Before I officially hung up my pointe shoes by their pink ribbons, I was a dancer. I practiced ballet, tap, pointe, and jazz. I did all this for 10 years. You could say I like dancing.
So when video games adopted my love for dancing and actually made good use of emerging motion control technology, I was enthusiastic. Two of my loves combined!
The most recent, popular options you have as a dancing/gamer enthusiast are Just Dance 4 (released October 9) and Dance Central 3 (released today, October 16). But which one is for you?
To try to figure out the answer, I played both. Which means I've been spending my work hours dancing. You're welcome.
By far the most important feature in a dancing game is its choreography. Without question Dance Central 3 takes the raspberry almond tart (cake is too unspecific) on this one for its stylish dance moves.
But here's a thing you should consider before taking my word for it.
Dance Central 3's dances are complex. The moves are fancy. They're sometimes hard to follow because they're more complex dances. But do you want to play a first-person shooter whose AI enemies stand right in front of you, or do you want them hiding behind cover, maybe scoping from above? I like my games challenging, and that includes dancing games. So I like the challenge of performing complicated dances.
I can jump straight into Just Dance 4 with no previous practice and four-star every song on there. Dance Central 3 pushes me to use its practice mode and break down individual steps in slow motion before I can master them. So while Just Dance 4 is far more forgiving in terms of nailing moves that are fairly simple, Dance Central 3 provides you with the tools to pull of challenging, impressive dances.
Putting in the work to perfect a dance in Dance Central 3 is well worth the time (and work-out), because you'll be performing amazing-looking dances and feel proud that you pulled them off, while Just Dance 4 is on the silly-looking side.
Maybe you want silly. Maybe you want to buy Just Dance 4 for your young daughter or little cousin. Just Dance 4 is far more suited for children than Dance Central 3 is, because the dances are simpler. The moves are more repetitive and predictable, and therefore easier to follow. Just Dance 4 doesn't take itself seriously, making you perform what feel like comedy sketch dances appropriate to their respective songs. A song in particular that came to mind was "We No Speak Americano," which a previous Dance Central game had on its soundtrack, but with a far more fetching dance to complement it. Just Dance 4's version of the song's dance made me feel like a more fashionable Charlie Chaplin.
Dance Central 3 is more suited for people who take dancing seriously. Have you ever seen a dance battle video or one of those really terrible, cheesy dance movies and thought, "Wow, I wish I looked that good while dancing"? Dance Central 3 can make you look that good.
Also important to note are the flashcards, or cues for upcoming moves. Dance Central 3's are clear and accurate. Just Dance 4's are harder to read and not as helpful. But, again, Just Dance 4 is indeed more forgiving to its players, so it might just balance out for you in the end.
Features and Modes
Let's not forget that motion-centric dance games are most certainly party games. Friends come over, friends drink, friends' inhibitions disappear and open the party up for silly shenanigans. Hence karaoke, and Rock Band and dancing games.
Both JD4 and DC3 are fairly robust in terms of multiplayer options and other modes. Respective developers Ubisoft and Harmonix understand how their games are being used. Each game has a straightforward battle mode, where you challenge your friends to chosen dances. Just Dance 4 offers alternative choreographies for certain songs, which are unlockable. The game also offers a mash-up mode. But Dance Central 3 takes its creativity to the players with modes like Make Your Move that guide you through making your own dance moves complete with their own flashcards. Make Your Move uses those custom-created moves to challenge your friends. DC3's Keep The Beat has a similar feel, in that you invent your own dance moves while the game analyses how well they sync up with the beat of the music you are performing to.
Both games have modes catered to be more competitive or, alternatively, more laid back. You can choose between a collaborative dance experience, or a versus one in both JD4 and DC3. Hopefully you have the square footage to squeeze all your friends in.
Dance Central 3 takes snapshots of your in-the-moment dancing, but Just Dance 4 goes a step further and takes short videos, even looping them or turning them into music videos that you can share with friends. It's beyond silly and definitely an appreciated feature that lets you point and laugh as you watch yourself after each dance.
But motion-centric dance games are also most certainly work-out games, and JD4 and DC3 both have modes fit for counting how many calories you've burned. In terms of the feel of the workout, both games had me sweating and (ashamedly) out of breath. Dance Central 3's measure of your moves really requires you to hit steps properly, though, so playing the game on any mode will push you to dance more energetically to get those moves just right. Just Dance 4 lets you get away with some arm-flailing and stiff legs, which after a few hours playing sound really appealing in the place of perfect movements that require more energy.
Interfaces on Kinect can really make or break the experience. It's one of the reasons I couldn't stand Kinect Star Wars. That thing was flat out unnavigable. Just Dance 4 teeters on that edge. Everything requires more actions than is needed, whereas Dance Central 3 is intuitive and fluid. The only time I had problems with DC3 was during the rehearsals, where voice commands were emphasised but rarely registered. Usher is clearly just too loud to hear my commands.
Dance Central 3's menu lets you preview not just songs, but the dances as well. And it doesn't require the extra click that Just Dance 4's menu does. It's easier to parse your game options in Dance Central 3 when the menu isn't constantly fighting you.
Music is another huge bullet point for a dance game. Dance Central 3's latest title is in a unique position for this comparison because its storyline — which, it has a friggin' storyline — spans the decades. Just Dance 4's soundtrack includes the classics as well as current-day pop songs and a few random and unexpected tracks, but Dance Central 3's feels more methodical and expansive. Dance Central 3's classic songs and throwbacks will actually teach you the real-life moves they're associated with, too.
Include the fact that you can transfer over every song you've ever purchased from a Dance Central game, and Harmonix's title wins in this category, as well. It's hard to compete with music selection when we're talking about 150+ tracks. Music taste is personal here, but I enjoyed and recognised more selections from Dance Central 3's tracklist than Just Dance 4's.
As a dancer and a gamer, I found Dance Central 3's experience to be more challenging and rewarding. The choreography is some of the best I've ever seen, and Harmonix is pushing the game to give you a wider experience with new additions like the storyline that gives the incredibly legitimate dancing game a lighter, more playful touch.
Just Dance 4 is a far more accessible experience for those who don't necessarily want the most impressive dancing skill experience — in both building it and showing it off — but comes at the expense of dance quality.
If you're just looking to jump around for a few hours, Just Dance 4 might be more to your interest. If you're looking for quality dances and a robust game with some really intelligently designed modes, I'd say Dance Central 3 is the no brainer.