Dance Central 3|
If there is one company whose name is synonymous with the music gaming genre, it would be Harmonix – while they may not have originated the rhythm and music gaming genre, they have all but perfected it over the years – starting with their early titles Frequency and Amplitude, moving onto Guitar Hero 1 and 2, then multiple variations of Rock Band, and finally the cornerstone franchise for the Xbox 360 Kinect system: Dance Central.
The Dance Central franchise has remained at the forefront of the rhythm and music genre since its original release with the launch of the Kinect, and as so has become the benchmark for similar dance-based franchises like Ubisoft’s Just Dance and Sony’s Everybody Dance. While these titles may not be direct competition – gathering their core audience on different consoles (Just Dance on the Wii, and Everybody Dance on the PS3) it does not take an Einstein (or a Paula Abdul) to see that aping Dance Central is their ultimate objective.
Proving that they are not ready to rest on their laurels quite yet, Harmonix has returned with Dance Central 3, which does a fantastic job differentiating itself from the previous titles with an entertaining storyline, two new addictive gameplay modes, and a fantastic new soundtrack. And as if that weren’t enough – Dance Central 3 is the first Xbox 360 title to support Microsoft’s new SmartGlass App for Windows 8, Android, and iOS. ‘
For the handful of readers who do not yet know what a rhythm and dance game is, I will give a brief synopsis: The game plays a song, an on-screen indicator calls for a dance move, the gamer performs said move, some input device (camera, controller, etc.) detects the movement, and the game assigns a score based on timing and quality of the motion. It’s not rocket science…or is it?
The real science is in the mechanics of the input device – in this case the Kinect camera system for the Xbox 360, and it has been no secret in gaming circles that the Dance Central franchise has historically delivered some of the best Kinect integration into its gameplay. I would like to point out that I used the phrase “some of the best” rather than “the best” – I reserve my “the best” designation for the folks at Double Fine Studios who through their Sesame Street: Once Upon a Monster and Happy Action Theater games have set the bar for Kinect interactivity and accessibility.
Double Fine’s formula for success emphasizes the uncomplicated, drop-in/drop-out gameplay that a true party game requires to be a hit with gamers of all experience levels. They realize that partygoers do not want to be mired down in confusing menu screens and overly restrictive gesture controls, and that party games should be easy to enjoy, but challenging to master. It is apparent that the folks at Harmonix are likewise appreciative of Double Fine’s formula, as Dance Central 3 implements a number of Double Fine’s concepts and innovations into the gameplay.
A perfect example would be Dance Central 3's newly added Party Time Mode – which effectively eliminates the menu system altogether – rather, the game plays simply songs continuously, and any partygoer wishing to play can simply jump into the camera’s field of view and begin dancing along. Gamers can select songs or change modes by with the quick shake of a hand, and as a possible nod to the Double Fine folks, initiate play with a high-five. This Party Time Mode is remarkably similar to Double Fine’s fantastic sleeper hit Happy Action Theater, including the aforementioned high-five, which is one of Happy Action’s trademark secret Achievements.
Story modes are in no way new to the rhythm and music genre – one of the earliest dancing titles, Sega’s Space Channel 5 franchise saw Ulala flying through space liberating dance hostages around the galaxy, eventually teaming up with Michael Jackson to help save the universe. Dance Central 3’s may be devoid of any Jacksons, but it is equally as ridiculous. You see, dancing as we know it is under attack from the evil scientist Dr. Tan – who would rather we all dance in the style he approves. The gamer must travel through time to thwart the ill-mannered attempts of Dr. Tan, and maintain the integrity of dancing. Silly, yes. But it is delivered in a manner in which it is witty and entertaining, and serves the purpose of taking gamers on a musical history lesson.
Dance Central 3’s time travelling story mode schools gamers in the history of dance, from the 70’s, 80’s, 90’s, 00’s and onto present day. And just like Rock Band breathed new life into long-forgotten songs like Eye of the Tiger, Dance Central 3 has a magical way of making the corny seem relevant – with dances like the YMCA, the Hustle, and the Macarena all getting special resuscitation treatment.
The soundtrack features 50 songs in all – and similar to Rock Band, gamers who own the first two Dance Central games can import each game’s library into Dance Central 3 for 400MS ($5) per game. This is may seem a bit heavy-handed at first, but Harmonix swears this is for re-licensing the songs for new use and has been the practice since Rock Band 2. But importing is not necessary, as the 50 song pack-in soundtrack is as incredible as it is diverse. From Gloria Gaynor to Lady Gaga, from New Kids on the Block to Justin Bieber – gamers get to experience it all from Disco to Daft Punk and everything in between. There is representation from nearly every danceable musical sub-genre, all of it slyly cleaned up for family airplay.
For the first time ever the developers have included a beginner mode, making Dance Central 3 much more accessible to newcomers. As any veteran should remember from their early days with the game, the boos and hisses and rapid deterioration of the song after a few missed cues can be quite defeating, so letting less experience folks continue songs with a few missteps is a nice gesture, especially given the inclusive multiplayer atmosphere that Dance Central promotes.
When it comes to multiplayer modes; I may have already discussed the Party Time Mode earlier in the review, but I need to touch on the other multiplayer addition in the highly entertaining Crew Throwdown mode. In Throwdown a dance crew of one to four members can form, and be pitted up against other crews for a series of 1-on-1 challenges. These minigame-style challenges can range from striking specific poses, to rhythm-based freestyle dance offs. The idea is reminiscent of the old-school breakdancing competitions where dancers would “throw down” their cardboard or linoleum dancing surfaces and compete for turf (at least that was the legend we children of the 1980’s were told). Regardless, the bite-sized challenges serve as a nice alternative to dancing through full songs all the time.
Dance Central 3 is great, but it is in not perfect. While the Kinect camera’s capabilities never cease to amaze me, Dance Central 3 still seems to require a bit more subtlety than neither I nor the camera seem to be able to consistently achieve. While the requirements do seem a bit looser than with Dance Central 2, but still a bit on the finicky side – even in easy mode I would get stymied with certain moves that I just could not seem to get right, although it felt like I was. It would have been nice if the developers would have taken another cue from Double Fine and taken a bit more flexibility to the Kinect detection – but it is just a demon we have to learn to live with.
I you haven’t guessed yet – I am a big fan of Dance Central 3. The franchise was already the best in the industry, and the additions – like Party Time and Crew Throwdown modes – really help differentiate the title from the previous releases. I would have liked the Kinect sensor to be a bit more consistent in its move detection at times, but even with a few glitches the game is a fantastic addition to the rhythm and music genre.