Ubisoft's press conference was undoubtedly a highlight of E3. Announcement-packed, full of surprises and spectacularly French, it even helped the company win Best Publisher in Eurogamer's E3 Awards.
There was plenty on show for the hardcore, such as Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood (catch up with our preview if you missed it first time round). But, perhaps still flush with the success of Just Dance, Ubi also tried to appeal to the more casual demographic with titles like Your Shape, Michael Jackson: The Experience and, of course, Just Dance 2.
Just as everyone knows what "urban" really stands for, everyone knows what "more casual demographic" means. So, a few weeks after the hustle and bustle of E3 was over, we sent a woman along to Ubisoft's London showcase. There she took a closer look at what the publisher has to offer those who would swap swords and shotguns for leotards and legwarmers any day.
Michael Jackson: The Experience
All showcase visitors actually got to experience of this game was a trailer running on a big plasma telly. It was mainly comprised of clips from Crazy Mike's videos, interspersed with X-Factor-style statements such as "30 MILLION UK SINGLES" and "NINE US NUMBER ONES" and "$22 MILLION IN OUT OF COURT SETTLEMENTS". Maybe not the last one.
However, there were also brief glimpses of the actual videogame. The DS version appears to play much like rhythm-action effort Osu! Tatakae! Ouendan, judging by the circles with numbers in displayed on the touch-screen. According to the press release, you can also expect "fun trivia" and "cool mini-games".
Michael Jackson: The Experience for Xbox 360 will be playable with Kinect. The camera will scan you from head to toe and Ubi's Player Projection technology will recreate an image on-screen. In other words, you won't see a Live-style avatar of yourself, but a 3D map of your body.
The amazing-sounding Michael School Mode will help you learn to dance like Jacko. The press release says the man himself will teach you the moves, but there was no sign of a Jackson avatar in the brief trailer - just faceless silhouettes. There's a karaoke mode, complete with auto-pitch feature to improve the sound of your singing. You can play with up to three other players and upload your best performances online.
Michael School Mode, auto-pitch and the four-player option are all present and correct in the PS3 version of the game. But again, that's according to the press release - there was no footage in the trailer, so it's impossible to know how whether you'll appear in the game as an avatar or a projected image.
The Wii game was shown, however. It looks very similar to Just Dance - you copy the moves of a motion-capped dancer, waving the remote in time with the music. The dancer here is instantly recognisable thanks to his Jheri curl hairdo, white socks and black loafers. No thanks to his face, mind, as once again, he doesn't have one.
Curiouser and curiouser. Could this mean that while Ubi clearly has the rights to use Jackson's music, videos and dance moves in its games, it couldn't quite afford the singer's likeness, too? Or can their artist just not draw noses very well? Not that that should matter. Oh well, here's hoping we'll get to actually play the game soon, perhaps during a press trip to Neverland.
Just Dance 2
Think back 12 months. Who would have predicted that a budget Wii game revolving entirely around waving a remote while making a tit of yourself would knock Call of Duty off the top spot?
Not even Ubisoft, admits Just Dance brand manager Rachael Grant. "We had high hopes for it because we thought it was a great game, but I don't think anyone anticipated it would be such a massive success," she says. "As for taking number one from COD... No, I don't think anyone predicted that."
Three million copies later, here comes the inevitable sequel. Once again gameplay involves waggling and tit-making and not much else. There are more tracks though - around 45 instead of the original game's 32 - along with four-player functionality and a few new modes.
These include Just Sweat which, all right, is really just the old mode with a calorie counter thrown in. But there's also Duet mode, where each player follows a different coach and performs their own moves. This means you and a friend can perform dances where you interact with each other instead of mirroring each other.
The results actually are hilarious. This is down to Just Dance's core strength, which is the brilliant choreography of the motion-capped dance coaches you have to copy. As in the original game, the routines are an excellent mix of contemporary, familiar, funky, cheesy and downright silly moves. Throw in some classic face-off manoeuvres and Just Dance 2 is even more fun.
