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Michael Jackson: The Experience

Score: 78%
ESRB: Everyone 10+
Publisher: Ubisoft Entertainment
Developer:
Media: DVD/1
Players: 1 - 4
Genre: Rhythm/ Party/ Miscellaneous

Graphics & Sound:

When you get right down to it, Michael Jackson: The Experience is essentially Just Dance: Michael Jackson. Though the comment might seem like a slight against the game, it's actually a compliment. Just Dance (and its sequels) are fun party games, so the addition of Michael Jackson is akin to adding peanut butter to chocolate. However, while the game delivers on this premise, it falls a bit short on delivering "The Experience."

Bad news: Michael Jackson: The Experience ships with 26 songs on the disc. Good news: Michael Jackson: The Experience ships with 26 Michael Jackson songs. And not just Michael Jackson songs, but original master recordings - so you're actually hearing the songs as you remember them rather than cover versions.

The tracklist is culled from nearly 20 years of Michael Jackson albums, covering everything from Off the Wall to Blood on the Dance Floor. Fans will undoubtedly find something to complain about, but this is one of the first times I've ever played a rhythm game and liked every song.

Every song comes with it's own special video treatment. The game sticks with Just Dance's blurry neon look, but offers special touches reflecting on Michael Jackson's career. You've got a graveyard full of zombies and the signature red jacket for "Thriller," a subway station for "Beat It" and a rundown building full of gangsters for "Smooth Criminal." It's not much to look at, though at the same time, anything else on the screen would have been a distraction.


Gameplay:

Michael Jackson: The Experience is geared more towards players interested in just jumping in and getting started right away. All songs are available from the start with no real structure behind how you progress through songs. If you're only interested in dancing to certain songs, you can stick with those songs without having to play through others. It's a cool setup and lends itself towards party play, particularly if you decide to take the game to a friend's house.

At the same time, the lack of structure removes some of the motivation. I'm not a fan of playing through certain songs to get to the ones I want, but appreciate the "game" behind the concept. Of course, there are other ways to handle the balance between motivation and play (see Rock Band 3 for example), but Michael Jackson: The Experience seems to want to jettison the concept altogether. Instead, your motivation is to improve ratings through repeated play. While I personally didn't like it, I at least appreciate the idea behind the concept.

To help encourage players to keep working on songs for a better rating, Michael Jackson: The Experience features a series of unlockable choreography videos. However, you'll need to earn a decent number of stars to unlock the videos, which is sort of backwards. If I want to learn to get better at something, don't offer tutorials after I'm good at it. It's the equivalent to putting training wheels on after learning to ride a bike.

Michael Jackson: The Experience 's biggest stumble is presenting the actual "Michael Jackson Experience." Like The Beatles, Michael Jackson is a performer who's personality and presence transcends the music. Although the game absolutely nails the music and visual presence, very little is offered in the way of context. It would have been great if, like Rock Band: The Beatles (or any band-specific games), the developers offered some outside information on Jackson's career, or why specific albums (or songs) are such a big deal. It doesn't need to be a giant production number, but photos or unlockable clips would have been more than welcome and would have improved the overall package.


Difficulty:

Michael Jackson: The Experience uses a different difficulty scheme than other rhythm games. Rather than offer variable difficulties for every song, each is instead graded with one difficulty level. Some offer an easier part (playing as a backup dancer rather than Michael), though you're sort of locked into a position. If a song is hard, your only option is to keep playing.

Earning tutorials before playing a song would have helped a lot actually. Although Michael Jackson: The Experience isn't what I would consider a "Hard" game, the scoring system is brutal. Earning five stars in a song is a challenge, even with Easy-ranked songs. I was able to eek out three stars on most songs, but really had to push myself to get five. In fact, I ended up accepting three stars as "complete" since there wasn't anything dangling in front of me to want to get five stars.


Game Mechanics:

The concept behind Michael Jackson: The Experience is simple; match the icons scrolling up the left side of the screen in time with the music. Although you're encouraged to perform the entire moves, the game is only actively tracking whatever hand is holding the controller. In other words, you only need to make sure your hand is performing the routine. Yet, just moving your hand is hard to do. First, the routines are pretty fun and, let's be honest, who hasn't tried to Moonwalk at least once in their life. Also, the moves are so attuned to the rhythm and beat of the music, you're only making things harder on yourself by not doing the routines.

That said, Michael Jackson: The Experience isn't without a few minor annoyances. The scrolling icon mechanic is functional, though trying to keep track of both the icons and the dancer (who you're supposed to mirror) is tricky. There are also a few odd decisions at play with the icons as well. For instance, repeated moves are only shown once. It makes logical sense, but from a player's perspective, it's confusing. Adding more players to the mix further complicates things. Eventually, I just did my best to mirror the dancers and ignored the icons.

Just to clear something up, Michael Jackson: The Experience's scoring system is brutal, but since there's no way to actually fail a game, not getting five stars doesn't matter, at least if you're playing with a group of friends. And, really, that's where Michael Jackson: The Experience's strengths lie. It's a party game and, if your group likes to get together for game night (and isn't rhythmically challenged), Michael Jackson: The Experience deserves heavy consideration.

At the same time, the game stumbles as a single-player game. It's fun, but even if you're a massive Jackson fan, the novelty only lasts for so long.


-Starscream, GameVortex Communications
AKA Ricky Tucker

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