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Michael Jackson: The Experience

Score: 60%
ESRB: Everyone 10+
Publisher: Ubisoft Entertainment
Developer: Ubisoft Entertainment
Media: Download/1
Players: 1 - 2 (Local Only)
Genre: Rhythm

Graphics & Sound:

"Shameless." That was my first thought regarding Michael Jackson: The Experience for Vita. Having played (not to be confused with "enjoyed") the game on Wii, I approached this portable version with no small amount of trepidation. Once I started playing the game, however, I was somewhat surprised to find myself having a reasonably good time. Now, don't for a second confuse that statement with a glowing recommendation or my personal insistence that you immediately purchase this game. I think it's built from ideas and concepts that are fundamentally incompatible with the limitations of a portable device. Furthermore, I believe its current price is a terrible value. However, that doesn't mean the actual game can't be entertaining.

I found myself impressed with the visual style of Michael Jackson: The Experience. This is what an interactive celebration of the King of Pop should look like. Each number opens with a recreation of the introduction of one of MJ's classic music videos. Personally, I was hoping the one for "Thriller" went a bit further, but perhaps more zombies and the presence of Ola Ray is a bit too much to ask. Watching digital Michael dance is admittedly not the spectacle that watching the real Michael was, but it's close enough. This is particularly forgivable because your attention might not be focused on digital Michael all the time. Your eyes might be focused on the inputs that show up on the screen. And speaking of those, they appear around the edges of the screen, giving you a clear example of what to do while not obscuring anything you might otherwise want to see.

There isn't really anything to complain about in terms of sound, unless you just don't like Michael Jackson's music. It sounds pretty good coming from the Vita's speakers, though this might be me matching it up against the awful speakers of its competitor, the 3DS. There aren't many sound effects, naturally, but the ones present are appropriate -- Michael screams when you level up, and so forth.


Gameplay:

Michael Jackson: The Experience is a rhythm-based dancing game. For a handheld device. Notice anything that sounds a bit off? That's what I thought when I heard that Ubisoft was making portable versions of the Wii bestseller. However, they found a way to make it work.

The meat of The Experience is HIStory Mode. This is your standard "progress through the track listing" mode. You follow Michael Jackson through several phases of his legendary career, performing the songs that perhaps best represented those phases. So we start with "Billie Jean," work our way up to "Remember the Time," on to the likes of "Bad," "Smooth Criminal" and "Black or White," and so forth. The song selection has a few dark horses, is thematically varied, and is reflective of some of MJ's best music videos. However, there are only fifteen songs to choose from. This is a huge problem for a music game. And though HIStory is a solid effort to recreate his progression as an artist, a bigger selection would have made it truly special.

So how does this game actually play? Well, you dance. With your fingers. Kind of. On the periphery of the Vita screen (and in time with the music), identical symbols converge from opposite directions. Once they meet, you must perform a certain touchscreen input. Most of these are swipes and taps, but there are some swirls and half-circles thrown in for good measure. At the end of each song, the game tallies all of your successes and failures, assigns you a grade, and rewards you with some experience. I'm not so sure an experience system was a good idea for this game, but I suppose most gamers need to feel like they're making progress in one capacity or another.

There's also a Battle mode, which can be played in ad hoc mode. Unfortunately, I don't know many people who even own a Vita at this point, and the ones who do hardly belong to this game's target audience.


Difficulty:

Michael Jackson: The Experience features a number of difficulty levels, though only the base one ("Rookie") is available when you start playing. This is an odd design choice, as is the fact that the game doesn't start judging "Perfect" inputs until you've played through a few songs. Maybe this is the developer's way of padding out the game's staying power, which is, for lack of better words, almost nonexistent.

That being said, the touchscreen controls work very well and do an admirable job of judging your precision and timing. This was something that the Wii version completely bungled, so it's nice to see that unlike the 3DS, the Vita can handle double inputs, and Michael Jackson: The Experience asks more and more of them from you as you crank the difficulty level higher. This can prove a bit tricky, as your hands will occasionally obscure the move telegraphing and prevent you from nailing all of those inputs.


Game Mechanics:

Most of the game remains the same no matter what song or difficulty level you choose. You swipe, tap, and circle your way to experience and ratings. Critical moments of each song send you into Freestyle mode, where you awkwardly choreograph your own routine for a few seconds. You can even trigger a special song-specific dance move via the rear touchscreen. This could have been neat if most of the inputs didn't result in a decidedly un-MJ-esque lack of synchronization. But at least it only happens once per song.

The Vita version of Michael Jackson: The Experience may very well be the best of all the versions. The responsiveness of the touchscreen controls easily dwarfs that of the Wii controls, resulting in a more challenging, gratifying game. However, this package goes for the ridiculous price of $39.99. It doesn't matter how good they are: fifteen songs is an extremely weak offering. Michael Jackson: The Experience may be an entertaining Vita title, but it's very difficult to recommend for purchase. Wait for the price to go down a good bit, and then see if it's your thing.


-FenixDown, GameVortex Communications
AKA Jon Carlos

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