In The Groove (PlayStation 2)

by Cutriss, 3 November 05

For most of the people here, In The Groove (ITG) needs little to no introduction. There's already a great deal of controversy surrounding the "legitimacy" of the franchise in the face of its spiritual predecessor, Dance Dance Revolution. For some time, opponents of ITG had little argument to make against it, since Konami has not revisited the series in the arcade in any meaningful fashion since the release of DDR Extreme in 2002. However, with the release of ITG for the PlayStation 2, DDR has found itself facing competition on its new home turf - the home console market.

In the North American market, DDR has enjoyed a great deal of success, partially due to its isolation - there has been no serious competitor in the music simulation genre up until the announcement and release of ITG. With this in mind, ITG not only has a very high bar to pass, but they also have to do it on their first try. So, with that in mind, let's take a look at Roxor's first game ever for the PlayStation 2.

Since ITG's initial arcade release hasn't strayed too far from the trendy areas of arcade gaming (east and west coasts), many players may not be intimately familiar with it, so let's run a quick synopsis. In The Groove follows the DDR formula quite closely, deviating just enough to make it seem less of a carbon copy. Instead of the challenge levels as seen in DDR's time (Basic/Trick/Maniac and now Light/Standard/Heavy), ITG goes with a more English-natural "Easy", "Medium", "Hard", and "Expert". Basically, if you've played DDR, you can make your way around ITG without any problem.

The key differences in ITG are sprinkled throughout the game in a variety of places. ITG takes a page from the Pump It Up playbook and re-introduces the idea of steps which require more than two panels to be hit at once. These are called "Hands" (for 3-panel hits) and "Quads" (for 4-panel hits). Obviously this requires a great deal of flexibility and agility, since hitting the additional panels isn't the challenge - it's hitting them all at once. This will probably be the greatest hurdle for veteran DDR players, as it takes quite some time not only to get used to doing it, but also to remember to stretch properly before games - DDR was always about the legs, but ITG now requires some torso action as well.

Since ITG is based on Stepmania, it also incorporates a great deal of the gameplay modifiers seen in Stepmania. While DDR players have recently been introduced to speed modifiers (1.5x, 3x, etc) and flow modifiers like Hidden and Solo, Stepmania has been a veritable breeding ground for creative ideas, spawning modifiers like Tornado (where the arrows spin around each other as they scroll) and Split (where some columns scroll up while others scroll down). Also of great utility are what are known as C-mods, modifiers which enforce a consistent scroll rate regardless of tempo changes in the song. For example, if C200 is used, then the arrows will scroll as if the song were played at 200 BPM, regardless of how fast or slow the song is. This would have the greatest impact on songs like Wild Rush, where tempo changes abound.

Another new addition to the gameplay mechanics is the concept of Mines. Mines are pretty simple - when a mine passes the arrow line, make sure your foot (or hand, as the case may be) isn't on the panel associated with that arrow. It may sound pretty simplistic at first, but several songs in ITG make some very creative use of mines to force various body movements. One of the original concepts most DDR players have to learn when they start out is to avoid standing on the center panel, and to instead stand on the arrows themselves, just stepping whenever an arrow comes. ITG now turns this concept on its head, forcing people to be mindful of where they stand. Some songs will even send out a full row of mines, forcing the player to jump completely off the arrows. Lemmings On The Run's Expert steps are a great example of how mines can be smartly deployed. In the end, mines turn out to be as powerful of a gameplay mechanic as the steps allow them to be.

And ultimately, the steps are the biggest thrust of ITG, to the point that the step authors are individually credited along with to the songs' artists. Some of the names you'll see playing ITG will be familiar to you if you've been in the simulator scene for long - Community stepchart veterans like Chris "FoyBoy" Foy and MJ Emirzian are among those who appear in the game. And for those that are tired of DDR's challenge level, ITG's songs go all the way to 13. That's not Spinal Tap measurement, by the way. The difficulty of the steps actually supercede that seen in the Maxes, and they don't always accomplish the difficulty by being super-fast, which is the typical fashion of Maxes, both official and fanmade. Several songs are made complicated by the Mine patterns found in them, or simply by step density. The only problem with ITG's difficulty ratings is that they're not always consistent, but this could also be said at times of DDR.

