Hit me baby
After a long wait, Britney's Dance Beat is finally sitting on shop shelves up and down the country for the cheapish price of £29.99, but despite the developer's valiant efforts, not even Britney's vast, heaving beats can steal the rhythm-action crown from the game's Japanese competition. But it's fun for a little while.
That said, the game gets off to a bad start by presenting what is surely an award-winning seven trademark and logo screens. Shortly after your tea is finished brewing, the now infamous CG effigy of Britney pops up and invites you to audition for her dancing entourage. Admittedly she looks more like a very good waxwork sculpture than anything else, and the voice actress attempting to inject some authentic Britnage into proceedings fails to suppress the southern drawl a couple of times, but otherwise it's Britney. [I knew you'd get distracted. The game, Tom, write about the game! -Ed]
The main body of Britney's Dance Beat is given over to the Audition section. You pick one of six characters (three extremely camp blokes, two fanciable young lasses and a crazed black woman) and take part in a series of ten auditions by tapping buttons in time to the music. Five Britney tracks are included, and you play a chunk of each for the first five auditions, before enduring a complete recital of each for the final five. The tracks (Hit me baby, Oops I did it again, Stronger, Overprotected and Slave 4 U) are suitably infectious, and are ordered by tempo, which adds some variation.
As your character and a rival gyrate on-screen, you are expected to keep an eye on a little radar in the bottom corner (nothing new there) and tap the face and directional buttons as the pointer highlights them in time to the beat. If you hit the beat, you get either a "Good" or "Perfect!" rating for that beat and some points. At first it's extremely forgiving, with the slow tempo of "Hit me baby" and the lack of variation giving players the chance to string beats together, and the fact that most of us will know the tunes makes it all the more easy, but before long though, the player is expected to utilise all the face buttons, the directional buttons, and the two in sync, and the beats are ordered much closer together. As a challenge though, this I could accept. But then there's your adversary.
Quite why auditions are being held in competing pairs is beyond me, but they are, and if you or your opponent string a ten-button combo together, the game 'messes' with the other player's radar, changing required button presses at the last minute, moving them around, and even doing both of the above and separating the stacked directional and face buttons so as to completely confuse you. By the end of the single player game (and with only five shortish pop songs, it won't take too long), you are completely overwhelmed and in no position to complete the tasks presented (especially at the increased pace of the latter songs) without playing through them repeatedly until you know the order. The order and button requirements change from character to character of course, negating anything you may recall of a level and so the process is repeated ad nauseum.
After a while, you are good enough to consistently string combos together in multiples of ten (actually, your humble reviewer has completed certain levels without missing a beat), but your opponent can apparently compete, and since the outcome of the audition is decided based on a yellow "tug of war" bar at the bottom of the screen, he or she often manages to win thanks to completely inhuman reactions.
The points you amass from victories go towards your next backstage pass, and this is where the game gets a bit daft. Your passes can be used to unlock behind the scenes footage and "immersive videos". The behind the scenes stuff is a collage of random footage from a Britney tour with the young starlet being thrown around and all sorts, but it lacks sound and is accompanied by some frankly awful remixes of the main Britney tunes. Worse still are the "immersive videos", which are actually just concert videos with a QuickTime VR-style rotating camera. The footage is low-res, the sound quality is slightly garbled, and the performances are, as with a lot of concert-recorded stuff, only vaguely watchable. I would have and the kids definitely would have preferred to unlock the actual music videos for each of the game's five songs. A missed opportunity.
But then, Britney's Dance Beat is full of missed opportunities. For example, it supports dance mats, but it's almost completely impossible to finish this way, and it has a pause menu so that you can catch your breath, but hitting start again chooses whichever option is selected, and there is no "continue" option, so it's back to the beginning of the level. And even with the benefit of a handicap system, the two-player mode is extremely one-sided, but it wouldn't have been if there was an option to stop the old ten-combo-switcheroo.
Graphically, it's one part "Slave 4 U" to eleven parts album filler. The six dancers are extremely detailed, right down to chains hanging from their belts and pretentious hairstyles, and the motion-captured dance routines, although completely linear, are almost hypnotic to watch (which is presumably the reason why there's a game mode where you can do just that). Britney herself pops up for "Bonus time" if you play well enough, but she's at a lower resolution than her counterpart from the introductory cinematic.
Our criticisms of the graphics mostly come down to the unmoving, unblinking rigidity of the characters and the background graphics. The female dancers are nicely detailed and frankly quite attractive, and the male dancers might as well be the S Club 7 trio, but none of them has any fluidity. The more they dance, the more you notice the lack of hair movement, that their clothes hug their bodies without moving, and that, with apologies to our female readers, nothing obvious happens when the young ladies jump up and down like excited school girls. Not very lifelike, and not exactly titillating either, which was clearly the aim.
The background sets wheeled out for each audition are quite spartan, and could be mistaken for simple 3D environment art projects, but they don't interfere too much, except on the "Hit me baby" level, when the background colour occasionally causes a little mishap. If they are just there to stand and be ignored though, why not use the sets from the music videos? Why not just use the music videos in the first place? Speaking of which, the music videos play on big screens in the background on each of the stages, but for some reason they aren't in time with the music
Of course, because the game is too difficult, the single player game will get a greater workout than the unbalance multiplayer mode, and for that you won't get the chance to soak up the graphics at all, so arguably none of this matters a jot.
Rhythm-action games are - with a couple of exceptions - generally noted for their wacky graphics, zany music and addictive gameplay. Britney's Dance Beat makes a valiant effort to live up to its forerunners, but falls slightly flat thanks to a mixture of poor game design and a vicious learning curve. It's addictive enough if you put the hours in, but it's almost impossible to hook casually interested mates on the multiplayer mode, and with only five songs, it won't be long before it grates on you.