With over 2 million copies already sold worldwide, there's no denying Michael Jackson: The Experience has already left its mark on the music genre, providing a new, accessible way for fans of both dancing, and Michael alike to appreciate and involve themselves in the late King of Pop's music. Some six months on from the original game's release, however, and Michael Jackson: The Experience is about to hit the next big motion-sensing thing, in Kinect - and far from simply being a quick, high-definition port, the reality is a game that's very different indeed. Unable to resist the temptation, we slipped on our dancing shoes, and moonwalked down to London's Covent Garden (a tricky feat in itself, seeing as we couldn't see behind ourselves), to go hands-on (or full body on, rather), with the Kinect overhaul.
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Having been announced, and therefore logically having been in development for the same amount of time as the Wii version, it may initially seem strange that the Kinect one's taken so much longer to finally see its release. In fact, there's a very good reason for the delay, as far from being a parallel development, Michael Jackson on Kinect is an entirely different game, and one that any fans of Just Dance are going to have to take a bit of time getting used to.
Utilising the Kinect sensor to track your entire body, the game is, initially, a lot more daunting. Rather than simply swinging a Wii Remote around to match the silhouettes on the screen, the game now tracks your entire body, from head to toe. What this means, practically, is that whereas before, a lot of the choreography was based around the arms and hands (as that's what's holding the Wii Remote, and is therefore the only thing that can realistically be tracked), now the floodgates have been opened, as the game will require you to perform, and will score you doing all of Michael's signature moves, from the hip thrust, to the iconic moonwalk.
Using the same menu, and image extraction techniques as Your Shape: Fitness Evolved (Ubisoft's Kinect fitness game), Michael Jackson: The Experience on Kinect will literally place you into the middle of a Jackson performance, taking you out of your living room, removing any furniture from around you, before putting you up on a stage with a troupe of backing dancers. Each song has its own heavily stylised venue, which draw strongly from the relevant music video - Black or White, for example, has a distinctly global feel, with a range of landmarks making up the background, and clips from the original music video being projected onto the sky. As the song progresses, the arenas change and evolve - even the backing dancers were subject to a few costume changes, going from being tribal dancers, to Russian Cossacks in the space of a few moves. Better still, there are plenty of little nods and nice touches in the arenas, too - in Billie Jean, for example, the tiles beneath your feet light up as you strut your stuff.
If you've ever played a Kinect game before, you'll know how space hungry they can be, requiring upwards of 6-8ft from the sensor to you - which, in many houses, is something of an impossibility. Luckily, the developers have taken this very much into account, and are working around the limitations of the hardware. Rather than requiring you to dance forwards, backwards, left and right (while being fully aware of how "into it", and carried away we can all get, sometimes...) the game and choreography require minimal movement from side to side, and next to no movement backwards. What this means is, so long as you reach the minimum space requirements for Kinect, you should be fine - there's no need to knock through an extension, here.
As with Kinect's other big dancing game, Dance Central, the moves you have to perform are represented by silhouettes in the bottom right hand corner of the screen - one showing you how you're meant to start, and one showing you how you're meant to finish. Unfortunately, as is often the way with Just Dance, things can be a bit tricky to begin with, as the silhouettes often don't tell you explicitly enough what you're meant to do. But whereas on Michael Jackson: The Experience on the Wii, the icons had arrows showing you where it wanted you to move your arm, or indeed, your body, on the Kinect version, it's simply a game of spot the difference between two pictures - and when all it wants you to do is a shoulder shuffle, initially, it can be very difficult to get it right. Strangely, it even seems to take some time to figure out what you're meant to be doing when you're watching the backing dancers, too, even though their entire purpose is exactly that. Thanks to their heavily stylised appearance, we found it a bit tricky to tell exactly what the dancers were doing - at least, until they'd repeated the moves a few times. Needless to say, we got the hang of it eventually, but to begin with, it'll definitely catch you off guard.
Practice, then, as they say makes perfect, and you'll require a fair amount of it before you can feel comfortable performing on Kinect. With a few runs through the song, you quickly start to realise exactly what it is you're meant to be doing, and, better still, begin to recognise the icons, giving you that extra bit of warning about the move you've got to go into next. Seemingly realising how daunting the idea of having to match Michael's moves 1:1 might be, Ubisoft have relaxed the scoring schemes to suit, as you don't have to be exactly, 100% spot on for it to recognise you as doing the right thing. If you can't get your knee high enough, don't worry, as the build we played seemed to recognise you lifting your leg, and knew that you were doing your best.
There's little arguing, though, that Michael Jackson: The Experience for Kinect is a much more realistic challenge than the Wii version, even with the lenient scoring. Another huge difference between the two consoles is that for Kinect, it's not just dancing you'll be doing, as now, you'll have to imitate Michael's singing, too.
Each track you attempt comes with several options, letting you approach the song however you see fit. Top of the list is the practice mode, which you really want to do before you try it for real, followed by options to perform a version of the track that's dancing only; the full blown singing and dancing mode; or Master mode. While the first two are self explanatory, Master mode is something a little bit different, and is exclusive to the Kinect version of the game. Taking advantage of the full body tracking, Master mode recreates the choreography from Jacko's music videos as accurately as possible, in another all singing, all dancing mode that's sure to push even the best of dancers.
As good as the all singing, all dancing Michael Jackson experience sounds, though, there is something of a disappointment with how the mode's been executed. Rather than tracking your pitch, and, well, your singing, the game simply detects the rhythm at which you're singing the words. What that means is you can be as out of tune as you want - or even simply rapping - and the game will give you 100%, as long as you're in time. The official line is that singing and dancing would be too difficult to do together - but to be honest, we'd probably have preferred to have the option to try it for ourselves.
With this in mind, it seems even more peculiar that Ubisoft have taken the decision to make some of the songs
"singing only" songs, with no choreography to go alongside them. Earth Song, sadly, is one of the tracks that's lost its moves, and we also heard Heal the World mentioned with regards to the singing only mode, although we're unsure whether that's final. Even stranger is that these songs both had routines on the Wii, but are sadly lacking on Kinect.
Of course, it's definitely not all bad news for Michael Jackson: The Experience on Kinect, as along with the shiny graphics afforded by the next generation consoles, the game will also be taking full advantage of downloadable tracks. While there's no official release schedule announced, Ubisoft have confirmed that it is coming - which means the Captain EO downloadable pack that we've been hoping for may not be all that unlikely after all.
Along with the downloadable songs, the Kinect (and PS3) versions will also be shipping with some extra songs on the disk. Again, the developers wouldn't be pushed on precise numbers (although we definitely tried!), but the first two new songs have been announced as being I Just Can't Stop Loving You, and Blood on the Dance Floor - all we know so far is that there'll be more to follow.
Although it'll certainly take some getting used to - especially if you're used to standing still and just moving your arm around on the Wii version - we left the event satisfied that Michael Jackson: The Experience is going to be a lot of fun. In fact, after playing it, you can't help but have that little bit of a swagger in your walk, as the beats run through your head, and the game does that most dangerous of things - convinces you you can dance. With the initial disappointment of the singing mode out the way, and a lot still left to be revealed (including the rest of the bonus tracks, and the downloadable songs), the future's certainly looking bright for when Michael hits Kinect.
If (like us), you're still burning for more information, we'll have an interview with the game's producer up in the next few days, where we grill him on downloadable songs, the differences when compared with the Wii version, and ask the question on everyone's lips - will it teach you to do the Moonwalk. Why not like us on Facebook to be the first to get it!