When the original Dance Central hit store shelves in November of 2010, it was half game and half tech demo. Designed to highlight Microsoft's Kinect accessory, the first game focused primarily on the dancing aspect, with little thought for a story. Last year's Dance Central 2 greatly expanded on the original by adding a story, voice commands, and a more in-depth training mode. It also included the ability for two players to compete simultaneously. For Dance Central 3, Harmonix has refined the experience even further and added even more multiplayer options to once again give players a solid reason to upgrade.
As far as the basics are concerned, not much has changed. At its core, Dance Central 3 is still about learning a routine and then performing it as accurately as possible. If that's all you want to do, the game doesn't get in your way. You're free to fire up the disc, jump right into the dance mode, pick a track and go to town. It's everything that is wrapped around that core element that makes Dance Central 3 so impressive.
Initially, the first thing former players will notice is the level of polish in the interface. Dance Central was pretty spartan in this regard, with function taking precedence over form. Dance Central 2 refined it and the voice controls were a nice touch, but even then the voice commands always felt a little tacked on. In Dance Central 3, it's all smoothly integrated. Navigating through the menus is intuitive and effortless. Song sorting has been noticeable improved. Custom playlists are easy to create and can be used throughout the game.
Voice controls are also integrated throughout, with a blacklight-inspired visual effect that makes it obvious what you can (and can't) do with the voice commands. Our only complaint with the UI is the fact that the sweet bass thud that served as a confirmation sound in Dance Central 2 has been replaced by something that sounds a lot less definitive.
It's difficult to say with certainty if the player tracking has improved, but Dance Central 3 left the impression that some tweaks had been made in this regard. Perhaps it's simply a matter of having played the last two iterations of the game and a result of learning the franchise quirks, but in-game movements in Dance Central 3 appeared to require a bit more precision than in Dance Central 2 in order to score a flawless. The annoyance of the flip-flopping menu (where it would change a selection at the last second because you didn't move your arm perfectly straight) also seems to be greatly reduced.
Another core update is the addition of a beginner difficulty option. A step below easy, beginner difficulty ensures that even the most uncoordinated of players can still have fun. Beginner difficulty is available in all songs, including DLC and songs exported from the first two games, though you won't find it in story mode.
Story mode returns to Dance Central 3 with a completely over-the-top time-travel plot. Short version: evil old Asian dude with claw-like fingers wants to take over. Only the DCI agents can stop him by mastering the powers of dance. The magic boombox allows you to travel through time, exploring each decade from the '70s to the present. Master the music to save the day. Yes, the plot is horribly cheesy, but whatever. It serves the purpose well enough.
One new twist is the addition of "craze" songs. In order to move through each decade, you must not only master the individual songs, but also nail a set of individual mystery moves. These moves appear garbled on the flash card display until you unlock them by correctly performing them. Once all of the mystery moves has been unlocked, the era's craze song is made available. Master that to complete the era and progress to the next.
Battle mode will feel familiar to veterans of Dance Central 2. Grab a challenger, pick a song and go to town. It's all here: the one-on-one competition, the solo runs and the free-for-all sections where the first player to perform a move scores the points. What's new is the addition of a pose combo at the end. If you nail a flawless finish, the game cycles through a series of still poses. You can keep posing until you fail to make a match. Every pose in a combo is worth big points, allowing for a come-from-behind victory in a close match.
Crew Throwdown is one of the new modes, supporting up to eight players. Designed around the idea of a crew dance battle, the throwdown is a slick way to get a group involved. You start by selecting your crew. Everyone has a photo taken, so they can be identified. The game announces turns by showing the photos of whoever's up next. When ready, the two players high-five to start the match. After a few rounds, the total scores are tallied, and one crew is declared the winner.
What makes Crew Throwdown so engaging is the variety of options within. It doesn't just have players dance battle; instead, Throwdown cycles between five different modes: Perform, Battle, Keep the Beat, Make your Move and Strike a Pose. Perform and Battle are played like the main modes of the same names. Keep the Beat is a freestyle mode where both players are challenged to dance to the beat. If you have good rhythm, you'll rack up a high score. You can knock an opponent off beat by mimicking their moves.
Make your Move tasks both players with creating custom moves. Each records two moves, which Dance Central 3 then strings together into a routine. The sheer fact that this works (and works well) is probably the most impressive thing about the game. When recording a move, you have to perform it four times. Dance Central 3 appears to store the skeletal tracking data from that performance and replicates it for playback. You can get really creative here.
Strike a Pose is a version of the pose-off that appears at the end of Battle mode. The difference is that it's not game over as soon as a pose is missed. The more you match, the higher the speed. Posing continues until the song ends. Whoever matches more, wins. It's like Hole in the Wall, except without the splash pool.
Other sections that have received minor tweaks include Rehearse (training) mode and the fitness options. For Rehearse, the improved voice commands make it easier to focus on a specific section, and the fitness options offer an easy way to set individual goals. Dance Central 3 also integrates nicely with the Kinect PlayFit tracking app on the Xbox 360 dashboard.
A new community feature is the Live Challenge mode. Dance Central 3 features both Harmonix-designed score challenges as well as score challenges from your friends. You can post a score challenge by choosing to "flaunt it" after finishing a performance. Do that, and it'll be broadcast out to everyone you know, challenging them to do better (and return the favor). Photo sharing returns, though it doesn't use the Kinect Share site this time around. Instead, Dance Central 3 uses Facebook to share photos, so you must link the game to a Facebook account. This is one of those instances where it's probably a good idea to have a dupe Facebook account that has zero friends.
Last, but not least, is Party mode. An extremely casual version of Throwdown, Party mode is accessible from the title screen as well as within the standard menus. When you start this up, the game either pulls songs from a playlist or loads them randomly. Rather than focusing on specific players, it allows anyone to walk up and dance. The same modes available in Throwdown are available here. Since Party mode songs are shortened by default, it's ideal for a background activity at a large gathering.
The one Dance Central 3 feature we couldn't try (not for a lack of wanting) was the Xbox SmartGlass support. When playing party mode, someone with a tablet running the SmartGlass software can connect to the game and serve as the DJ.
Packed with features and polished to a sheen, Dance Central 3 is a true evolution of what has come before. It hasn't lost focus of the core features that made its initial success popular, but the developers also haven't rested on their laurels. Much more than a simple track pack or yearly update, the latest game is sure to please anyone who plays it.
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