Review: Dance Central 3 (Microsoft Xbox 360)

Dance Central 3
Genre: Rhythm
Developer: Harmonix
Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
Release Date: 10/16/2012

While the Kinect has had something of a rocky time, between developers that have lofty but awkward ideas about what to do with the hardware coupled with developers who are just dumping “flailing simulators” out onto the hardware, dancing games generally seem to be a surefire prospect. The Dance Central franchise, in specific, is largely considered one of the best franchises available on the Kinect, and with good reason: Harmonix has brought the concept of Dance Dance Revolution into a full body experience in a way that’s immediately accessible and lots of fun. Dance Central 3 is the latest addition to the franchise, and for a game focused on rhythmic body movements to pop songs, it’s a surprisingly robust experience. Granted, you won’t be seeing any sort of really absurd play modes that extend the gameplay beyond simple dancing, but the game makes a good effort to be more than just a “party game.” As such, it manages to be a worthwhile experience, even if you’re not much of a dancer yourself, because it focuses on trying to offer in elements that make it useful to people of all dancing skills, and for the most part, it succeeds.

A big part of that comes in from the plot, because not only is there a plot to the game, but it’s also surprisingly entertaining despite itself. The gist is that you, playing as yourself, are invited to a secretive dance party that turns out to be an initiation into DCI, or Dance Central Intelligence. This organization is sort of a group of dancing secret agents (just go with it) who are trying to stop the evil Dr. Tan from taking over the world through dance so he can… stop people from dancing or something, it’s not very clear. Your mission is to travel through time, meet up with other agents, decode Crazes from the time period, and return in hopes of stopping Dr. Tan through the power of dance. It’s basically like a time travelling Footloose, but the plot seems to know how absurd it is, and the structure of the mode actually helps you learn a bit about how the mechanics work, so it’s fine enough and you can laugh along with it without a problem. The game also offers a large variety of modes to choose from, for solo players and groups (though there’s no online play to speak of). You can simply start up Perform mode to just play alone or with a friend, Rehearse mode to practice song performances by yourself, Battle mode to compete against a friend, Crew Throwdown to compete in teams against other local friends, Fitness mode to track a workout, or Live Challenges to take on challenges from the community or other friends with the game. You can also run Party Time mode as a jump in/jump out multiplayer mode for anyone in range, and someone with Smartglass on their touchpad or smart phone can even play DJ and change tracks for those who are dancing. That you have multiple different options available to you, depending on what your dancing interests are at the moment, is certainly nice, and the game makes it easy for players to go it alone or with friends, making it an accessible party game as well as a fun solo experience.

Dance Central 3 looks very nice in motion, between some very solid art direction and good use of colorful designs and special effects. The character models are all quite unique and animate very well, and each has multiple costumes to unlock that are interesting and fit their style fairly well. The dance environments are also quite nice to look at, as each looks quite different thematically and stylistically from one another, and color is put to great effect to make each stage stand out. The game also uses special effects well, implementing lighting changes to indicate how well or poorly you’re performing that make your status obvious, and the interfaces are all very clean and easily read. Aurally, well, it’s a dancing game with a licensed setlist, so obviously the songs are all generally solid. The mix of tracks is a lot more varied than one might expect, however, as there are a fairly large amount of songs from across various time periods. As prior games in the series tended to focus on more modern tracks, the variance here is nice, and the songs chosen are pretty interesting, such as Daft Punk’s “Around the World”, TLC’s “Ain’t 2 Proud 2 Beg”, the Village People’s “Y.M.C.A.” and New Kids On The Block’s “You Got It (The Right Stuff)” in addition to more modern hits. Also, the game includes “Da Butt” from Experience Unlimited, which I note without additional comment. The sound effects are all largely very fitting, including electronic effects for when you hit your stride in a song and the sound of everything powering down when you break said stride, and they’re memorable enough in context that they work. There’s also a solid amount of voice work in the game, and it’s largely quite good; there aren’t any especially stand-out performances, so to say, but you won’t want to hurt yourself or the vocal performers, and everyone matches up fine enough overall, honestly.

Dance Central 3 is about as simple to play as games come, in theory: you watch the dances your on-screen avatars perform, and try to match those dances to earn points. That’s basically it. The game displays the dance moves that are next in sequence on the right side of the screen, as well as the limbs it’ll primarily be tracking for those dances, so you can prepare for transitions, and your chosen avatars will perform the moves when those steps come up in sequence so you have an idea what to do. Limbs that aren’t moving the way the Kinect expects will turn red, allowing you to know what you need to correct, though the game tends to be somewhat liberal in its grading and you can generally get away with a rough approximation of the move in question and do okay. The game grades each dance sequence, awarding Nice and Flawless scores when you nail the step and Almost and below when you don’t, and as you perform dance moves you earn points that fill up a star meter on your boombox, which acts as an overall grade of your dance performance. Nailing several steps in a row darkens the stage as you build a combo, which earns even more points toward filling the star meter, with your obvious goal being to get five stars on a song. You can also turn on a Freestyle mode, which brings up your body as run through a sound analyzer of sorts, allowing you to dance around as you see fit for a few seconds at certain points in a song, though this is by no means mandatory and is mostly just there for laughs. At the end of the song, you’ll receive your overall grade, including your overall score, how many Nice and Flawless steps you made, and how your overall performance percentage went, if you want to improve your score and such.

