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Xbox 360 Review - 'Dance Dance Revolution Universe'

by Andrew Hayward on March 7, 2007 @ 12:43 a.m. PST

Dance Dance Revolution Universe takes dancing to a whole new level offering features and options not possible until now, designing a game that everyone can play and enjoy, including anyone with two left feet.

Genre: Rhythm
Publisher: Konami of America
Developer: Konami Digital Entertainment
Release Date: February 27, 2007

Could we be in the midst of a Dance Dance renaissance? After years of similar sequels, Dance Dance Revolution SuperNOVA for PlayStation 2 switched things up a bit, offering an excellent Westernized soundtrack (featuring Fall Out Boy and Kelly Clarkson), an all-new single-player mode (Stellar Master), and some unique customization options. With Dance Dance Revolution: Hottest Party for the Wii on the horizon, we could very well be looking at a resurgence of the series that paved the way for Guitar Hero and similar accessory-based rhythm games.

But before we check out that supposedly scorching bash, let's take a trip through the Universe. Dance Dance Revolution Universe represents the first next-gen entry in the long-running series, though it in many ways resembles the Xbox-exclusive Ultramix games. With the power of the Xbox 360, Universe whisks the franchise into the HD era with some startling results, though the modes that flank those awesome visuals still leave a bit to be desired.

Considering the stunning array of home and arcade releases over the last eight years, I'm not going to spend a whole lot of time talking about the gameplay. You should know the drill by now: Arrows flow upwards from the bottom of the screen, and your singular goal is to step in the corresponding direction on the dance pad when the arrows get near the top of the screen. The experience hasn't changed a whole lot since its inception, aside from the introduction of freeze steps in DDR Max.

Universe's biggest contribution to the ongoing evolution of the Revolution is in its upgrade to high-definition visuals. Though you're still looking at some dancing fool atop a video background, the stylistic enhancements really set Universe apart from its predecessors. Aside from the two tracks that make use of their original music videos, every other video background is composed of trippy CG montages that absolutely jump off of the screen. The content of each video isn't necessarily linked to the theme or lyrics of the track, but each song seems to have its own pre-set video (though you might see some bits used in multiple videos).

It is part screen saver, part mp3 visualizer, and all ridiculous, but those with HDTVs are in for a real treat. Crystals spin in mid-air, hearts thump to the rhythm, and flowers bloom while your anime-stylized character shakes his/her animated moneymaker. Each character is rendered in 3D and then cel-shaded, but Universe makes use of their bodies for some enhanced visual effects. While dancing, a character's body may turn into a wireframe or a metallic version of his or herself. It's even cooler when the character turns into a black silhouette, allowing various patterns to fly into the frame — but only within the darkened outline of the character. Sure, it can be a bit distracting (especially with those provocative dance moves!), but it all looks fantastic and surely represents the future of the franchise.

Those impressed by the varied soundtrack of SuperNOVA may find themselves disappointed by the relatively traditional tracks assembled for Universe. Get ready for heaps of instrumental electronica tracks and uninspiring retreads of familiar concepts. Just one rock track pops up within the initially unlocked set of tracks, and it's from an unknown artist. Several familiar tracks from previous import or arcade versions pop up, including John Desire's "Hot Limit" and DJ MIKO's "Sky High." I was most pumped about the appearance of Jenny Rom's "WWW.BLONDE GIRL (Momo Mix)," a personal favorite from the arcade versions that had never appeared in an American home release.

Though less expansive a selection than SuperNOVA, Universe still features many songs that may be familiar to American listeners. Cascada's "Everytime We Touch" appears with its original music video, as does Jamiroquai's "Feels Just Like it Should." Chris Brown and the Sugar Hill Gang both contribute hits, and New Order, Depeche Mode, and Steppenwolf are all represented, albeit in remix form. In a nod to hardcore gamers (as opposed to the casual crowd), Universe also has remixed themes from Castlevania and Gyruss, as well as an original track called "8-bit" that is largely comprised of the beeps and boops that powered a generation of gaming soundtracks. Overall, it's a solid set of songs, just a bit of a step down from the varied soundtrack of the thrice-mentioned PS2 iteration.

