When the Kinect released late last year, there were a few games that caught people's attention. Aside from Kinect Adventures, which came with the accessory, and Kinect Sports, which was familiar territory for those migrating from the Nintendo Wii, there was Dance Central. From the developers behind the original Guitar Hero and Rock Band, it used the Kinect to track more accurate body movement compared to Ubisoft's Just Dance series on the Wii. The game was a huge hit, becoming a big party game that helped propel Kinect sales past the 10 million mark. Almost one year later, Harmonix comes back to the game series with Dance Central 2 as Just Dance 3 also hits the Kinect. Fortunately for Harmonix, the new game is still as strong as before due to the large number of tweaks and game modes.
For those unfamiliar with the recent wave of dance games, the premise is pretty simple. After selecting a song, character and difficulty level, the performance begins. Using the on-screen avatar like a mirror, you try to mimic the moves to achieve a high score. To help you understand what move needs to be done and what moves are upcoming, flashcards are displayed along the right side of the screen at eye level. Aside from score, performances are graded by stars, with five stars being the highest normal performance grade possible. A gold five-star rating is awarded for pure perfection.
The core of Dance Central 2 is the same as the first game. There are a few changes to the basic dance routine, though. With the exception of older downloadable content, every song had the option to turn off the freestyle sections, making it one long dance routine with no breaks if that's what the player wants. The freestyle sections take the same amount of pictures due to the eradication of the photo meter. In its place are gold tiles, which are worth four times as much as regular tiles. The freestyle pictures can optionally be uploaded to the Kinect Share Web site instead of being lost once a routine is over. Also, the game introduces new dance moves, some of which have different tempos to add some variance to the routines. Finally, players can make up their own set list of up to 20 songs, saving people the trouble of figuring out which song to play next.
The biggest change lies in multiplayer, which is vastly different from how it was handled before. For the first time, co-op dancing is here, so two players are on-screen at the same time. Like most co-op modes, both scores are added together when the song is over, so every move counts for something. Players can also select their difficulty level independent of each other, so experts can dance with novices without burdening one another. The game also supports drop-in/drop-out co-op play, but since you can't change the difficulty level this way, it's not recommended unless everyone is at the same level.
Battle modes also play out much differently than before and become more exciting. Like co-op, both players dance simultaneously instead of after one another, reducing the need to artificially prolong songs through repeated phrases. New to this mode are free-for-all sections, where four different moves are displayed simultaneously, giving the player some choice about what to perform next and reducing the sense of repetition that both players experience over time. These two elements make for quicker matches, although it still won't give you the ability to battle online.
One complaint about the first game was that there wasn't much of a structured mode. That changes with the addition of Crew Challenge, Dance Central 2's version of a campaign mode. You'll face four different dance crews in a quest to gain their respect and the chance to be called a member of their crew. To do so, you have to earn a certain number of stars by playing a few of the songs on the crew's playlist. Once you do that and beat them at their final challenge song, you can challenge the other crews and ultimately battle against the Glitteratti, the game's main adversaries. While it may be straightforward, there is a twist at the end that helps tie the game back to the first title and throws some plot into the proceedings. It isn't anything spectacular, like the story thrown together for Guitar Hero: Warriors of Rock, but it is nice.
In practice, this mode doesn't play too differently from the main game mode. You can still play this either solo or co-op with a friend, and the scoring system doesn't change. You are limited to the songs in the given crew's playlist, though, and you're stuck with the provided character for the song. Unlike other career modes, you don't need to complete every song in the playlist to move on to the next crew, but it's necessary if you want to unlock more content, such as an alternative costume for each dancer.
There is one disappointing element to this mode, and that's the exclusion of certain dancers from the original Dance Central cast. Favorites like Angel, Emilia and Mo return, but others like Dare, MacCoy and Oblio are nowhere to be seen. None of this really matters since the dancers don't affect gameplay, but those who enjoyed dancing as those characters will no doubt miss their presence.
Workout mode plays out the same as before, where dancing measures how many calories you've managed to burn. You still have the ability to take things song by song, but now there are some preset routines for you to choose from if you can't decide. It's a small change but certainly a welcome one if you just want to jump into a routine.
