This time last year, the split between the Kinect's two major dancing games was clear: Just Dance was for casual fun, Dance Central was for hardcore challenge. But Harmonix has always been notable for the ambition of their sequels, and Dance Central 3 establishes the franchise as not just the best dancing game for every kind of player, but also as a great way to inspire newbies to become dance masters.
Single-player is still the heart of Dance Central, and Dance Central 3 provides a promisingly goofy story-based campaign, with the player traveling through time learning dance crazes to wield against evildoers. But while it provides a nice ladder of progression, the campaign never makes the leap from silly-stupid to stupid-brilliant; the actors just don't have the drag-theater chops to give sufficient camp topspin to lines like, "We've sent the city's freshest crews to investigate!"
But the single-player gameplay remains as good as, though largely unchanged from, that of the previous installment's. After you finish the story campaign, the game provides more longevity with online challenges and options for flaunting your best score across your Friends list or on your Facebook page. In single-player, Dance Central remains as hardcore as Ikaruga, a pattern-mastery game where the thrill of grueling practice and perfect execution is your greatest reward.
The biggest changes to the game are in the multiplayer, which is focused on welcoming in new players while providing a satisfying challenge for experienced hoofers. Several new modes let amateurs invent moves, stick to simple poses, or just flail around rhythmically. All the amateur modes manage the neat trick of treating players kindly while keeping them competitive with each other, with combo comparisons and constant imprecations to bite your opponent's best moves. The appealing party mode lets you choose a list of songs and game types that the system will move through randomly, so that people can jump onto whatever looks good. If anything, party mode tries a little too hard to keep things moving; it's cute that the game jumps to a new song when no one steps up to play, but it often means favorite songs get skipped because everyone was arguing about who would get the privilege of dancing to it.
The most interesting part of the multiplayer's new focus on newbies is what's under the hood. Any casual player wants to start on Easy Difficulty, but Dance Central 3's Easy is more clever than the merciful scoring system that Dance Central 2 used. On Easy, the game reduces the song to a few moves and repeats them in predictable patterns, so beginning players don't just get self-esteem-boosting scores; they actually get the thrill of learning a dance and gradually mastering its execution, making them more willing to try harder difficulty and more confident in their ability to master initially overpowering challenges.
What makes all of this possible is Harmonix's preternatural skill at working with the limitations of the Kinect. A small box showing the camera's view is always visible on screen, so it's easy to tell when you're out of range. But it also makes clear how smart Dance Central is about guessing the position of limbs outside the Kinect's line of sight, or compensating for moments when the motion-tracking fails. I do wish the game provided better feedback; it can be hard to tell if you're losing points because your limbs are in the wrong position or because you're missing the beat. But unlike just about every other Kinect game, you'll rarely feel like you lost points because the camera failed to track you.
The last thing that makes Dance Central 3 such a winning game is its eclectic song list. It's full of numbers that are memorable specifically because of the dances that accompanied them, like New Kids on the Block's "The Right Stuff" and Janet Jackson's "Control," with choreography that echoes the dances from the original videos. With familiar dance numbers enhanced by cunningly deployed environmental sounds, Dance Central is the latest step in Harmonix's longtime goal of using video games to simulate the joys of live musical performance.
It would have been easy for Harmonix to crank out an annual sequel that added some songs, threw in a few new environments, and called it a day. Instead, they took a hard look at what the flaws remained in Dance Central and fixed them. I hope future sequels, or DLC, do bring some new dancers and new venues, streamline some of the game's wonky menus, and improve the feedback system for those of us determined to five-star every track. But for the moment, there's no question that Dance Central 3 is the best dance game on the market for just about anyone.