Serious gamers have been justifiably unsure whether the Kinect had anything to offer them. Every aspect of its marketing suggested that it would be used to create plenty of party games, simple systems where limited interaction produces obnoxiously over-praising rewards, but no hardcore games, in which patient training rewards players willing to embrace difficulty. Dance Central 2 presents itself as pure party-starter, a full-body version of the Wii’s crude but successful Just Dance series. But it’s just the opposite. As a casual title for non-gamers, Dance Central has serious flaws that sequelization can’t fix. But as a hardcore game, it’s the best fulfillment yet of the Kinect’s potential.
Dance Central 2’s biggest change from the first game is its multiplayer, which has gone from being barely worth trying to being big, big fun. The old, alienating taking-turns system is gone, and now two players can have a simultaneous dance-off, with occasional solo parts to encourage smack-talk and general fronting. Dance-offs are punctuated with sections where players race to pull off a selection of specified moves, and certain moves are worth quadruple points, encouraging very amusing races to nail a step first, or better yet, prevent the other player from pulling it off any way you can.
The game’s multiplayer is a great way to recreate climactic scenes from Breakin’ in your living room, and Microsoft’s marketing department clearly hopes that the simple delights of getting your boogie on will make Dance Central 2 a hit among those who don’t see the point of most video games. But for all the fun of dance battles, there’s a big difference, in my experience, between how non-gamers and gamers react to the multiplayer.
My non-gamer friends, many of whom have been drafted into quite a few of my Dance Dance Revolution and Rock Band parties, were often put off by the complexity of Dance Central 2’s real dance moves. Previous rhythm and dance games have been about a strictly constrained system of four or five buttons, but Dance Central requires you to get every limb and joint working with the rhythm. It’s great that Dance Central is more like real dancing than the old drumming-with-your-feet model of Dance Dance Revolution, but it turns out that learning real dance moves is genuinely hard, requiring rapt attention and dedicated repetition, and few people, no matter how drunk, are willing to do that in the middle of a party.
By contrast, my serious gamer friends, most of whom haven’t danced in public since third-grade performances of The Nutcracker, loved the challenge. To my surprise, non-gamers were done with the game after a few rounds, but hardcore gamers, their faces fixed with the grim squint of a determined systems-learner, relished the chance to merge with digital Beyoncés.
The quest for perfection is helped by great improvements to Dance Central’s feedback system. In the first Dance Central, it could be hard to tell which of your limbs wasn’t on point, and in the heat of a big number, it was difficult to know if you were doing well at all. Dance Central 2 outlines errant limbs in red to tell you exactly where you’re going wrong. Although it can be hard to see the thin lines at the distance Kinect requires, it’s a welcome teaching tool; on the harder moves, I would often try to nail one limb at a time before putting them all together. More gleefully, correct moves lay acid-trip trails behind your extremities, providing a clear—and groovy!—signifier for success. The game also uses the same dynamic audio that Rock Band employed, with the soundtrack getting louder and fuller when you’re hitting the moves. So it’s easier to know what you’re doing wrong, and even more satisfying when you get it right.
The feedback still isn’t all there, maybe because the Kinect sensing still isn’t all there. Dance Central grades your moves both on limb position and fidelity to the beat, and when you get a move wrong, there’s no way of telling whether it was position or timing that failed. More disturbingly, there’s still plenty of times where you’ll be rewarded for moves you don’t seem to have done right, or dinged (seemingly) unfairly. Though the always-on full-body view in the corner of the screen makes it easy to be sure the Kinect is seeing you, I sometimes wished the game would drop the pretense of monitoring my body and just show me the skeletal system the Kinect is actually tracking, so I could tell what was really going on in the game’s chilly little brain.
Gathering before the Kinect’s three-lobed eye with other players ready to perform with computer-pleasing precision is loads of fun. But for all the party-game marketing around it, where the Dance Central series really shines is as a single-player experience. The training mode, greatly improved in Dance Central 2, makes it easy to ceaselessly practice the tough moves to perfection until your every fingertip is in place. And like the best rhythm games, replaying for perfection makes it even more fun; few gaming experiences can match the visceral satisfaction of moving through Bobby Brown’s “My Prerogative” with perfect grace, knowing each move before it happens and nailing every knee-dip right on the beat. The satisfaction is exactly like the thrill of beating a tough level boss, but with the added viscerality of involving your actual viscera.
For most gamers, there’s a glum disconnect between the experience of gaming and its image, and that’s not entirely the fault of negative media coverage. When you master a video game, the view inside your head is a landscape where you’ve learned every contour and blast across it with perfect grace. But from the outside, the more you work on perfecting your play, the more you look like a tuber growing roots out of your butt. Dance Central 2 is a revolutionary resolution of that conflict, which previous dance games have hinted at but never quite achieved. Like any video game, and unlike the tiresome wave of fitness games, it gives you difficult challenges that motivate you to master a complex system. But this time, the system isn’t an artificial construct created by a manipulative designer, it’s your own body and its relationship to rhythm, a system that was conceived long before computers, recording, or even language. For serious gamers who want to feel like their body is part of their life rather than a distraction from it, this is what we’ve always wanted. The very aspects that make it so appealing to gamers—depth and challenge—are what make it unsatisfying for non-gamers. But since when were we responsible for them anyway?