It’s been a gaming season of sequels. Modern Warfare 3, Battlefield 3, Gears of War 3, Uncharted 3, so it’s nice to have one that doesn’t fit into the mix. This is Harmonix’s first outing since being released by MTV/Viacom, the company that made them famous with Rock Band and the original Dance Central. With MTV long gone does that mean it’s the final nail in the Music game king’s coffin?
Two years ago, talk of “dance games” and anyone would immediately thought of Dance Dance Revolution. What can only be described as an abomination of what music games should be. So when Harmonix, now giants of the music game world, came up with Dance Central, I couldn’t help but be interested in what it was going to offer. For starters, this focuses on actual movement and routines rather than trying to coordinate your feet to some arrows. It contained one core mode of game play a bunch of songs and no story, it is (present tense) everything I like about a good video game. Simple. You learn a song and its routine in the aptly titled Break-It-Down mode so you learn every move bit by bit until you know it well enough to do it without help, and then you are ready to perform the entire routine in a performance. It was fun to learn moves I’d never even thought were possible before hand and a joy to finally five-star something that I’d worked hard at learning. It contained all the magic that playing Rock Band or Guitar Hero had when Harmonix first released those. But being the first in a series, while it was exquisite and ground-breaking it wasn’t without its flaws.
This is what I dream all sequels of games would be. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” all they’ve done is work on what didn’t work last time and made pretty much the exact same game, but making a couple more changes and additions to warrant a re-release of the game in its own merit. Harmonix has yet to go wrong with the second in a series, be it Guitar Hero II or Rock Band 2, so it’s pretty clear that Dance Central 2 would never be a terrible game.
With each song having its own unique routine, Dance Central was never likely to get as stale as quickly as any other music game. Each possessed its own unique set of challenges and slowly learning a song was still enjoyable if frustrating at times. The general game play hasn’t changed, but at least now you can turn off Freestyle sections from newer songs so you don’t have to run away from the camera because you don’t want to get caught trying to do the robot.
The first never gave you much feedback about what you seemed to be doing wrong if you were doing a move wrong, and me being obsessive, would take hours just figure out that my arm was in the wrong place. The second is while it was a Kinect-release title other games were happily including two player simultaneous interaction, whereas this would allow people to play one at a time. Finally, the game would refuse to let you play the hard level of songs unless you learned that specific routine for it or you beat the level easier than it.
Feedback is now improved, at the cost of being a little stricter in some areas. Even if you do happen to “Flawless” a move, the game still shows you if you can improve on a certain part of the move. Much better is the added video-record function in Break-It-Down. If you’re not getting a move right, you can use to it to see what the Kinect is actually seeing and use that to improve how you execute the move. At least the frustration of not having someone to tell you what you are actually doing wrong goes away. However in the performance modes there still isn’t enough feedback to tell what you went wrong and got right…or even how many. Maybe it was made that way not to deter people from not playing the game with a bad performance.
Also included is navigation using voice controls. You can now navigate menu items by saying “Xbox, dance” to get straight into a song without trudging through menus with your arm; “Xbox, pause” to pause the game without holding the gesture for seconds, and a few more commands for Break-It-Down especially. This makes the game so much easier to navigate and so much more accessible, because shouting “pause” is a lot more natural than breaking your routine for four seconds.
The two-player mode has now got two-player simultaneous playing. Which you and a non-voluntary cohort of yours make fools of yourself in-front of a camera. While this should have been introduced in the first game rather than the pass-the-baton style of battling it had, it’s not without its little hiccups. For starters, if either one of you wants to play on Hard there just doesn’t seem to be enough space for two-people (and might I add, relatively small people) to do everything possible without hitting each other, a wall, or going off-screen. In the end we had to stagger so we’d have enough space to be able to the body-switches, jumps and spins. With the mild exception of having to go off-screen, Kinect tracks two people as well as it would for one person.
Multiplayer comes in two flavors. Performance and Battle. Performance is what you think it is, but if someone is playing solo one person can jump into play easily by holding an arm up. However, while jumping in is spatially difficult, jumping out is much harder. The Kinect will seem to attempt to try and track something and will continue on doing so long after the person has left. I can’t be sure if that’s just a fault with the Kinect or the game but that does rank highly on the annoying scale. Two player cooperative dancing is more fun it’s still slightly awkward when the same difficulty is not selected. It would’ve also been nice if the two player dancing was a bit more special for two players rather than just having a double of a one person routine. Battle mode on the other hand takes on the similar premise put players are now pitted against each other. And so the absurdly-good player doesn’t win every time, difficulty does not matter. But battles for every song are almost double the length of the song in question. During a battle a “Free-4-All” screen will appear. The song keeps playing on and it will show up a random set of four moves. If one of you does a move on the cards you score quite a lot of points, more if it’s gold. While any player can do any move they choose, once someone does it, it disappears and becomes replaced. This leads to more frustration when two people end up doing the exact same move and we’ve yet to figure out why it gave only one person the points for it. You can’t do the move faster and expect to get it earlier.