So, none of this really matters if the music sucks, right? Well, the music in ITG is pretty decent. The PS2 version contains all 70 songs from the arcade release, along with four songs new in ITG2, and a fully-unlocked version of Liquid Moon, which is normally only available in one of ITG's marathon courses. So, Roxor's first game already has more songs than all of Konami's previous North American offerings. And for the most part, they're pretty good. The genres are pretty varied, and while veteran DDR players might have some trouble finding a new niche to play in, it doesn't take too long to identify particular artists to cling to. Kyle "KeeL" Ward and his many aliases are represented on several songs which fans of DJ Taka and TaQ will probably enjoy. Also appearing are some artists familiar to old school DDR players, including E-Rotic and Missing Heart. So there's really something for everyone here. The only problem is that some players may feel like their particular genre is underrepresented, since DDR's genres weren't as widely varied.

ITG includes the normal game mode and DDR's workout mode, called "Fitness Mode" here. Also present is DDR's Training mode, called "Practice", and Nonstop Courses, called "Marathons". While ITG doesn't allow for custom Marathon courses, there is some new ground to be found in ITG's versions of Nonstops. Some courses are normal, and some have required modifiers applied throughout them. What makes them unique is that the modifiers aren't constant throughout the entire course; Some songs might have a particular modifier only applied for as little as ten seconds, and many of them stack multiple modifiers during some segments of the course. And if you're up for an extra challenge (or need some extra help), you can apply your own modifiers to the courses to go along with whatever may or may not exist. This gives the nonstops the same sort of replayability that DDR songs have enjoyed with the use of such mods as Boost, Dark, and Shuffle, but several degrees higher, of course.

Speaking of modifiers, ITG has its own unique take on Disney Mix's Dance Magic mode, called Battle Mode. Battle Mode can be played against a CPU opponent or a human player. Essentially, each player's perfect attack ability will add random modifiers to his/her opponent's gameplay. This can make gameplay very tricky for even expert players, since there isn't any control over what sort of modifiers you might see. This also presents a potential problem as well - while the arcade version of In The Groove may be able to handle a song played with every possible modifier applied, the PS2 version isn't quite so capable, and so the possibility of causing frameskipping goes from "you asked for it" to "medium occurrence". Still, it's perfectly playable even considering this fact, and it's a good amount of fun.

In The Groove is generally a very good first outing from a company with little-to-no previous PS2 development experience. It does have a couple of glaring issues, namely the load times. Fanboys on both sides of the aisle have tried to downplay or play up the significance of the load times, but in all honesty, they're not fantastic. To be honest, the load times aren't too much longer than what you'd see in DDR, but the difference is that Konami's developers do a good job of masking them with animations and continuing music playback. In ITG, the music is cut off completely and the screen stops moving, which could easily fool the player into thinking his PS2 crashed, a not-altogether unlikely incident given the reliability of Sony's consoles as of late. A little programming finesse could have easily covered the load times up, or at least lessened them. Loading the options screen takes a lot longer than one would think, for one thing.

There's also a less critical bug involving the presets in the options menu. One of the selections available is the default sort order - players can select whether songs appear in alphabetic order by default, or one of a number of other sorting methods, similar to what's available in DDR. The trick is that one of the sorting methods, "Topgrade", isn't actually implemented in the game, and so setting this in the menu will cause the game to hang. Further, since it's not a valid setting for the game, saving this option and loading your ITG save from the memory card (IE - turning the console off, and later back on, with the option saved) will cause your save file to appear corrupted. There is a workaround for this, however - Boot the game without your memory card inserted, and then insert the memory card and load your save. Change the option back, and save again, and your file will once again become useable. It's a bit disappointing that a bug like this managed to make it into the production version, but probably not as disappointing as DDR Extreme's lack of Dance Play Settings (which ITG does support, for the record).

Also disappointing is the lack of Edit Mode. There's a lot of wide speculation about why it's absent from the game, but there's no official answer as to why it was removed at the last minute. The lack of Edit Mode also brings with it the inability to take your USB memory device back and forth between the arcade game and the home version, but given the availability of tools like GrooveStats, there's not a lot that the memory card would add to home playability other than support for edits.

Taking all these things together, ITG for the PS2 is a good first run, and while it doesn't put any nails in DDR's coffin, it is a noticeable shot across Konami's bow, and since it's compatible with the DDR equipment you already have, it's a worthy game for any DDR player to own. It may not raise the bar for Konami, but Roxor has definitely reached it where it is now, and one could make the argument that the presence of ITG in the home market is what is motivating Konami to add new features to the continuing home releases of DDR, like Extreme 2's online play.

If you already have some preconcieved notions about ITG, you'd do well to put them aside and play a few rounds of ITG just to give them a shot, or listen to the music and find some tracks that sound good. You might be surprised.