When it comes to virtual reality fitness titles, BoxVR has long been the king. Initially launched on Steam over three years ago, it’s still the most popular go-to app for fitness, now available for PC VR, Playstation, and the Oculus Quest.
Still, developers FitXR are not wanting to rest on their laurels, and have just given the game a full overhaul, complete with a name change. As of August 2020, at least on Quest, BoxVR has become FitXR! This is a free upgrade to all existing BoxVR owners. No timeline has yet been given for PCVR or Playstation updates, but that might be for the best, as that gives the developers time to get user feedback from the Quest community. And there has already been quite a lot!
As a long time BoxVR user I was excited to try this out. I had initially intended to do a full review, but after spending the weekend with it I’ve decided to make this article a hands-on/first impression. Why? Because FitXR is frustratingly inconsistent. Brilliant and infuriating in equal measure. Some niggles appear to be simple bugs that were missed in this release and might be patched in the next update. Other changes might be more problematic. This is going to be a deep dive…
At face value, FitXR appears to be FitXR’s (the game now has the same title as the developer. Yes, it’s confusing.) response to that hot new fitness subscription service on the block Supernatural. For a $20 monthly fee that game promises personalized workouts, daily new content, commercially licensed music, and pre-recorded personal trainers that shout motivating instructions at you.
VR gamers and fitness casuals have largely balked at the title’s high monthly cost, but according to those who are actually using it, it really does deliver an excellent all-around workout and is more challenging than both Beat Saber and the original BoxVR. I wouldn’t know, as living in the UK I am from one of the 193 countries around the world where Supernatural is not yet available. The joys of trying to work with the music industry and do things legitimately…
FitXR, as BoxVR before it sticks to royalty-free music, which means you won’t get recognizable chart hits, but there’s no monthly fee, and you will at least be able to play the game outside of North America so for me this is a sensible decision.
It does introduce trainer voice overs however and attempts to wrest back its title as the premier fitness app in VR by introducing a new scoring system, where power and speed reap their just rewards. I’ll cover this in-depth later.
More than just a new tin of paint
The first impressions of FitXR are excellent. The game has had a graphics makeover that for me at least, gives it a much more professional and stylish feel. On loading, for the first time, you are prompted to create a user account and provide an email address. Once completed you are taken to the home page, a swanky gym reception area with a very sleek, modern aesthetic. I love the glass roof and sunset vibes. The game does have a perpetual night time feel to it but as a largely nocturnal animal myself I really appreciate it.
The menu interface is intuitive, you can see the workout of the day on one panel, a trio of recommended workouts on the panel in front of you, whilst looking to the right you can select from a complete list of workouts. There are lots here, ranging from ten minutes duration up to an hour. Your game data is saved and you can track your activity levels by day, week, or month. All of this is very welcome data to have.
DLC packs are available, which I assume carry over from BoxVR, so if you bought them previously on BoxVR you’ll have them in FitXR too.
Whereas BoxVR on Quest previously had three environments, FitXR currently has only one. It’s a fairly typical Beat Saber Esque neon lights affair that is pretty much reflective of the rhythm genre but the orbs (the objects you punch) are much improved over the last iteration. Previously there was a total disconnect between the BoxVR gym setting and the strange energy orbs you were punching, whereas here the environment and orbs feel like they belong together.
The particle effects are much improved as well, orbs shattering into pleasing explosions of color, rather than simply fading away like an ephemeral puff of light energy as before. Overall I am a big fan of the new visual style.
Kudos also to the great video introductory tutorial which clearly explains and demonstrates to the player how to play the game. It’s a small thing, but for a new player being shown how to play correctly from the start saves a lot of frustration early on.
Multiplayer, Sort Of.