Obviously I'm a woman, so of course I like Just Dance. But were you at the Ubisoft showcase, had you witnessed top-tier games journalists Kieron Gillen, Simon Parkin, Mike Channell and Oli Welsh getting down to Donna Summer's Hot Stuff in perfect four-player unison, and had you'd seen them having such a great time doing so, you'd know I'm not the only one.
What about those who remain convinced, however - those who maintain Just Dance is just a silly, simplistic game which has no depth and offers no real challenge? "I would say yes, they're completely right," says Grant. "It is simplistic. That's one of the things people love about the game. You pick up and play, it's very sociable, and people seem to love it."
There's no doubt the budget price point was also a bit part of Just Dance's appeal, and Grant says the sequel will be in the same ballpark. You'll be able to add to the content on the disc with downloadable tracks later in the year, and pricing will be in line with iTunes and SingStore tracks.
Even if Just Dance 2 came with 900,000 tracks on the disc and cost 15 pence, it wouldn't appeal to everyone. If you're innately repulsed by the original, the sequel won't change your mind. But if you secretly wonder what all the fuss is about, and whether it might not actually be quite fun in the right circumstances, you might want to give JD2 a go when it hits the shops this October.
It's hard to visualise the brainstorming meeting at which the idea for Racket Sports was born, but perhaps it went something like this. (You'll have to imagine the French accents, this isn't 'Allo 'Allo.)
"So. PlayStation Move is the new Wii remote. We should make a PlayStation version of Wii Sports!"
"OK! But we only have the budget to develop one mini-game. What is the best mini-game in Wii Sports?"
"Tennis! Everyone likes the tennis. The boxing's too tiring, the bowling is too fiddly for women and old people to understand and the golf is just boring. And we have no idea what a baseballs is. Let's do tennis!"
"OK! But we can't just have one mini-game. Wait! I've got it! We'll do one tennis mini-game but give it five different sets of graphics! No one will ever know! And we'll call it Racket Sports!"
The five tennis mini-games in Racket Sports are tennis, table tennis, beach tennis, squash tennis and badminton tennis. Up to four players can take part in matches and there's an online mode. As with Wii Sports, there's a cartoony, knockabout feel to the whole thing.
But unlike with Wii Sports, your avatar replicates your movements with precision and you can't get away with quick flicks or wild swings. "This is the Move, it's not the Wii," says brand manager Ombeline Wallon. "If you just shake your wrist it's not going to move. It tracks the ball on the controller so if you move only your wrist, you'll see your avatar move only their wrist."
Racket Sports also gives you more control over where your avatar is on the court, providing you're playing on the Expert difficulty level. You still can't move left or right, but pressing circle makes your player run to the net. Plus, you can press the trigger button to perform more powerful but potentially trickier shots. (These options are AI-controlled if you're playing on Easy, to ensure the game still appeals to casual players.)
In practice, Wallon is right about the wrist thing - your avatar follows your arm movements with accuracy. Unfortunately, it doesn't also follow them with speed. There was a noticeable lag problem with the demo on show at the Ubisoft showcase, or at least that's what Wes said when I beat him 40-Love.
There are some serious questions hanging over Racket Sports right now. Will the lag problem be fixed by the time the game launches alongside the Move? Can Ubisoft strike a balance between giving hardcore players control and challenge and letting casual gamers have fun? And does the world really need another mini-game compilation, especially one which only features racket-based games, and only has five of them, one of which is badminton?
Ah, another mini-game collection. This one is for Kinect and will feature six or seven mini-games, however, and they're more varied than those in Racket Sports - those revealed so far include horseback riding, hang-gliding, boxing and "soccer".
But the two on show today are skiing and American football. The first of these will be familiar to anyone who's played Family Ski, as it's the same game without the Balance Board and controllers. You squat and lean forward to race downhill, tilting your body left and right to slalom.
