Lifestyle integration: Keep The Walk always running
You know how health organizations are always recommending that you park an extra block away from your destination, take the stairs instead of the elevator, and so on? Well, the Walk is designed to make that a little more rewarding. If you enable the option to track your activity all the time, not just during an episode, then a trip down the stairs to grab a cup of coffee counts toward your daily goal of 100 minutes walked (you don't get to set a different goal or have no goal; it's 100 minutes). And if you leave the current episode running, you'll find that you've advanced toward the next story clip just from walking to the bus stop or stepping out for lunch. That's pretty fun.
On the other hand, it does eat battery. I left an episode running overnight on a Galaxy S4 and only saw a 2 percent loss, but I found that if you do anything else (listen to music, IM with your auntie Morag) the battery level can drop alarmingly. If you want to use this app for all-day tracking plus do all your normal smartphone stuff, you may want to carry a charger.
The step tracking can be pretty approximate. My steps per minute usually worked out to about 6 miles per hour, which is faster than I can run. On one occasion my phone clock said I'd walked for half an hour, while the app had tracked 13 minutes. User comments mention similar experiences. After the February 10 update, it seems to be more sensitive; it tracks me better in buildings, and my daily commute, previously about 15 minutes, now registers as closer to 45. I think it's counting the motion of the bus, honestly. The app was "optimized" for the iPhone 5S' new M7 processor, so the iOS version may be more accurate.
Six to Start explains that the app conserves battery life by tracking less closely during periods of prolonged inactivity -- so it's less likely to notice your steps when you're first starting out, or when you're moving slowly through a store's aisles. It's also not designed to track all possible types of motion, so while it may update to reflect your bike trips, don't expect it to be consistent. Basically, if you're looking for detailed fitness tracking, you're going to want something more hard-core, like a Nike+ FuelBand or a Fitbit. If you just want a general idea of how much you're walking each day, this'll do fine.
UI quirks: Radio silence
One thing to get used to is that there's no audio indication when you've started or ended an episode. The scene-setting first sound clip of each map is placed a little bit along the path, not right at the beginning, and your icon on the map doesn't begin to move until you've walked for a minute or two, so there's no sign that anything's happening. The first time I tried it, I wasted time milling around my apartment tapping the white box marked "radio" over and over trying to trigger some kind of initial sound bite (the tutorial is misleading on this) before realizing I'd just have to get walking and hope the app would start working eventually.
It turned out to be working fine. However, in the confusion, I missed the three crucial words of the first speaker -- "Your tea, love" with a clink, setting the scene in a UK cafe -- and spent the next several minutes confused as to which of the people talking at me I was actually supposed to care about. So wear your best earbuds and don't even try to play clips near a busy road, that's my advice.
Storytelling strides and stumbles
After an awkward introduction in the Inverness train station cafe, in which a melodramatic secret agent type passes you a package, says she knows you've been briefed, and tells you to walk with her, the story quickly took off. My hopes weren't high at that point. It was just too obvious that the main character wasn't talking, even when anyone would have. (This type of second-person narration is handled much more naturally in Zombies, Run! 5k Training.) A mistaken-identity story only works if the protagonist has no chance to explain before getting swept up in it, and here, you could have tried. Once you learn more about your character later it seems possible that you may have gotten involved on purpose, but at the time it just comes across as clumsy and makes the secret agent, Fiona, look dim. The Scottish accents didn't sound quite right, either. After the electronics-killing bomb goes off, it all starts coming together better.
"Speed-walking to avoid attracting attention, then getting spotted anyway" is a familiar scene, and it was fun to find myself in the middle of it. After we were free to sprint, we still couldn't, because Fiona had been shot in the leg. Poor Fiona. I still don't miss her. Anyway, a lot of thought clearly went into finding different scenarios throughout the episodes to motivate you to keep walking continuously, without necessarily needing to run. For example, making your way through an unsafe tunnel, battling hypothermia on a frozen mountainside, or slogging through peat bogs at night while pursued by spooky mechanized voices.
Zombies, Run! fans will notice some similar themes in The Walk: forceful women, sad-sack men, paranoia, a missing sister. Your handler Charlie, a pleasant, professional-seeming agent in Geneva who directs you, even turns out to have some issues of her own. As your mission goes on, it ranges across genres, with nods to sci-fi, horror, and ghost stories. There's humor, some of which works, like the fact that your wacko conspiracy theorist pal ends up seeming sensible because the situation you're in is so crazy.
Some things seem too complex (did there need to be two separate terrorist organizations?), and other scenes are overexplained ("Stanton! He's going for his gun!"), but there are some clever uses of the earpiece premise. Even your artificial silence gets lampshaded from time to time: you're the "strong, silent type" that everyone can "rely on," despite your being the only one in the group who barely contributes. After a while you realize that's probably part of the joke.
App under development: Are we there yet?
There are currently only 23 episodes of The Walk available, and the story comes to a definite chapter end. Once you've finished the first set of maps, if you don't feel like replaying them hunting for stray boxes, you can keep using the all-day activity tracker as a pedometer app. The rest of the promised 65 maps total are coming in "early 2014."
Or it might be 51 maps, depending on whether you trust the app's FAQ and the iTunes store page or the current page in the Google Play store. The app seems to still be under active development -- a good thing, since it brought that crucial February 10 update -- and features such as the statistics page are still being added and subtracted. The tutorial, manual, FAQ, and posted support answers don't supply much information about any of this. For example, the "Adaptive fitness" setting is supposed to mean the app will "adjust the challenge to your fitness level." I thought this might be responsible for all the monster-length episodes I was getting hit with, but unchecking the box didn't shorten them. It's supposed to give "rewards for gradually increasing how much you move every day," but from what I can tell, that just means it withholds the same old reward, the badges, by forcing you to walk more and more to get them. As with the maps that you can't complete on the first try, I'm not sure Six to Start realized how fundamentally irritating some things are to a gamer mentality.
The good news is that you can ask questions via Six to Start's support forum page and the app's FAQ gives both a support Web page and an e-mail address. So if you're dying to know the exact tracking algorithm, there's a place to start.
Conclusion: So far, so good
The Walk tries to do three things: motivate you to walk more, tell a gripping story integrated with a game, and fit easily into your everyday life. Of these three, I'd say it does the first admirably. If you take a lot of repetitious walks, having a story and game to liven things up is a real improvement.
The story and voice actors are entertaining enough, and kept me looking forward to hearing more. That's even though frequent fiddling with the UI doesn't allow much immersion. I like maps as much as the next nerd, and the minigame of spotting torn newspapers, empty candy bar wrappers, and burning buildings was cute, but I found the onscreen aspect of the app distracted from the audio more than it enhanced it. Still, on a treadmill with a place to rest the phone, the combination would probably work well. And though I found the audio too complex to compete with traffic noise, the app is nicely designed to fit into your life in little pieces -- listening to a clip while waiting in line at lunch, say.
Now that The Walk has an option to get audio notifications when new story clips unlock, and an option to have clips to play automatically when unlocked, it's much more convenient and less distracting to use than it was originally. Now, you could even use it while walking the dog. Since the majority of the episodes are still to come, and the developer is still tweaking the app, who knows where it will all end up? I'm looking forward to finding out.