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The Walk Fitness Tracker Game review: Fun spy-story app convinces you to keep moving

The maker of Zombies, Run! has followed up with an app for slower-moving people, this one combining audio storytelling, a minigame, and pedometer-style step tracking. It's lengthy, it's motivating, it's cute. Just don't get mugged or walk into a tree.

Kelsey Adams Senior copy editor / Reviews
CNET senior copy editor and contributor Kelsey Adams was raised by computer programmers and writers, so she communicates best by keyboard. Loves genre fiction, RPGs, action movies; has long, fraught relationship with comics. Come talk to her on Twitter.
Kelsey Adams
12 min read

Unlike many city-dwellers, I'm just not used to walking around in public with a big smartphone in my hand and earbuds in, blotting out the world. (I've also never been mugged. Coincidence?) But give me Six to Start's new fitness tracker game, The Walk (Android | iOS), and it's a different story.


The Walk Fitness Tracker Game

The Good

<b>The Walk: Fitness Tracker Game</b> turns a boring stroll into a varied, engaging adventure and tracks your steps against a daily goal. You can use it in different ways depending on your lifestyle. Improving as new features are added.

The Bad

Frequent, though avoidable, fiddling with the UI can reduce immersion in the story and even be a safety hazard. The step tracking isn't very precise and the minigame is pretty mini. Only the first part of the story is currently available, though more episodes are promised.

The Bottom Line

Despite its complex interface and high download price, The Walk: Fitness Tracker Game is an excellent way to make your daily walk interesting again.

Like Zombies, Run! and its accompanying 5k Training app, The Walk encourages you to leave the house by telling a story in a series of audio clips, with you as the main character. Guided by a far-off operative giving directions in your earpiece, you're tasked with carrying a very important technogadget southeast through Scotland, while being hunted by terrorists, wildlife, and anyone who thinks you're a terrorist. Like the poor chumps in Hitchcock's "North by Northwest" and "The 39 Steps," you're about to get a lot of exercise. But you'll probably have more fun doing it.

Made by the developer of the excellent Zombies, Run! duo, the app was awkward and confusing in its original form. Fortunately, an update on February 10 brought the big features The Walk needed. It's well worth the $3.99 you'll pay for a download.

Motivation: We have ways of making you walk
Naturally, The Walk is all about walking. You have to earn the story clips by walking for various lengths of time (you're on foot in the game because an EMP took out the lazier means of transportation). Your position is shown on a series of scrollable maps, and your icon advances down a set path based on how many minutes the app thinks you've walked. The maps have cute little animations like flying birds, falling snowflakes, and smoking campfires. (There's no soundtrack or connection to your phone's playlists, but you can listen to music in another app if you like.) When you reach a spot on the route where an incident in the story takes place, its number -- representing minutes until you reach it -- changes to a speaker icon, and you can play the associated clip to find out what's happening to you now.

Small empty white squares appear when you're near them on the map, and you can tap these to reveal the names of objects that would be found on the scene. If you don't tap them, they fade away again. That's the minigame part. Mostly these objects are just set dressing, though sometimes they can offer hints about what's going on. Occasionally a box will turn into a smaller version of the icon used for unlocked audio clips, which means it's an audio extra that gives you more background on the story. As the episodes go on I found they hold some of the most intriguing clips, so definitely don't skip these "extras."

Choose your path before you get there!
Before and after choosing the longer route. Also, cow pat. Aren't you glad you discovered that? Screenshots by Kelsey Adams/CNET

If you choose the longer route when the path forks, you get to see "collectible items" such as newspaper clippings and handwritten notes that also shed a little extra light on the story, probably, eventually. (Make your choices early, because once you pass that place on the map, it's too late to go back.) If you discover all the objects and recordings on a map, you get your 100 percent completion badge for the day. You also get a badge for doing an entire episode in one day and another for doing it without taking longer than a 3-hour break.

All three badges for the day
All three badges. I win! I WIN AT WALKING! Screenshot by Kelsey Adams/CNET

The February 10 update added "Challenge" maps interspersed between the episode maps (I encountered the first one after episode 2), on which you draw your own path between points to determine which of three walk lengths you'll need to take before continuing the story. Trying to keep it as short as possible by connecting the dots efficiently is another bit of minigame. The Manual adds that on each of these special maps, three of the dots, called items, "unlock a Random Encounter..." What that means I can't tell you, since I didn't run across one.

