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Let's get something straight right off the bat. I don't dance. Maybe in middle school, alone in my room, to the jamming tunes of Christina Aguilera, or in college after a few drinks, but generally if someone offers up "going dancing" as an idea for an evening, I won't be that enthusiastic. Same for dancing games. Give me Guitar Hero or Rock Band and yes, I'm there, but dancing? In front of people? In a competitive situation? I just don't know, guys.
While I've never owned the first Dance Central, I gave it a go at E3 2010 to embarrassing results. Sure, my dance-inclined friends were having a great time, but I was nothing but stressed out and had to stop. So I was extremely skeptical then when stepping into Dance Central 2 - could someone who doesn't enjoy dancing glean joy from a dancing game? Somehow, miraculously, I did. Thanks to Dance Central 2 , I'm actually looking forward to...to dancing. How is this possible?? Let's break it down.
First off, the game has significantly expanded since its first installment. There are three modes - the brand new Crew Challenge, Perform It, and an altered Fitness Mode.
Crew Challenge, a welcome addition, actually provides somewhat of a narrative to the game, a one-to-two-player campaign that follows the traditional Harmonix model of reaching a certain number of stars to get to the next level, but with the incentive of wanting to be accepted by the various dance crews around town. It culminates in taking down dancing robots created by an evil scientist. No, really. The campaign takes about 4 hours, 3 hours of which is straight dancing, so don't expect to beat it all in one night. The most I danced in a single sitting was to 10 songs and that was plenty. You know. With the cramping and what not. Beating the Crew Challenge opens up two new locations and four new characters, but if all you care about is dancing, you don't need to beat the challenge to open up any songs - they are all available from the get go in Perform It mode.
In Perform It, players have three options - to simply dance to a song, with or without a friend, co-op style (a player two can jump in and out at any time with complete ease,) Break It Down, and Dance Battle. The redesigned Break It Down mode slows down any step you may be having trouble with, and guides you through nailing it. The game even gives you the option of filming what you doing and displaying it alongside the dancers in the game, so you can see how close you are. I did this once. It was traumatizing. But I can see how it's helpful for those who have a prayer of ever matching the dancers' moves.
Once you know the moves inside and out, you're ready to battle. In Dance Central 2, Dance Battle has thoroughly upped its game. Go head to head with a friend on whichever difficult you like. The points are relative to your difficulty level, so you don't have to worry about losing just because you've selected Easy and your friend selected Hard. Whoever does the best within his or her skill level will be triumphant. Plus, each player gets a few solos where points are worth double, and there are a couple sections during the song where various moves pop up on flashcards and you can choose to do whichever you like to rack up bonus points.
With this involved and delightful multiplayer experience, even if all of your friends are better dancers than you, you don't really notice or feel silly because of it. Because you are mirroring the cool looking dancer on screen, for the most part, you feel badass while dancing, because your mind tricks you into thinking you look like the perfect computer animated dancer. Careful, though: if your eyes wander into the top right corner where your outline is dancing, that illusion will shatter all too quickly.
Although as great as the Perform It and Crew Challenge are, Fitness Mode makes the game for me. You can "enable" fitness mode while you are playing the campaign, battling, or just trying out new songs, so it tracks time dancing, calories burned, and more, or you can pick a specific workout, built around how much you want to sweat and how much time you have. I think the "Sprint" option, featuring four of the fastest songs, was designed to kill me, but I came out on top in the end, even trying it out on Medium without keeling over. The really nice thing about these as a workout routine is that if you repeat the same songs enough you end up knowing the moves inside and out, so your workout becomes more engaged and less watching for the next step without really committing to the intensity of what you're doing.
But perhaps the best reason to grab Dance Central 2 if you've always considered a dancing game, but don't own one yet, is the improved technology. The Kinect seems to see every little thing you are doing. In Easy mode, it's pretty forgiving in terms of points, but still encourages you to nail the moves by creating a red border around the incorrectly mimicked limbs of the dancer you are mirroring. For whatever reason, I found it *much* easier to see the moves coming, understand what they were, nail them, and have the Kinect with me every step of the way, than I did in the first game. And boy is nailing the moves satisfying. I got through the entire easy campaign without failing once! Even medium, with more difficult moves, more often, was manageable. In this version of Dance Central, the game seems like it wants you to succeed, which I never felt from the first installment.
In an essential but all too often overlooked move in these types of games, If you own the first game, you can import *all* of its songs to dance to with the new and improved tech for free, and of course buy more as they come along. I've already purchased Rihanna's "Disturbia" because duh. This is important because the only area where Dance Central 2 is lacking is in its song selection. There are a few fantastic options like "Born This Way" and "Bad Romance" from Lady Gaga, Britney's "Toxic", Gnarls Barkley's "Run (I'm a Natural Disaster) and my personal favorite, "Dragostea Din Tei (Mai Ya hee)" by O-Zone, but mostly the songs are current club go-tos that I just don't care particularly care for.
This isn't just a game for kids or 20 somethings either. I played Perform It mode, both Dance Battle and the non competitive multiplayer, with my 64 year-old mother, and no joke, she rocked it. In fact, the only part that she found somewhat confusing was the menu. Which leads me to this piece of advice: make sure when you play that you don't practice the moves while in the menus, because you *will* accidentally select something. And when you actually do want to select something, put your arm out to the side at a 45 degree angle and go from there. There is a learning curve, sure, there always is with a Kinect, but once you get the hang of it, the menus become incredibly easy to navigate.
So however you feel about dancing, I highly recommend picking up this game. Set aside a half hour every day for Fitness Mode or to go through 10 songs in the campaign with Fitness Mode enabled, and you'll have the most fun workout you've had in ages. Or have a bunch of friends over, have a few drinks, jack up the difficulty, turn on "Baby Got Back" in Dance Battle and see what happens. With every Kinect game coming out this year, from Gunstringer to Children of Eden to Dance Central 2, we can see the technology evolving and becoming more and more an asset to one's household, and in terms of having fun while working out, Dance Central 2, with no need for a controller or dance pad, is the best option yet.
Platforms: Xbox 360
Developer: Harmonix Music Systems
Publisher: Harmonix Music Systems