Review: Dance Central 2

Kinect is a fascinating piece of tech bogged down by an assortment of lackluster on-rail shooters and perfunctory mini-game collections – a well of untapped potential. Part of the reason for this is that a platform which foregoes the controller entirely has limited applications for gaming, contrary to what Microsoft would like us to believe. The key phrase is ‘limited applications,’ and not, ‘no applications.’ Dance Central 2 is the perfect game for Kinect, and the type of experience that proves the value of Kinect as a gaming device.

Developer: Harmonix
Publisher: Microsoft
ESRB Rating: T
Released: October 21st [EU], October 25th [NA], October 27th [JP] 
Platforms: Xbox 360; Kinect required

While plastic guitars worked well enough for Rock Band and Guitar Hero, Harmonix eventually gravitated towards the real deal and set out to teach fans of rhythm games how to play an actual guitar. The design ethos for Rock Band 3 is what makes Dance Central work, along with spectacular energetic presentation and a poppy urban hip-hop style that oozes flair.

Let’s say you’re me. A track selection ranging from Donna Summer’s Hot Stuff to Willow Smith’s Whip My Hair is not exactly a good fit for my musical palette. Sure, there’s Baby Got Back mixed in there, but dancing never really appealed to me either.

So why am so enthusiastic about this game? Because it’s just plain fun. I play bass, and spend most of my time writing or gaming. Dexterity is something I possess; full body coordination is not. For that reason, dancing is not something I’ve ever gotten into, but Dance Central was a novel enough idea to catch my attention, and it took only minutes of playing before the game had its hooks deep into me. If I had to describe the experience in only one word, it would be ‘liberating,’ with ‘blissful,’ as a close runner up.

Like I said, I am not coordinated, and certainly no dancer. Harmonix knows its audience well, because the game comes with an extensive tutor and the perfect range of difficulty settings that allow advanced users and novices to feel rewarded and successful all the same. It doesn’t hurt to have an ever-present no fail system unlike the analogous guitar games.

Break It Down works essentially the same in the sequel as it did in the first game. The game demonstrates a move to you, and then asks you to perform it three times while working through the entire routine. While it hasn’t been overhauled, it has been drastically improved with voice activated speed control (slow motion really does make all the difference sometimes), video playback so that you can be reminded of your shame and failure, and targeted practice for the moves you fail.

Before going further into the dancing side of things, I want to stop and point out how smooth navigating the menus can be. It’s the kind of thing that hardly seems worth pointing out, but Kinect interfaces are so rarely done well that it’s worth noting that Dance Central 2’s system of moving either the left or right hand in a sweeping motion like a Jedi is intuitive and functional. There was a tendency to get stuck in the original game, and it still takes a moment to find the sweet spot while scrolling down, but it’s still the best interface on Kinect.

Back to the dancing. Unlike a typical rhythm game, Dance Central featured no story/career mode. I never thought I’d miss a paper-thin story mode in a genre like this, but it turns out that the structure and sense of forward progress is actually something I didn’t appreciate until it wasn’t there. Luckily, Harmonix has given me some of the structure I crave by adding in the crew challenge mode which features the games numerous dancers paired up competing against other crews. One of the biggest missed opportunities of the original Dance Central was the lack of drop-in drop-out side by side co-op, which Harmonix addresses in both this mode and the game’s vanilla dance mode. Be forewarned, if you are barely meeting the steep space requirements for single player, putting two people in front of the Kinect will not end well.

While we’re on the topic of new things that Dance Central 2 brings to the table: the admittedly basic functionality of mixing a playlist in the dance mode has been added. More importantly than that, and also following the theme of side by side multiplayer, is the revamped dance battle mode. In the previous title, players would have to take turns jumping in the spotlight, now it’s a head to head affair involving hectic ‘free-4-all’ sections that smack of a special take on Dance, Dance, Revolution wherein any two dance moves in the game can pop up at a time for each player to complete in order to pull ahead. This mode is a blast, and the free-4-all sections are where it climaxes. It may even be the highlight of the game. Competition in dancing is about execution and showboating, and pulling two random moves off at the same time is one hell of a platform to do so.

Fitness mode rounds out the feature rich Dance Central 2 and with a price cut, the game could have shipped as a dance themed fitness game with only this mode and it would have been worth it. If sticking to a workout routine is too tough, why not stop thinking about it as an exercise routine and just commit to having fun? It’s a clever design philosophy, and it’s well executed. It turns fitness into a game, and that includes the stat tracking side of things. If you think of your calories burned as your score then, as a gamer, the notion of constantly working to improve my score is like second nature.

Overall, the track list (which you can find here) tends to be fleshed out with songs with moves that hedge more towards the feminine than gender neutral which isn’t necessarily a bad thing for everyone, but it was a little uncomfortable for me.

The only other point where the game stumbles, if you can even count the above as the game stumbling as opposed to just severely clashing with my taste, is in transferring songs from Dance Central into Dance Central 2 for owners of both games. While new copies come with a card loaded with Microsoft points which allow you to import the previous game’s library, there really is no reason why I should have to pay to import the track list in the first place if the alternative is having the ability to just throw the songs on to my Xbox’s HDD or a USB memory stick.

Dancing used to not be for me, but they say that tastes change over time, and with this being my second bite at the apple I’d say that’s true enough.

Dance Central 2 is a sweeping refinement over the first game which brings a ton of new content to the table, and I had to go far out of my way to find anything to hold against the experience. This is the perfect example of what a sequel ought to be.

9.5 / 10

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