Review: Michael Jackson: The Experience

MichaelJacksonTheExperience.jpg

In my lifetime, I’ve been fortunate to witness two legendary ‘MJs’ perform in their primes, both considered the G.O.A.T. (Greatest of All Time) at their craft — and, interestingly enough, both have received video game tributes this year. From the sports world, there is Michael Jordan, who 2K Games picked as the cover athlete for NBA 2K11 this season. And then there is Michael Jackson, the late King of Pop himself, who has been immortalized in a new dancing game from Ubisoft currently available for Wii, DS and PSP and coming next year to PS3 and Xbox 360.

Michael Jackson led a bizarre and troubled life, particularly in the latter years leading up to his untimely and equally bizarre passing. But one thing cannot be denied: he was one of the most gifted entertainers / musicians to ever live. That is exactly what Michael Jackson: The Experience celebrates, and if MJ were still with us, I think he’d be happy to have his name attached to this game.

Coming from the same team behind Ubisoft’s hit Just Dance series, Michael Jackson: The Experience could just have easily been called ‘Just Dance: Michael Jackson Edition.’ There are differences, but the general gist of the game is the same: you and up to three other players pick up a Wii Remote and shake your groove thing in accordance to the dance moves being performed on the screen.

The difference between the gameplay compared to many other rhythm games is that you aren’t watching a scrolling timeline of notes or arrows and flailing your arm as they pass by a strike zone. Instead, you literally watch the in-game avatar of Michael Jackson (or you can follow the choreography of his backup dancers in certain songs) and mimic his dance movements. In this way, you are pulled into the experience more, and even though you can get by flicking your wrist, you won’t score well unless you really follow the choreography and actually try to perform each dance with your whole body. Optional pictograms can be turned on to help cue you in on upcoming steps, and there are even unlockable training videos of real dance instructors teaching many of the dance moves featured in the game.

As you dance, each step is rated on a scale of OK, Good or Perfect (you get an X for missing a beat entirely), and you earn up to fives stars for each song based on your performance. The neat thing is that it is impossible to fail out of a song. Even if you are terrible at keeping up with MJ (and trust me, you will be!), missed steps and poor performance don’t cause a game over, so you are allowed to finish a song all the way through no matter what. That may lead you to believe that the game is too easy, and to an extent that is true. But I think it was a smart design move on the developer’s part, as this ease of play ensures that anyone – even a geeky white guy with two left feet on the dance floor like me – can play the game and get something out of it. Yet at the same time, the dance choreography is so advanced that more skilled dancers and players interested in learning to be better dancers will feel challenged in their effort to achieve 5-star performances.

The motion control response seems inconsistent at times, but as someone who can’t dance, it’s hard for me to tell if it is a technical problem, a problem with me not having any sense of rhythm, or a problem resulting from the game asking its players to perform the one-of-a-kind dance moves of a legend (or maybe even a combination of the three!). But I do have to say that when I gave it my best shot to ape MJ’s moves exactly, it did seem like I was getting higher marks than if I just tried to follow the gestures and rhythms with my hand only. I do think there are some underlying response issues as a result of the Wii’s aging motion tracking tech – it’ll be interesting to see if the upcoming Kinect and PlayStation Move versions perform better — but for the most part the controls felt fairly smooth and accurate to me.

The best thing about Michael Jackson: The Experience is, of course, the music. It’s one hit after another as you play through the game dancing to songs like “Thriller,” “Beat It,” “Billie Jean,” “Bad,” “Dirty Diana,” “Black or White,” “Heal the World,” “They Don’t Care About Us,” “Rock With You,” “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough,” and on and on. Honestly, this game’s soundtrack is a reminder of how putrid the music industry has become these days with no-talent singers, American Idol rejects, and YouTube sensations becoming mega-stars because they have a unique look or personality, sex appeal and/or a good recording voice, opposed to having the natural talent of a real artist like Michael Jackson.

Matching the music quality is the choreography and overall presentation. Michael Jackson’s virtual avatar moonwalks and crotch grabs just like the real thing, the interplay between he and his backup dancers is like watching a live performance, and the staging and costuming perfectly replicates the many iconic music videos associated with each of the included songs. The dancers are also outlined with a neon halo that gives off a heavenly glow, almost as if to purposefully represent the spirit of Michael Jackson living on through this game.

But there is one problem that needs to be addressed, and it is a pretty big one, I hate to say. As incredible as the music and choreography are, unfortunately there just isn’t enough content and structure to back it all up. The game only comes with 26 dance numbers, and there is no online infrastructure in place for future DLC expansion. It’s also a shame that there isn’t some sort of career or tour mode, as well as more meaningful unlockables like interviews, music videos, photos, behind-the-scenes concert footage and other things of that sort that would allow gamers to fully explore and appreciate Michael Jackson’s career. You can dance to each individual song for stars and unlock training videos – and that’s it. There is no structure to the game whatsoever. The developers even missed an opportunity to work in a karaoke element. You can turn on lyric subtitles for sing-along purposes, but unfortunately there isn’t an actual vocal component to the gameplay.

As it stands, Michael Jackson: The Experience is a game largely geared towards the Michael Jackson devout, with very limited range and value outside of that audience. It sure is fun to play regardless of your dancing knowledge and skill – and hell, just listening to the music and watching the incredible choreography is great too. But unfortunately the skimpy content offering leaves this game feeling more like a rehearsal for the Michael Jackson experience rather than the real deal. Hopefully Ubisoft uses the extra time between now and next year’s PS3 and Xbox 360 launches to beef the experience up for those platforms. After this, I’m eager to play them either way. I just want more game next time!

TryIt.jpg

Pros:
+ Phenomenal soundtrack and dance choreography
+ Music video costuming and staging is dead on
+ Easy to pick up and play, yet hard to master
+ Dancing controls feel smooth and track accurately most of the time

Cons:
– Small setlist and not enough meaningful unlockables
– Lacks structure and a sense of progression
– Some control inconsistencies

Game Info:
Platform: Reviewed on Wii, also available for DS and PSP
Publisher: Ubisoft
Developer: Ubisoft Montpellie / Just Dance team Paris
Release Date: 11/23/2010
Genre: Dance & Music
ESRB Rating: E10+
Players: 1-4
Source: Review copy provided by publisher

[nggallery id=1502]

About the Author

Matt Litten is the full-time editor and owner of VGBlogger.com. He is responsible for maintaining the day to day operation of the site, editing all staff content before it is published, and contributing regular news, reviews, previews and other articles. Matt landed his first gig in the video game review business writing for the now-defunct website BonusStage.com. After the sad and untimely close of BonusStage, the former staff went on to found VGBlogger.com. After a short stint as US Site Manager for AceGamez, Matt assumed full ownership over VGBlogger, and to this day he is dedicated to making it one of the top video game blogs in all the blogosphere. Matt is a fair-minded reviewer and lover of games of all platforms and types, big or small, hyped or niche, big-budget or indie. But that doesn't mean he will let poor games slide without a good thrashing when necessary!