First released in 2009 and now in its fifth iteration, Ubisoft’s Just Dance has done away with naming each addition sequentially and instead opted for the year of release (in this case Just Dance 2014) which is an admittance on Ubisoft’s part that the Just Dance series is fully entrenched in a yearly production-cycle.
The premise of the game remains as simple and resolute as it appeared in the first edition. Players dance to their favourite pop songs, while trying to mirror the on-screen avatar’s movements. What could be perceived as a teaching tool is more geared towards silly fun, preferably in the company of enthusiastic friends. Even on the newer, more advanced version of Microsoft’s Kinect camera, the game awards appropriate timing while giving the player some leniency in performing the trickier dance moves.
It’s in this respect, the advantages of next-gen hardware become somewhat marginalised with graphics that are like-for-like and few unique features. It’s actually a rather reserved first outing for the series on next-gen consoles. The one added benefit that Kinect 2.0 brings to the table is in the form of its wider lens that can track a larger area and, in a first for the series, up to six people, meaning potentially the whole family can join in (stop pulling that face).
The setlist is made up of the past year’s more catchy pop/dance hits, with Psy’s (I’m totally not a one-hit wonder) Gentleman and Katy Perry’s Roar. There are a few classics to round out the selection, including Careless Whisper and the Ghost Busters theme-tune. Of course, if the on-disc content becomes stale, Ubisoft have you covered with a buffet of overpriced downloadable tracks.
Visually, the tracks are performed in neon-drenched backdrops with avatars that act like mimes on some scary acid trip. It’s hard not to look at Just Dance and be subconsciously amped by the sheer colour on display. It’s not subtle but like most uses of neon, it promises loud - and possibly obnoxious - fun times ahead.
After getting used to watching a neon-soaked mime running amok with the enthusiasm of a children’s TV presenter, watching the Kinect’s recorded video of yourself, dead-eyed in your PJs robotically trying to replicate the robot dance from Get Lucky is when Just Dance sort of clicked for me because I couldn’t stop laughing at myself, and in turn started to see what the game is all about. This isn’t a competitive shooter where bragging rights are about kill-to-death ratios. Just Dance is about loosening up and not taking yourself too seriously. Even if you can't match your neon avatar’s faultless moves, watching yourself fail or valiantly giving it your best shot in a dingy room is a contrast that is amusing in its utter futility.
Watching other gamers’ routines on the AutoDance Network further breaks down the barriers of inhibition and can be quite infectious to watch. A particular rendition of Careless Whisper by a hairy man with a prop saxophone, for better or worse, won't be lost from my memory for a long time indeed. These clips can also be shared on Facebook and other social media, with fun filters that will give your particular video a more unique tone (if your awkward dancing doesn’t already achieve this).
Another new addition is the On-Stage Mode where one person performs a routine with others acting as backing dancers. This mode is a little quirky and exemplifies a bit of desperation from Ubisoft, in trying to add new content to the game that might already be approaching saturation point. There are numerous modes and methods of playing, all added to try to extend the variety and add value to the product. There is online leaderboard-based multiplayer called World Dance Floor. There is a workout mode that tries to build up a sweat by melding energetic songs into one another and also Smartglass integration, allowing your “friend” to alter the dances moves and queue up the next few songs like some personal trainer/puppet master hybrid. There is a karaoke feature through the Kinect microphone which gives you a bonus for singing parts of the song, but unfortunately offers little feedback and seems half-baked. The menus follow the main game’s visual style, meaning it’s easy to get bewildered by all the content, especially if you are a newcomer.
These menus can be navigated through Kinect using your hand ‘Minority Report style’. It actually works quite well and it’s liberating to not have to keep reaching for the controller. The only trouble comes when you don’t want to select anything and your hands are still moving. I almost shared a video of my dancing simply by raising a cup of tea to drink. The Kinect camera is good at recognising someone in the room and letting them join the game. It even bizarrely let my cat join one dance. Sleeping quietly on the sofa he didn't score very highly, but did score the odd perfectly timed move, which speaks to the margin of error Just Dance allows.
It’s hard to criticise Just Dance when its aims are so humble. The game works well even if its accuracy doesn't make best use of the new Kinect camera. The trouble with the game is it manages to feel feature-packed but also bloated. There are warning signs that Just Dance could face a familiar fate to Guitar Hero, which ended up dying under the weight of its yearly release structure and over-ripened content.
At its core, Just Dance is a simple dance game slathered in perhaps unnecessary distraction. Ubisoft have included coins and leaderboards but in reality it’s not a game that will require that sort of dedication. It will likely sit on the shelf and be brought out in small bursts, for parties or social gatherings. Ubisoft could alleviate this convolution by simply releasing new tracks as downloadable updates but the game thrives on its constant retail shelf-presence, particularly to a casual gaming audience who might not be as savvy to recognise a new downloadable add-on.
Just Dance 2014 on the Xbox One is exactly the game you might expect it to be. There is more content than most people will likely use and as a core experience it doesn't offer much to sell non-fans on the wonder of Kinect, but if you fancy some fresh beats to dance to on your shiny new console, it works well without drastically altering a winning formula for Ubisoft.