One of the big additions to FitXR is the inclusion of group multiplayer. When you select a workout program a half dozen other players are loaded in to play alongside you. When you begin you’ll see three human players to your left, and another three to your right. The scoreboard shows you all simultaneously playing and the dynamic this adds is highly motivating. Seeing myself climb up into third place as I started to punch with more force was addicting and I really enjoyed the experience. After a couple of songs, however, the game changed to Level 2 and everybody else disappeared. Whilst their scores remained on the leaderboard they were no longer competing and by Level 6 I was hundreds of thousands of points ahead. This happened with every workout I’ve completed over three days of playing. I posted about it on the Facebook Oculus Quest community group and it seems everybody is being affected the same way, so this may be an early bug that gets patched.
When multiplayer is working, however, it really does give the game an atmospheric boost and I definitely enjoyed the increased competition feel so I hope this gets fixed quickly. I couldn’t see any way to invite a friend or friends to play with you, the game just randomly inserts players alongside you.
The new scoring system, punch hard. No, harder! HARDER!
FitXR’s gameplay is identical to the BoxVR we all know and love. Standing forward-facing in either a Southpaw or Orthodox stance you hit the approaching orbs with a variety of jabs, hooks, and uppercuts, being mindful to duck under obstacles and block with a defensive guard the indestructible orbs that can’t be destroyed only parried.
This is equally true in FitXR but now speed and power play as important a role as accuracy in determining your combination or streak scores. Whereas previously you just needed to hit each object accurately to register now you need to land with your force output above a certain level. If you don’t hit hard enough, it doesn’t count and your streak resets to zero!
Now, undeniably this makes the game harder as you need to punch as hard and fast as you can in order to keep your streak going. This is very good for increasing workout intensity. But unless you have hands of stone like Roberto Duran combined with Manny Pacquaio’s blazing speed these hit streaks are darn nigh impossible to sustain. When orbs are approaching in a unitary fashion allowing you to load up on each one it’s achievable, when they come in combinations however, forget it.
This is likely to prove a controversial design choice for many, indeed I have seen complaints across the internet, in Facebook groups, on Reddit, and in several one-star reviews of the game on the Oculus Quest score. Whilst I still think the game itself is excellent, I do share the frustration with the new scoring mechanic and I will try and articulate why, in a way that I hope the developers might read and understand.
When I work out, my focus is on exercising my body, finding a steady flow state, and enjoying the process. Whatever tool I’m using, whether it be free weights, my rowing machine, or virtual lightsabers when playing Beat Saber, I want them to feel like an extension of my body, barely distinguishable from my arms and hands. In other words, I want to get lost in the workout.
FitXR is the opposite of this. Every two or three punches thrown my hit streak resets to zero because I seemingly haven’t hit hard or fast enough, which is pretty difficult when the game is throwing ten uppercuts in a row at me. Rather than get me into a flow state, I’m now just frustrated because I can’t score consecutive hits no matter how hard I try. It’s like I’m having to wrestle the game mechanics when all I want to do is enjoy half an hour of punching, bobbing, and weaving.
Now I am still able to enjoy FitXR, but only by choosing to completely ignore the scoring side of the game. I wish there was an option to just play without a scoring mode at all. I don’t play this to accumulate a score, I play it because I love the energizing stress relief thirty minutes of punching in virtual reality gives me.
I know that I am not alone in this and so I do hope the FitXR devs can give us a game mode that is less punishing to the player. It just seems so needless and unnecessary. If I wanted to play a game to accumulate a high score I would play Robo Recall or Tetris VR. I play FitXR to get fitter, an ultra pedantic and punishing scoring mechanic just makes it less fun.
My FitXR and Fitbit stride analogy
I’ve been trying to think of a suitable analogy and what I’ve come up with is this. Imagine that the makers of Fitbit wanted to add an element of gamification to step counting, and provide users with an additional skill challenge. They decide upon an optimal stride length of 5 feet per stride or 2.5 feet per step. Any step or stride made that is below this figure will no longer count as a step, thereby encouraging people to walk purposefully with a wide stride. How would this idea go down? Like a lead balloon, I would imagine. I can visualize the comments now, ‘I walked for an hour and a half, my phone recorded 11500 steps but my Fitbit says I only did 2312!!’. Literally nobody would want this feature. They would just regard their Fitbit as broken and demand the system got changed back or else just buy a different device to measure their steps.