Break It Down mode returns as the game's training mode, helping you master all of the dance moves one song at a time. The mode feels deeper because of the number of tools at your disposal. You can speed up or slow down a move to get a better idea of how to perform it. You can also select an individual move and concentrate on that solely instead of going through batches of moves like before. There's even the ability to record video of yourself performing said move, so you can see what you're doing right or wrong. In a way, Break It Down becomes an excellent teaching method and feels more impactful since you have better feedback on your performance and progress.
The song selection has increased to 42, which is still less than what most music game fans are used to seeing, but it's a great number of tracks for a dance game. All of the downloadable content for the first game is playable here and, in keeping with Harmonix tradition, the songs from the original Dance Central can be transferred over for $5. No song gets left behind in the transfer, but we haven't been able to verify this since the transfer procedure isn't functional until the game officially releases.
The song list consists of mostly pop, hip-hop and R&B offerings with a sprinkling of reggaeton and techno and even a j-pop song to keep things interesting. You'll have some Daft Punk, Exile and Pitbull, but without any DLC, you'll mostly listen to the likes of Lady Gaga, Rihanna, Usher and, oddly enough, a cover of a Britney Spears song. All of the tracks are danceable, but it's even more impressive that, like before, the game goes for multiple eras of music instead of just one. There really is a "something for everyone" vibe. As before, the featured songs are truncated, so things like Ludacris' verse in Usher's "Yeah" are missing. If you're a faithful fan of the song, you'll notice the edits but when you're dancing, it doesn't feel like you're missing out on much. This is a great dance soundtrack, and with Harmonix's track record of releasing songs every month, one doesn't have to worry about the set list getting stale anytime soon.
Dance Central 2 still exemplifies how to use the Kinect's simple yet intuitive controls. The cursor-less interface reads hand gestures rather well and is still responsive when trying to navigate up and down the song list — something only a few other titles have done right. Though most Kinect games force motion-controlled navigation on a player, this one provides two alternatives that are equally as good. The first is the use of the regular control pad for menu navigation and pausing. It is as intuitive one would expect, so those who are frustrated with the original navigation methods can take solace in a more familiar control scheme.
The other new method is voice navigation. At any time in the menus, the player can simply say "Xbox Dance," which then brings up a vocal navigation screen. Players can then simply name the song they want to dance to, along with difficulty level before repeating the phrase again to begin dancing. They can also use it in Break It Down mode to bring up the various options for using the tool and pausing the game as opposed to performing the 45-degree angle with the left hand that all Kinect games recognize to be the universal pause gesture. The vocal controls even work well in noisy environments and are accurate enough that you may find yourself using a combination of vocal and motion controls when you play.
The graphics didn't get a complete overhaul, but there are plenty of improvements in the sequel. The character models don't look much different, but they have bunches of little things to make them more eye-catching. Separate pieces, like Miss Aubrey's anchor bracelet or Li'l T's stuffed animal hanging from her belt, add some flair to the dancers. Speaking of motion, the characters move gracefully, with every move being animated fluidly enough that it feels more like a complete routine than separate motions being stitched together. You can see that fluidity in the easy routines, but more complicated ones still make your jaw drop.
Lots of work was done on the backgrounds this time around. Each feels drastically different, with a bolder color scheme and some distinction to each venue instead of recycling the street element from the original title. The subway station and the tower are made even more impressive by the fact that they change locations during the middle of a song. One moment, you may be at the waiting platform but the next, you'll be dancing inside the subway car. The lighting has benefited greatly from a scheme that diffuses the light to make it softer. The effect is similar to that of viewing a lighted object through smeared glass; it's a mesmerizing effect that adds wonders to the art style. Finally, the freestyle sections also got a graphical facelift. Instead of showing you bathed in light, you're displayed as a bulk of 3-D pixels instead. When shown a video of your freestyle performance, you're shown against an arc of neon light mixing in with your background, making the piece feel like part of the game.
Dance Central 2 doesn't just beat the first game; it completely replaces it. Aside from the prerequisite graphics update, each and every mode and mechanic has received some type of upgrade. The expanded Kinect use adds some nice tricks to an already receptive menu and gameplay system. The song list on disc is good enough for anyone's tastes, and that gets even better with Harmonix's DLC releases every month. While the competition has gotten much better, Dance Central 2 is still the best dancing game for the Kinect.
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