Like leaf-peeping, apple-picking and umpire second-judging, Dance Central has become an autumn tradition. You can argue that it's grown a bit repetitive by this third installment, but repetition is the key to pop music. A steady beat, a memorable bass line and a chorus that'll itch in your brain until you hear it one more time are the rudiments of a hit. Can you attack a game for reflecting pop music when that's the very bedrock upon which it is built? Repetition is already a vital component to video game sequels, anyway. The trick with both sequels and pop music is knowing what to repeat and how often. With a game the core mechanics are the foundation, the verse out of which the bridge and chorus sprout. It's Mario running and jumping, Gears of War dudes ducking and shooting, or Dance Central 3 club kids and b-boys getting down to a brief history of dance music.
You know the basic steps if you've played the first two. You perform choreographed routines set to hit songs by mirroring the moves of on-screen characters. The Kinect picks up the movements of your arms and legs and ranks each step on a scale from failure to Flawless. The motion tracking itself seems no more or less precise than in the past. It still isn't flawless, and the feedback could be clearer (misplaced limbs are outlined in red on-screen, but the game still never breaks down specifically what you've done wrong), but the detection largely works to an uncommonly satisfying degree.
Dance Central's hook isn't the dancing itself, but how that motion makes you feel. At their core games (and not just video games) are about pleasure, from the intellectual satisfaction of solving a puzzle or winning a chess match to the physical pride of beating people at tennis or football. Video games rarely focus on the physical, though, and when they do it's usually through poorly implemented motion controls or the video game equivalent of a Buns of Steel tape. Dance Central 3, like its predecessors, is entirely physical but never feels like work or punishment. It's definitely a workout, and like a good workout there are peaks and valleys, moments where you have to push through the exhaustion and fatigue until the endorphins kick in and you hit that euphoric groove. Like a favorite song you'll want to feel that again and again.
The most notable addition is probably the Crew Throwdown multiplayer mode. This head-to-head dance-off splits two to eight players into two crews who then dance through six rounds and a final showdown. It's a good way to experience almost everything the game has to offer, as each round consists of a different minigame, including pose-offs, a game where you have to chain together a variety of moves before your opponent can, and the new Make a Move mode. In Make a Move you literally just make up dance moves on the spot in a club-based riff on Horse. Repeat the same motions to the beat to register a move, and then your opponent has to repeat it back.
Outside of your own playlists, party mode is where you'll probably spend most of your time, either alone or with friends. It's an infinite mix to keep the party and endorphins flowing, with excerpts of songs bleeding in to one another. It's an endless jukebox you can get down to all night long, or until your knees finally give out. You basically start it up, let it run and players can pop in and out as they like, without the hassle of having to constantly start up new sessions. You can segue seamlessly into two-player jams by high-fiving a friend, which really needs to become a standard feature in every co-op game ever made from here on out. Of course multiplayer sessions might be few and far between with a game that feels so much better when you take your pants off.
This historical focus plays directly into the story mode. That gloriously absurd story introduces Dance Central Intelligence, a secretive body of time-travelling law enforcement agents dedicated to fighting dance crimes. It's intentionally campy and very self-aware, with references to "House Party" and stock 80s break dance film scenarios (where every inner city rec center is a single dance-off away from being bulldozed). Can you and the power of "Da Butt" stop the chopsocky villain Dr. Tan and his army of dancing robots from taking over the world? Does it really matter, as long as the story runs through every song in the game and unlocks new ones along the way?
The enhanced co-op and head-to-head modes offer new incentives to the socially minded, but Dance Central 3 rocks to the same beat as the first two. But then there isn't much room for improvement, as the first game basically nailed the actual dancing part of the equation. It's hard to see how Harmonix can continue to update this series every year without it quickly growing stagnant. Crew Throwdown and the party mode are nice touches for people who have the necessary floor space for a party, but neither is a revolutionary new feature. You can't fault pop music for repetition, but if you keep remaking the same hit people will eventually get tired of it. Still, Dance Central 3 has a good beat and you can dance to it, so it's not time to leave the club just yet.
This review is based on a retail copy of Dance Central 3, provided by Microsoft.
Garrett Martin's favorite dance move is the Sedentary Arm Cross. He edits Paste Magazine's videogame section and reviews games for the Boston Herald and other outlets. You can hear his blather at Twitter (@GRMartin) or at a variety of Atlanta-area bars.
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