Version tested iPad
Hello and welcome to the libel minefield that is the Eurogamer review of Michael Jackson: The Experience, the touch-control version of last year's console game of the same name. I'm your host and reviewer John Bedford, to my right is the desiccated - yet commercially vibrant - corpse of Mr Michael Jackson. Say hello Michael: "BLEURGHYAGHALAL."
Thank you Michael.
We're here today to talk about the recently released iPad-exclusive edition. Upfront, the rather grim news is that the £2.99 basic app provides only a meagre collection of four songs: Beat It, Smooth Criminal, Speed Demon and Blood on the Dance Floor. Additional songs such as Billie Jean and Black or White are available at a somewhat optimistic £1.49, while outfits can be upgraded for the price of an average standalone app (£0.69).
But good value though, surely, given the source material?
It's easy to forget now what an extraordinary figure Michael Jackson really was before he started crucifying himself at awards ceremonies for the benefit of the Ghost of Children Future. In the same way that an evangelical crowd will descend now onto Oxford Street to herald the birth of a new iPad, the country would grind to a halt at the promise of a Jackson video making its debut on Top of the Pops. Tread carefully on these memories.
And we do at least get some of those cherished moments included with the price, with production values that are nothing short of staggering. The note-for-note animated recreation of Smooth Criminal led to debate in the office around whether the source video had somehow been converted with technical magic into an animated version, or 3D modelled from scratch. We suspected the former purely because of its flawless devotion to the original, but we had to concede the latter. It's an impressive achievement.
Once in these living videos, playing at your chosen difficulty of Rookie, Medium, or Expert, you're tasked with responding to a variety of gestures that spawn in a circle around Michael. Directional swipes are combined with taps, swirls and flourishes that maintain a competently appropriate match to the beats ingrained in our collective consciousness.
But while each of the game's modes offer a reasonable challenge, none of them crucially feels fair, and the often-inaccurate feedback of your actions becomes magnified and compounded as you progress through the difficulty levels. Never more so than on Expert level, where you'll have to adopt an almost Magic Eye squint in order to keep track of the rather thin double-arrows and taps that appear with great intensity. The unpredictable line that marks the difference between a miss, a good touch and a perfect execution is a fussy devil and will come to frustrate once the novelty of a first play has been savoured.
As a result of all this, the one thing you never come to appreciate is Michael himself: an odd disconnection given the presumed intent. Let's not forget either that this is gaming on a tablet and - in contrast to its console counterparts - unlikely to provide much in the way of spectator entertainment. Only in the freestyle sections is the option to enjoy a little more of the action afforded to you, but even these moments can be hindered by the rather unreliable controls.
Overall, you can't help but feel that the increased real estate of the iPad hasn't been utilised as efficiently as it could have been for the gameplay. You won't take in the surrounding scenery that the platform affords, because you're trying desperately to focus on the limited section of the screen that contains the dance instructions. It becomes the undoing of the game and a real pity to boot.
There's no question that there's enjoyment to be had in the short-term, although even the highlights can stumble a little. Scenes from the impossibly cool Shanghai speakeasy setting of Smooth Criminal are recreated perfectly - up until the point where Michael and his troupe of suave ner'do-wells all do the "leaning-over-thing". The frame-rate stutters somewhat on a second-generation iPad before you're instructed to twiddle, swirl and coax Michael while he stays petulantly immobile and rigid at a 35-degree angle.
The essential feel of Beat It is captured equally well and throughout this and the remaining tracks Michael remains suitably costumed and stylised as befits the era. If your sole intention is to involve yourself somewhat with a collection of classic videos then there's much to be said for the game in making this a reality - although such a short-lived exercise can only ever sit awkwardly alongside the cost. Those who wish to compete and improve on their scores will find it harder to forgive its stumblings.
For all of the jokes, controversies, obsessional fandom, Messianic self-aggrandising, chimps, and God-only-knows whatever else you care to pluck at random from the dictionary, the musical legacy of Michael Jackson at his greatest should probably be left now either to perish or flourish on its own merits - unless something impossibly special can be added to an already impossibly grandiose career.
In this instance, the game lives off the fumes of a life that at its peak was a cultural phenomenon, but by itself does little to stoke the fire and extend that legacy. It's all just a bit sad really, and while devoted Jackson fans will find more reason than most to gloss over the practical shortcomings of the game, they run the risk of being left even sadder.
5 / 10