mistakes – and that is this product’s weakest area by far.
In the VR world of Les Mills, failure is literally not an option. Because your failures are not registered during the workouts, they are not corrected. This makes it very difficult to learn and improve.
I’ve enjoyed the workouts Les Mills BodyCombat provides, and I will keep using it. I appreciate the lack of a subscription model and how utterly exhausted a thirty-minute session makes me. Still, there is a lot of room for improvement, and it will be interesting to see what, if any, updates are made post-release.
Les Mills BodyCombat
TLDR : Summary
Some frustrating issues mar Les Mills BodyCombat, but otherwise, it can be a very challenging and enjoyable workout experience.