Michael Jackson's videos and stage shows were extravagant affairs — his Dangerous live show ended with him flying off in a jetpack — so the idea of letting gamers enter that fantasy world is a proposition too enticing to resist for Jackson fans. That's exactly where Ubisoft's Michael Jackson: The Experience wants to put you: centre stage in the King of Pop's most famous moments.
Players who've taken on the Your Shape: Fitness Evolved challenge will feel right at home with the navigation. You see a projection of yourself in the centre of the screen, hold out your hand to highlight an option and then hover over the secondary 'confirm' icon — in this case, a white glove — to go through menus. Cycling through songs is similarly straightforward: holding your arm above or below the three highlighted selections to scroll through the options, and to select you place your hand over the one you want. It's a simple and fluid system that takes you from the main menu to performing a song in no more than a minute.
Jackson was renowned for both his vocal and dancing ability, so the majority of the 25 songs on offer allow you to choose whether to perform — sing and dance — or just dance. Performance mode alternates you between dancing and singing, and for the latter you can either use Kinect's built-in microphones or a Lips wireless microphone, whichever you prefer. The sensor's microphone array does a decent job of picking up your warbling, but in a party atmosphere where there might be background chatter you'll likely want to slip some batteries into a wireless microphone instead.
When dancing, a series of cue cards appear on screen not unlike Dance Central, though there are no names for moves. The cards show the first and second position as well as highlighting the limb(s) you need to move in order to pull off the step; there are no arrows or other movement indicators, so you'll likely muddle through on your first attempt, though of course some of the routines are so iconic you'll figure them out quickly enough. Should you really struggle with any step, you can choose to practice each song, repeating any particular section's moves until you get it right.
On the whole your steps are recognised well, and although there's no specific feedback to show where you're going wrong, you're able to see yourself on-screen next to the backup dancers to see how you stack up. The most iconic poses are highlighted in gold, and should you pull these off successfully your on-screen self transforms into a photo of Jackson himself, while executing the Moonwalk sees your projected form slide across the screen as if by magic.
Real Jackson experts and dancers will no doubt try the Master Performance mode, which throws complex steps at you faster than the hat in Smooth Criminal. The dancing still takes a break for the singing, letting poor dancers recover some dignity, but when done right this is as close as most gamers will get to performing like Michael Jackson. There's also a series of videos in the MJ School, though these are non-interactive and of questionable value to gamers who just want to get up and dance.
The game's single-player mode is predictably light on features — pick a song, pick a performance mode, rinse and repeat — although it does contain the lion's share of Achievements, awarded for 5-star scores in most songs or for hitting iconic moments. There's nothing else to unlock however: no memorabilia, no videos, no extra songs, though we'd be surprised if Ubisoft didn't exploit this opportunity with downloadable content down the line.
Party mode is where you're expected to play most, but like Dance Central before it there's no simultaneous multiplayer: co-operative mode sees two to four players jump in and out to tackle sections of the song, whereas battle mode pits teams against each other, each tackling a complete song before the other group steps in. Each player is assigned an icon, negating the tedium of setting up profiles and getting everyone signed in, also making it easier to swap roles if one player only wants to sing or dance, for example.
The environments and stages for each song do a superb job of replicating the original stage shows or music videos — pavement slabs light up in Billie Jean, for example — and video footage plays in the background as if on giant screens. The ability to view complete videos or live performances would have been welcomed, but this is a streamlined game aimed at making you feel like MJ, rather than an interactive memorabilia package.
While extra content is thin on the ground, the tracklist and dance routines are strong enough to compensate. It may not be quite as refined as Dance Central, but the core of Michael Jackson: The Experience will fuel party nights for any fan of the King of Pop.