Ubisoft's party bus has pulled in right on time yet again, with another autumn bringing another main entry for the effortlessly silly Just Dance series of all-around good times. The franchise has had an annual numbered release since it first boogied in 2009, and this year eschews the numeric uptick in favor of a far more honest label: Just Dance 2014. By popping a year on the box, Ubisoft sticks two stakes in the ground: one declaring intent to keep this party going for years to come (which should come as a shock to exactly no one, given its massive success), and the other planting the game firmly in its time.
At its core, Just Dance 2014 hasn't changed much at all from the other 15 games the franchise has spawned so far: Grab some friends, wield a Wii Remote, pick a track, and follow the dancers on-screen like they were your reflection. Perform well — it's occasionally still a little fuzzy how the game interprets "well" — to earn stars and Mojo points, the former as a badge of honour and the latter to unlock new tracks, alternate choreography, profile avatars and other goodies. Ubisoft doesn't appear too interested in messing with a good thing here, so at heart the game plays exactly the same as before. The body, however, continues to shift and morph, shedding failed ideas like song-specific achievements while building much new by flattening the overall structure to — at least make an attempt at — something cleaner and easier, incentivising year-round play with unlocks tied to the calendar, and finally adding online competition and fantastic video sharing.
While the track lists for Just Dance games have always mixed in novelty songs like The Rocky Horror Picture Show's "Time Warp" with contemporary pop and club bangerz, Just Dance 2014's eye is more fixated on Top 40 hits from this year than doing something silly just for the sake of it. That isn't to say that the franchise has suddenly gone serious — you can jam out to the Love Boat theme song or "Prince Ali" from Disney's Aladdin if you'd like — but a good chunk of the set list is still played all over the radio. Daft Punk's "Get Lucky," Robin Thicke ft. Pharrell and their "Blurred Lines," One Direction's "Kiss You," and a couple of jams each from Nicki Minaj, Katy Perry and Lady Gaga are headliners, with Ke$ha, Pitbull, the Biebster and a downloadable Macklemore track rounding out the year in music. Recognition is important when attempting to get a troupe interested in playing at your next party, but for solo dancers enjoyment of the setlist might come down to two factors: How much you enjoyed the year in Top 40, and just how sick you may be of hearing these songs right now.
The choreography seems to have levelled itself out to be more accessible compared to last year's Just Dance 4. Whereas that entry dipped early and often into technical and demanding routines as a likely result of sequel difficulty ramp-up, Just Dance 2014 requires less coordination off the bat with moves that are easier and quicker to wrap your brain around — nothing kills a good time like feeling inadequate, so this new-found accessibility will potentially maintain newcomer interest for longer. Experienced dancers looking to push themselves further can do so with the wealth of alternate choreography. Around half of the tracks have some sort of second routine to unlock, ranging from a fun interpretation of the Charleston to more challenging Extreme routines.
Many of these bonus routines are only playable in Just Dance 2014's extra modes, which as a whole show more creativity than in past games. Take the super-weird but conceptually hilarious Battle Mode, for instance: While limited to a mere four playable mash-up tracks, each dancer has custom choreography where characters from their respective track go head-to-head in a strange dance-off modelled after a 2D fighting game where excellent dancing chips away at your opponent's life bar. The less zany On Stage Mode casts one player as the lead and two as backup dancers. The lead and backup dancers each have their own choreography intended to replicate a performance you might see in a music video or live at an arena. On Stage doesn't have the same zest as Battle but it offers a nice change of pace and setting compared to the vanilla dance mode.
Returning modes like Just Sweat and Party Master round out the offline features. Workout mode Just Sweat has offed the original themes (Space aerobics! Cheerleader boot camp! Electro body combat!) and nixed the warm-up, cool-down and transitional routines with unique "personal trainers." Instead, 2014 returns to simply picking tracks and counting calories burned. On the flip-side, many tracks now have unlockable Just Sweat routines and mash-ups.
Similar to Puppet Master in the previous go out, Party Master allows a non-dancing player to wield the GamePad and choose which moves are coming up, with choreography and characters that dig deep into the Just Dance vault. Every so often comes the opportunity to switch songs, so dancers can start off in the clouds of Nicki Minaj's "Starships" and end up boogying to that Love Boat theme song. Gone is the ability to make your crude doodles drawn on the GamePad flash over the dancers on the main screen.
Just Dance has displayed song lyrics for years now, and finally adds in karaoke support. Sort of. Switch on karaoke by tapping the GamePad, and by singing along into the controller's mic you earn extra Mojo points at the end. However, if you thought Just Dance's dance detection was janky then its ability to hear your karaoke singing will blow your mind — we earned karaoke bonuses without even activating the feature, so who knows what's going on there.
One failing of Just Dance 2014's flatter structure is that it can be a challenge to get an overview of what songs support which modes. The game is structured in a "song first" way — once you've picked a song you can see what types of extra modes it supports. But there's no way to show a list of songs that, say, have On Stage support if you're really feeling that, or ones that have Extreme choreography. On the main menu is a tepid Recommended pick for each mode that will send you right in, but you can't actually browse tracks for any specific mode. As before, new songs and, now, routines can be purchased and downloaded for a few bucks each, which also show up as recommendations on the menu so you don't have to visit the eShop to see what's new.
All of this is well and good, if not a bit expected by now, so where Just Dance 2014 really earns its stripes is in its two newfangled online features. Autodance brings video recording to the series, allowing everyone to share in the utter ridiculousness that is watching somebody play Just Dance. A quick two taps on the GamePad begins 30 seconds of recording, which the game automatically splices together into a clip that you can share online through Just Dance TV or with your UPlay-linked Twitter account. You can then Like and classify videos, or simply flip through Just Dance TV to see what kinds of moves the world is rockin'. We called Ghostbusters and...it wasn't pretty. Autodance and Just Dance TV are fantastic, organic concepts that are executed with the same goofy panache that the franchise does so well. It's about time something like this happened.
Also far overdue is online competition, which Just Dance 2014 finally brings to the table in the simplest form possible. Hop online and dance along to the same song as everyone else in the world to prove your prowess. That's it, really. There's no communicating with competitors, no song selection, no modes, no one-on-ones, no rivalries, nada. Online play amounts to a dynamic leaderboard, which is disappointing given the potential for a world-wide dance-off. Because the most you interact with other players is through seeing where you place, it can be hard to tell how you're doing online compared to others. Sure, there's that ranking list that updates during the song and shows how many stars people are earning, but it would have been nice to actually see your competitors dancing or be able to otherwise interact with them. The game does have camera support, after all — although maybe that's one for the future once Ubisoft has staffed up on pants cops. No matter how many people the game says you're dancing with, online can be a pretty lonely place.
Just Dance 2014 doesn't rock the boat too much, nor does it really need to — turns out that dancing is still pretty fun in and of itself, and the robust, aggressively contemporary set list, oodles of choreography and video sharing put this year's dance party among the better ones. Ubisoft takes a lot of really big swings with Just Dance 2014 — some, like Autodance and Just Dance TV, hit it out of the park, whereas others, like competing online and a rejiggered Just Sweat mode, are something of a whiff as they can feel lonely and undercooked. Still, if you want to boogie down in your living room, Just Dance 2014 has more than enough moves to keep that slide of yours electric.