Multiplayer is certainly not a let-down compared to its predecessor, but that doesn’t mean it won’t become a drag and dreary after a while.
Online multiplayer? Doesn’t exist. The only form of online interaction is leaderboards. That is nice for competitive types, but it isn’t like it’s impossible to make an online mode for this game.
Soundtrack and routines:
The forty-four song list adds to an already impressive collection of downloadable songs and the large handful from the first game. Regular faces such as Lady Gaga, and Rihanna make a comeback while Missy Elliot and Usher get more than their fair share too. But it’s not all Electropop and Contemporary R&B; it ranges from the 70’s era disco of Donna Summer’s “Hot Stuff” to the electronic stylings of Daft Punk’s “Technologic”; and from unexpected choices such as the J-pop band Exile to the extremely cheesy Bananarama. It also put a smile on my face realising that “Baby Got Back” and some other songs weren’t as heavily censored as I thought they would be.
Even if you don’t like the songs the routines for them are impressive and incredibly varied, ranging from slow to quick, aggressive to seductive, and agile to simple. While most of the routines are so-called feminine it surely doesn’t try to dumb down itself for the player who wants different things. If you don’t want to model walk through the (much better) cover version of “Toxic” then maybe Getting Ur Freak On may be more suited for you.
If you play on easy, moving around has yet to be non-fun for any song, but the harder difficulties are where you are going to enjoy and appreciate how much effort they put into this game and how well it all comes together. They really push you to the limit without making the routine feel like it doesn’t meld with the song. The hits, stops, off-beats, sways and drops all flow together elegantly and never once feel jarring. But I’d be glad if I never have to hear “Sandstorm” again.
Harmonix has yet to fail with the setlist in any game, although we’ll just ignore Green Day: Rock Band for now.
Yes, like it or not, there is a sort of story mode added to the game. Adding a story mode to a music game is not an idea that pays off in the long run. But the idea of Dance Central 2 is to not have so much as a story as to provide a background for the campaign.
The main campaign mode, called “Crew Challenges”, is highly reminiscent of Rock Band. At the start of the game you are introduced to a pair of dancers who are a ‘crew’. Each crew has their set of songs and once you perform well on a couple of them, you can go on to battle another crew. The campaign this time doesn’t lock songs out from its Quickplay modes and it doesn’t play through from easy to hard difficulty. Right at the start you can take on the first crew with any four of the six to seven songs available to them. These songs range from the quiet and easy, to frustrating and difficult, so you are never forced to play something you do not want to. However each crew has their own boss song which you have to do if you want to progress onward. These songs aren’t not fun to play and are pretty challenging, but they’re certainly not going to be to everyone’s taste. Except if you happen to have as much of an open-mind as I have.
Each character has their own costume, gait, style, voice and shape that extend on the very minimal Dance Central universe that the first game branded. It’s certainly not deep, but it doesn’t try to be, it’s more of a hook to keep player’s interest in playing. It does that well and for every video-game story that’s all I’d like it to be.
If by comparison Dance Central was sharp and bright, this is smooth and warm. The menus are darker and a lot less piercing making easier to see what you are actually picking. Although that has no effect on the way you pick it. The bright fluorescent colors of the previous game have been traded for gradients that make any player feel warm and welcome.
The gameplay itself is still pretty. But a common problem (which I hate) is putting too much so what you are doing or meant to be doing isn’t clear to you. This isn’t a problem. Whatever you are meant to be looking at is at the front right in front of your eyes and not buried deep within other crap which isn’t necessary to you doing well. Of course the backgrounds are minor, but spectacular, and gradually change depending on how well or how badly you are performing. It’s designed in such a way where you feel like it’s a musical, and you’re the lead. It’s enticing and basic. It’s a plus point for a game that’s not based around visuals.
The amount of songs is still comparatively small compared to Harmonix’s larger brand Rock Band. The $50 price tag is still okay for forty four songs, even if the version of “Toxic” is a Harmonix cover. But with consistent DLC and the ability to add the songs from Dance Central adds to it even more.
The no-online multiplayer is definitely a mark against it, however the improvement in local multiplayer makes its predecessor looks like a piece of rushed work. And Dance Central was one of the better (if not best) Kinect release games.
The difficulty of the songs, the amount of the songs, the goals to achieve, an added fitness playlist mode, will keep the average person coming back to play it again and again. But once you’ve mastered the songs you wanted to, there is very little incentive to come back and try it again. It can feel empty and lacking. The average Kinect user won’t usually run into this problem, unless they have found a bit of talent they never knew they had.
It certainly is worth a play if you already have a Kinect, but unless you have some interest in the game it won’t persuade you to get a Kinect. But with stronger Microsoft support, advertising, and a large community that only keeps growing; it’s a hard to ignore title if you already have one.
It’s one of the best, if not the best, titles for Kinect. It’s the most fun I’ve had in a while, and it’s an extremely good excuse for parties and getting up to ‘get down’. It’s a well-made, well designed and well crafted game if you bother to appreciate it, which you won’t be doing if you are enjoying it. But there are times when you just can’t help that it seems a little empty.