The visuals are more realistic than those in Family Ski, or indeed in Racket Sports. There doesn't seem to be any noticeable lag, either. But the highlight is the way the Kinect camera takes photos of you while games are loading, then plasters virtual skyscrapers, billboards and in-game screens with your image, hailing you as a sporting superstar.
The American football game involves racing down the pitch, or field as they possibly call it, heading for the touchdown goal, or whatever it is, while being attacked on all sides by vicious wingers and mid-fielders. You can lean left or right to avoid them, fend them off with your arms or even try to jump over them.
Or you can just sit back, relax and enjoy the spectacularly hilarious voiceover by the excitable American commentator. "That was a back alley mugging, but you took it to the house and you burned the mother down," he says. "Check your wallet."
Let's hope we get to play some other Motion Sports games soon, and aren't the victims of any back alley muggings in the meantime.
Your Shape: Fitness Evolved
You might think Your Shape is a rip-off of Wii Fit, but you'd be wrong. "Your Shape is a lot more about fitness, whereas Wii Fit was a lot more about fun," explains Wallon. "It's more of a Western approach to fitness, where as we know the Japanese approach was more holistic." See? It's actually a rip-off of EA Sports Active.
To be fair, there are some significant differences. You don't have to wear a stupid neoprene thigh strap or muck about with a giant rubber band, for starters. Instead, the Kinect camera works with Ubisoft's own-brand Player Projection Technology to render a 3D map of your body as it looks in real life.
Well, sort of. The map of my body makes my thighs look like overstuffed sausages. I mention this to Wallon. "We're still working on improving this design," she says. I say the same thing about my thighs.
You can't fault Your Shape in terms of thoroughness. It scans everything from your biceps and triceps to your hamstrings and abdominals. It can gauge bone alignment. It can tell you your height, arm length, shoulder span, leg length and more. It probably knows what you had for dinner last night and which member of Girls Aloud is your favourite.
Your Shape uses all this information to help determine what kind of exercises you should be doing and how hard you should be working. "There are about 10 levels of difficulty, so it really adapts whether you're a beginner or you're already going to the gym," says Wallon.
The core of the game, or fitness software, or EA Sports Active rip-off or whatever you want to call it, is the Personal Training mode. This allows you to work on a certain area of your body by following a specially designed exercise programme. Or to be specific, by following the actions of a computer-generated personal trainer. I have a go, trying out a minute-long round of knee thrusts and squat punches. It feels exercisey, but my thighs remain sausagey.
The Fitness Classes train you in the art of things like yoga and tai-chi. Kinect tracks the movement of your joints and limbs and a diagram in the top-right corner of the screen shows whether you're doing the moves properly. This works well; it's good to get constant, real-time feedback, rather than just having to hope you're sticking your leg in the air in the right way. According to Walland, more Fitness Classes will be released as downloadable content after the game is out.
And finally there are Gym Activities. This is where you'll find more casual exercises like hula hooping. I have a go at cross-punching and kicking some virtual coloured bricks. This is virtually impossible at first due a massive lag problem, but Wallon assures me this is a temporary issue - something to do with the demo code reloading data.
Things do improve on my second attempt, but something's still not quite right. It's not just because a little bit of lag remains either. It feels odd to be punching nothing but air while watching solid-looking things explode, and it's strangely unsatisfying.
Still. Ubisoft has a few months left to sort out any issues with Your Shape, and indeed any with the rest of the games being demoed at its recent showcase. I know I speak for all women when I say some of them look a bit rubbish, and some of them look quite good, but nothing compares to Just Dance 2.*
Racket Sports will launch alongside PlayStation Move on 15th September, to be followed by Your Shape: Fitness Evolved and Just Dance 2 in October. Michael Jackson: The Experience and Motion Sports should hit the shops in time for Christmas.