FitXR works exactly like this. I want to set up a nice 45-minute cardio FitXR session, get a decent sweat on, and get into the zone punching to the beat of the music. But FitXR insists that I must swing at one hundred percent intensity for any of my punches to count, else my streak will reset to zero. I’m exhausted after six minutes and the only way to play on is to just ignore the scoring feature entirely. It’s a frankly bizarre addition to an otherwise excellent VR fitness app.
The video below demonstrates FitXR’s strengths, and the nagging issues pretty well. Notice the other players being loaded into the level and then lining up alongside me. This is very cool, as is the dynamic leaderboard. I really felt like I was in a group workout and it added to the sense of engagement and virtual presence.
If you look at the HUD you’ll see speed and power are now calculated precisely. I like the concept but if you score lower than 5 a hit won’t count, and your hit streak resets to zero. You’ll see during the workout how often my counter gets reset. To score consistently hard enough shots to register streak combinations was exhausting, and frankly demoralizing. I wasn’t doing too badly either, in third place out of seven, so around the level of the average user.
Later on you’ll notice the other player avatars freeze and their scores stop accumulating, meaning I eventually win by a landslide. From reading online FitXR has confirmed this bug however and promise a quick fix, so if you notice this in your own games, don’t worry they are on it!
Feature Omissions – No playlists or offline play
Two other factors likely to rile certain players are the lack of custom playlists and the inability to play offline. FitXR has said that they are planning to add new features as well as add back existing features that were present in BoxVR so I’m hopeful that these will be restored in a future game update.
Offline Play is a really important feature for many people. The ability to take your Quest to work, or play in your garage that has no WiFi reception to get out of the way of your kids and pets was a great asset of BoxVR and will be sorely missed by those that need it.
Likewise, custom playlists are important to many, who will be infuriated that they have been taken out. The developer’s official line on this is that they have removed the feature to ensure all workouts are trainer made and safe for all players, but given that their scoring system necessitates you either blow out your shoulders or score zero points I find that answer slightly confusing.
Not a hater, just frustrated! First thoughts summary.
So far I feel like I’ve sounded overtly negative about FitXR. If so, it’s only because I care. At its best BoxVR and FitXR are sublime workout experiences, there is just something inherently satisfying about punching things to a good beat. FitXR nails this. The music, although royalty-free, is still pretty damn good to my casual listening ears and there’s more than enough variety to keep me happy. The workouts are well structured, the environment looks professional and slick and it’s a game world I’m happy to spend virtual time in.
The criticisms from me come more from maddening frustration that a perfectly executed game concept gets hobbled by an onerous scoring mechanic that constantly points out my failings. The new coach feature attempts to motivate you by shouting encouragement and telling you you’re doing great, but the real game voice is silent but wry and condescending. ‘You’re doing it wrong, that’s a miss. It doesn’t count. Not hard enough. No, still not right’.
Great environment, and a much slicker look overall.
The focus on power shots definitely ups the workout intensity
The video tutorial and voiceovers throughout make the game feel more professional than before.
Seeing other human players compete alongside you is awesome.
Tons of workouts, from ten minutes up to an hour.
Varied musical content.
The current multiplayer is a little buggy, but I’m sure this will get fixed soon.
The new scoring mechanic is great if you’re a pro boxer, not so much for everybody else.
Cannot be played offline.
Custom playlists have gone.
Some hit collision detections issues for me with jabs, but this could be me rather than the game.
Please note this is only my thoughts based on the current debut FitXR build. It’s brand new, and I’m confident the FitXR team will be listening to the community, gathering feedback, and implementing user ideas. The developers have been actively replying to and engaging with users online so I’m confident we will get updates and plenty of improvement. Even right now, It’s still absolutely worth buying and is one of the best workouts you can get in virtual reality!