The design is cute but not that intuitive: you don't have to make it from one end of the screen to the other, and the landscape features on the map don't block the line at all. After having spent weeks at the mercy of that little circle on the map, it did feel strangely empowering to watch my icon moving down a path drawn by my own shaky hands. It feels cynical to point out that adding these maps will extend how long it takes people to finish the first chapter of the app, buying Six to Start more time to finish Chapter 2.

Challenge map
On this Challenge Map, you're trying to 'find spots where you can avoid sentries' by walking into the dots that look like sentries. Sure, whatever. Screenshot by Kelsey Adams/CNET

Note that the app isn't tracking your actual position, just your number of steps. (And maybe not too closely. More on that later.) It doesn't matter which way you turn or how far you go, you're still moving forward in the game world. That means the app would work fine on a treadmill, for example. And once you've unlocked an audio clip it stays unlocked, so you can pause, replay, and cancel clips from any point in the story so far, which is great for reminding yourself who characters are, or for when a bus happens to go by in the middle. It's too bad there isn't a fast-forward, but the clips are rarely more than a minute or two long.

This system also means you could ignore the real-time map aspect entirely, go for a long walk, and then just listen to the clips all in a row while doing dishes if you wanted to. That reduces the sense of connection between exercise, map, and story, but it's a nice option to have.

Making that easier, each episode has an index page of audio clips, and if you select one, the rest of the unlocked ones for that episode will play in sequence. (Except for the audio extras, which you'll still need to hunt for on the map.) With a little extra swiping, you can quickly catch up on entire episodes that way while tracking steps on your current map. It's a bit fiddly, but I found that I could still get most of the boxes tapped if I didn't look at the map very often, and the less I looked at the screen the easier it was to enjoy the story. Swiping back to it through the lock screen of a sleeping phone was particularly annoying, and worked against any illusions I'd managed to build up about being a daring operative on the lam through the Cairngorms.

What's great is that the February 10 update added autoplay and audio-notification options for the clips. That means that you don't have to keep looking at your phone every few minutes to see if you've unlocked a new clip -- which was the biggest problem with the app when it was released. Between the risk of dropping it (coat pockets, heavy gloves) and the safety risk (waving around an expensive smartphone, not paying attention to your surroundings), and the general irritation of constantly fiddling with the UI, using the app was more of a struggle before. Now, with the clips on autoplay, you can just go for a walk and hear the story unfold in a natural way. And with notifications, you can choose to listen to them later if you're at a checkout counter or on a busy street.

Play clips alone or in sequence
You can play unlocked clips alone or in sequence. Screenshot by Kelsey Adams/CNET

You're not likely to get all the boxes tapped that way, but according to the FAQ, some of the maps are designed so you can't get 100 percent completion on the first try anyway. You'd have to replay them choosing the other fork in the road if you want that badge, despite the fact that there's almost no added value since the audio clips are the same unless you find an extra. And the episodes quickly get longer, up to 2 hours and more, so most people aren't likely to get the other two badges for sustained walking either. Basically, you have to view those three daily badges as an occasional treat rather than a daily goal. So, like the box-tapping minigame, the badge system can be motivating if you don't pay much attention to it; if you try to succeed, it'll only frustrate you. Sort of zen, really.

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.

Activity tracking and statistics
The activity summary (left) shows your progress for the day. The app is still being tweaked: the cumulative statistics feature (right) was still unavailable as of version 1.1.2. Screenshots by Kelsey Adams/CNET

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.

Audio extra icon
Speaker icon: plays audio clip. Smaller speaker icon: plays audio clip extra. Small box labeled 'Radio': does not play audio clip. It's simple once you know. Screenshots by Kelsey Adams/CNET

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.

The Walk covers new ground in fiction-based fitness (pictures)

See all photos

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.


The Walk Fitness Tracker Game

Score Breakdown

Setup 10Features 8Interface 8Performance 9