Konami has designed Universe as a wide-reaching entry to attract new players, as evidenced by the "Basic Edition" menu that offers tutorials and ultra-simplified steps for newcomers. Such options are thankfully not required, and advanced gamers can move right along to the "Master Edition" menu, which offers up a bevy of available gameplay modes. Game Mode, Edit Mode, and Workout Mode all return from previous DDR entries, though Workout Mode differs in execution. Instead of entering the mode and playing within it, you merely enter your details and then play with the other modes. Universe will track your progress across all modes and keep track of your estimated calorie loss.

Party Mode offers 10 styles of play for single or multiplayer sessions. These range from Power courses (four-track continuous mixes) to Relay mode, which tasks each player with continuing a universal combo by completing bits and pieces of a track. Those with more than two Xbox 360 dance pads must give Triple and/or Quad a shot, as each respectively allows one player the opportunity to traverse three to four pads over the course of a song. Good luck with that! On the single-player side, Challenge Mode presents mental and physical challenges with difficulty levels ranging from Simple to Apocalyptic. By the end, you'll have to take down a high-tempo track on Expert with 8x arrow speed and reverse arrows. Oh, and you have to get a rating of Perfect on every step. Right; I think I'll pass.

Quest Mode is the real meat and potatoes of the single-player experience, and the result is decidedly meh. This utterly confusing mode comes sans documentation or explanation, but I have the feeling that it wouldn't make much of a difference. As you travel a virtual map of North America, you can gather fans, recruit backup dancers in each major city, and be challenged to dance-offs. But unlike the Quest in Virtua Fighter, the rewards are extremely slim. Quest Mode represents the only way to unlock the 15 hidden music tracks in the game, but I was unlocking them at a rate of roughly one per hour. In previous DDR games, you could play through five tracks in Game Mode and unlock a new song, so this is a lot of work for very little reward.

Even if it had more to offer in terms of virtual rewards, the game design seems half-baked at best. Most challenges require you to earn "fanbase," which is judged only by how many steps you land — not how well you dance. Some tracks don't even have enough steps to clear a challenge, so you may have to keep playing through songs until you find one that will satisfy the requirements. Quest Mode would have been much less frustrating if the songs had been pre-chosen based on how they matched up with the objectives, rather than making you play through several to find the best fit. Oh, and good luck completing one of the nigh-impossible dance battles during the first few hours of play. Quest Mode is woefully unfocused, and in its current state feels like a significant waste of potential — not to mention time and effort.

Surely the glory of Xbox Live would be put to great use in Universe, right? Well, somewhat. The four-player gameplay is smooth and compelling, and I love not having to register an account (unlike in SuperNOVA). While the player matches allow you to enter a lobby and start up a small-time rivalry, each ranked match is a singular entity; you'll be kicked back to the menu after each match. Navigating the menus after each and every song is rather annoying, and the results are apparent: The ranked leaderboards are largely barren, as most gamers seem to be sticking to the improved interface of the player matches.

As with the Ultramix games, songs will be made available to download via Xbox Live, and 10 tracks are already available (including "Me and My Friends" from The Dandy Warhols). Sadly, a quick glance at the file sizes (108k per song; 140k for the pack of 10) seems to reveal that these tracks are already on the disc, and you are just paying to unlock them. Those with a moral opposition to paying for something twice might just want to steer clear of the "downloadable" content.

Dance Dance Revolution Universe is ultimately not the significant evolution I was expecting from the next generation of DDR. Though it sports fantastic visuals, the surprise-free soundtrack and half-baked Quest mode fail to improve the formula. While the series may be aging, I still think it has a lot of potential that hasn't been explored properly just yet. If Konami can match the visuals of Universe with a soundtrack like SuperNOVA and a compelling single-player mode, we may still yet see a revolution of dance that is well worth supporting.

Score: 7.3/10

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