"Just Dance 4" and "Just Dance Disney" add rockin' new strands to the Just Dance franchise DNA.
The Kinect registers my raised hand with a ping. The beat starts up and its seconds before a swirl of color overtakes the screen and an avatar is beckoning me to shimmy and do jazz-hands.
"I can't dance very well," I say, awkwardly flailing my way through the first move set.
The representative for Ubisoft guiding my demo laughs, not unkindly. "Just dance."
The latest additions to Ubisoft's Just Dance series, Just Dance 4 and Just Dance Disney, bring a whole lot of game to the franchise. While Just Dance 4 has been given some Kinect exclusive features and a complete makeover for the Wii U, its Disney-themed entry is a refreshing change from the slew of pop-centric dance games currently on the market.
Just Dance 4 will feature jump-in, jump-out multiplayer for up to four players — five if you're playing on the Wii U. As with previous incarnations of the game, players select a tune to dance to from a wide range of popular songs. An on-screen avatar walks you through the dance and players are cued for each upcoming move. Some songs will have multiple choregraphy routines, while others have two players doing alternating moves.
Also like its predecessor, Just Dance 4 will feature downloadable content, albeit a bit more aggressively than previous titles. The game will have day one content at launch on October 9th, a batch of Top 40 hits. Ubisoft plans to keep downloadable content "fresh," with a new list of current musical favorites made available every month or every other month. Some tracks from previous Just Dance titles will be downloadable, but previously-purchased tracks will not be compatible with Just Dance 4.
The Kinect version will include an exclusive feature, Autodance, an updated take on Ubisoft's Autodance iOS application used with Just Dance 3. Autodance takes photos as you play through a song and compiles them into short 30-second clips akin to animated gifs, showing off some of the dancers' more goofy or stylin' moments. These clips can be saved onto the Xbox 360 and uploaded to Xbox Live or Facebook for sharing. Autodance will automatically record all songs unless the feature is turned off in the game's settings.
The Wii U version will also be getting its own console-exclusive mode called "Puppet Master," which includes up to five players with one playing on the GamePad tablet controller. As players dance, the one on the GamePad — the Puppet Master — selects the next set of moves they must execute. Dancers have no idea what move will come up next other than a two-second warning flash on the right side of the screen. Moves cycle through very quickly and dancers will be kept on their toes. The Puppet Master can also select poses for the dancers to strike, and they must hold them for a period of time determined by the Master.
Replayability is the Puppet Master mode's raison d'etre
On-screen, the moves are performed by avatars from past Just Dance games, making Puppet Master mode an homage of sorts to the rest of the series. The avatars' movements have been synched up to the beats per minute of the current song, with each move covering a dance count of eight beats. Long-time fans of the series will recognize the moves and characters, giving Just Dance 4 a kind of franchise chronology.
Replayability is the Puppet Master mode's raison d'etre — players essentially create new, unique routines for the songs they love, keeping play fresh.
"It gives more creative control for people playing," said Ubisoft's Michael Beadle. "Some players like a certain song but want to try out different moves for it, and this lets them customize their experience a bit more. It's less about gameplay in a traditional video game sense and more about increasing social interaction.
"We want people having fun and the GamePad allows another person to get involved who doesn't have to dance," he added. "It's great for rotating that one person out who wants to take a break or wants to play but isn't too keen on dancing."
As for the game's presence on Nintendo new hardware, Beadle explained that Ubisoft had been committed to wringing all potential from this new piece of technology once the development kits were in company hands. The Just Dance team wanted to create an exclusive experience, something radically different and something that presented a different challenge from the game's Kinect and PlayStation Move versions.
As I watched another dancer break a sweat to Rick Astley's infamous "Never Gonna Give You Up," I couldn't help but laugh at what was happening on-screen. A gangly superhero, dressed to the nines in cape and tights, danced enthusiastically while a city of skyscrapers in the background was destroyed by giant monsters and alien spaceships. Most settings in Just Dance 4 are similarly playful, brightly-colored and treading the border between thematically appropriate and laughably wacky.
"We don't take ourselves too seriously," Beadle told me. "We don't tell you this game will make you the best dancer in the world or anything like that. We just want you to have fun."
The Just Sweat feature, a mode created to aid those using the games for weight loss, has been tweaked for Just Dance 4 as well, replacing its arbitrary "Sweat Points" tracker with a calorie counter. A box on the top left corner of the screen will track how aggressively you are dancing and display how many calories you've burned, ostensibly making the game an effective and encouraging fitness tracking tool.
"One of the things that's been pretty amazing with the franchise is that it permeates pop culture," Beadle added. "People are playing at parties, playing with their kids, using it to lose weight, playing it in schools and using it in hospitals for therapy. The game is exercise in disguise, and it's fun socially. People are really adapting to it."
The Just Dance series has a very different kind of DNA
But it's not just the older party-rocking and fitness crowds that are being catered to. The Just Dance Kids series newest title, Just Dance Disney, is a beautifully crafted game for the young and young at heart, catering to the latter's nostalgia and the former's attachment to popular Disney franchises.
Coming October 23rd to the Wii and Xbox 360, Just Dance Disney boasts a well-balanced track list of old and new. Half the songs hail from classic Disney movies like Beauty and the Beast and The Jungle Book, while and the other half caters to fans of the Disney Channel's current television lineup from High School Musical to Hannah Montana. The on-screen avatars have been ditched for recordings of real people performing in Disney character costumes.
Like other Just Dance titles, the game can accommodate up to flour players and includes progress bars to indicate who is "winning" in real-time.
Unlike its counterpart in Harmonix's Dance Central 3, Just Dance 4 and Just Dance Disney include no narrative elements. They don't need them.
"The Just Dance series has a very different kind of DNA," Beadle said. "It's really about just jumping right in and playing all the songs. We're not trying to tell a story or evoke some kind of 'heritage of music' theme. It's really, 'Here's our tracklist, here are the songs, just dance.'"
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