Beyond the basics, however, there are other elements that can pop up, depending on the mode played. Story mode dumps you into specific eras, restricting your song list choices at that time, while also requiring you to perform two tasks in order to leave. The first is to earn a certain amount of stars across all of the available songs, while the second is to unlock the “Craze” from the era. The Craze is unlocked by performing red highlighted dance steps that pop up in certain songs correctly; doing so unlocks those particular steps, and when all of the steps are performed you unlock the Craze for the era, which is generally just another song to perform before you bail out. The competitive and Party Time modes also incorporate mini-games into the mix in addition to normal dancing, including Make Your Move, which tasks players to make up moves against one another, and Strike a Pose, which asks you to match poses created by the avatars on-screen. You can also flip on Fitness at all times, which will track your profile’s fitness performance across all play modes. You can set your body measurements and age in your profile, then set a goal for how many days you want to work out and how many calories you want to burn, at which point you can simply make a setlist from Fitness mode or jump into any other mode, as the game will keep track of this for you regardless of what you’re doing. Finally, as you play through all of the game modes you also earn points based on various things, such as performance level, whether or not the song you played is new, whether or not the song you played is DLC, and so on, which go toward unlocking new characters, costumes and venues to play with.

You can get through the Story mode in around three to five hours, depending on how many breaks you need to take and how well you perform, but there are lots of reasons to come back to the game outside of that. You can hit Rehearse mode to improve your dance steps any time you want, and the game makes it a point to help you here by allowing you to slow down steps and see yourself on-screen if you want to know how you’re screwing up. You can spend hours aiming to unlock everything the game has hidden, or aiming to five star all of the songs, or improving your steps on higher difficulty levels (which add more complex steps and grade more harshly as you move up). You can use the game as a solid cardio workout by building a half hour long dance routine, since the loading breaks between songs are small (about thirty seconds, all told) and there are a wide variety of tracks to work with. You can also expand your library with the tracks from the first two Dance Central titles, as well as DLC that pops up now and again, including, yes, PSY’s “Gangnam Style”, because really, why not, right? The point is, whether you’re looking for a robust track list, a fun party game, a good workout or just something to spend time with as you unlock more content, Dance Central 3 offers you a lot of options to work with.

Having said that, while there aren’t any significant problems to the experience, there are a couple areas that could have seen improvement. For one thing, while the Story Mode generally offers the ability to jump into the game at whatever difficulty you feel comfortable playing at, it starts at Easy, ignoring the new Beginner mode introduced here altogether. This isn’t the worst thing, but it kind of highlights the point I’ve made before about Harmonix not really “getting” difficulty balancing when discussing Rock Band 3, as if you put in a difficulty mode that’s meant for terrible dancers, preventing them from seeing the story with said difficulty mode is stupid. That the story mode also starts with a five point and a six point song (out of seven, for reference) before unleashing you into the mode proper is, again, stupid. While I dance like an epileptic zombie and still made it through with five stars, that there is a beginner mode implies someone out there is worse than I am, so why Harmonix structured the story mode to laugh at those people is completely beyond me. Also, The Hip Hop Dance Experience offers the option to customize characters as you see fit, as does the Rock Band series, so why players are stuck exclusively with pre-created characters here is mystifying and, while not a big deal, is kind of disappointing given the circumstances.

Honestly, though, Dance Central 3 is a fantastic game in every way that matters, and the minor flaws in the game are exactly that, not detracting from an overall package that’s pretty damn fun and quite slick in design and function. The story is silly and over the top but it works based on the subject matter, there are plenty of different modes to play around with, and the game looks and sounds sharp and lively. The gameplay is easy to work with and offers a lot of different options, depending on what you’re looking to do, as well as subtle complexities and multiple difficulty modes, so whatever you’re looking for, be it a party game, a workout, a challenge or just some silly fun, you’ll find it here. It’s unfortunate that you can’t customize your own dancer, and the game skews toward being a little challenging with a Beginner difficulty you can’t use in Story mode and two hard songs starting that same mode, but in all honesty, the characters here are great and I dance horribly and still five starred both songs so you’ll likely be fine. Dance Central 3 is a game of few flaws that are easily ignored and many positives that are easily enjoyed, and it’s the best (and some might say only) reason to own a Kinect, whether you’re just someone who likes to goof around with friends or someone who wants to get to steppin’.

The Scores:
Story/Game Modes: GREAT
Graphics: GREAT
Control/Gameplay: GREAT
Replayability: GREAT
Balance: GOOD
Originality: GOOD
Addictiveness: GREAT
Appeal: GREAT
Miscellaneous: GOOD

Short Attention Span Summary:
Dance Central 3 is an excellent experience, whether you’re looking for a fun game for friends to have fun with or an active solo experience, and its very few flaws don’t at all diminish what is basically one of the, if not the, best experiences for the Kinect. The Story mode is silly and over the top enough to fit right in and wears its silliness like a badge of honor, there are plenty of different modes and play options to enjoy no matter what you’re looking for, and the game is vibrant and slick on both the visual and aural fronts. The gameplay is simple to understand and the game generally tries to educate the player and offer them multiple ways to improve, and with a variety of modes that are fun for one player or a group, as well as lots of unlockables and track options, there are plenty of reasons to keep coming back no matter what your interests in the game are. It would be nice if the game offered some kind of character creation option akin to similar games in the genre, and the game doesn’t start off as friendly for beginners as it could if you jump into the Story mode, but these issues don’t hurt the game terribly much at all. Dance Central 3 is easily a game that anyone who owns a Kinect should own, even if you’re not a dancer, as the game offers so many different options to have fun with that it’s easily one of the best experiences available for the Kinect, no matter how poor a dancer you might be.



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