Dancing and gamers aren’t traditionally two things you’d put together (DDR notwithstanding). Then again, the same was said about singing and playing guitar but now they’re as widely accepted as Mario and Master Chief. So, once again, music game trailblazers Harmonix are out to challenge us with their latest game – boogie simulator Dance Central.
Dance Central follows a similar format to its kissing cousins, the Rock Band and Guitar Hero franchises. Rather than giving you an undersized plastic peripheral, however, you now have no controller whatsoever, using the Kinect sensor to judge your movements instead. The game’s mechanics are simple at heart – mirror the on-screen dancer, follow cues from flash cards and move in time to the music to make it through a song. The levels are all no-fail but your flawless performances are rewarded with backgrounds that become more bright and lavish and adds layers to the music to create a true dance party vibe. Fall behind and the stages become drab while the music loses fidelity making you feel more like a lonely bedroom dancer rather than the superstar you imagined.
I can guarantee that your first fledgeling attempts, with or without the preparatory tutorials that break the routines down, will feel ridiculous. Flailing madly, I managed to keep in time long enough to earn a few stars but felt a little humiliated at the end, having bumped and ground may way through my first routine under the watchful, judging eyes of my cat.
It’s clear that games of this format necessitate an adjustment period. As with the Wii before it, Kinect will make you feel like a bit of an idiot as you contort your body in ridiculous ways to please its all-seeing eye. Once you get over that period of uncomfortable self-consciousness, however, Dance Central becomes a hilarious, joyful bout centred around some surprisingly athletic and authentic choreography. By the time you hit Crank That you’ll actually be taking this stuff seriously, I promise you.
As with Guitar Hero and Rock Band, I’d also seriously recommend that, once you have a handle on the general mechanics, you push yourself and opt for medium difficulty or tougher. Easy dances are fun for shy beginners, but you’ll rapidly find yourself getting bored of stepping to the side and occasionally clapping. Dances are varied enough on higher difficulty levels to ensure that, as well as the staple routines, you’ll be performing unique moves in every song that translate surprisingly well to the actual dance floor. This game won’t make you a pro but it’s certainly a good starting point for gamers looking to show off some new moves on the next night out.
While I’m not here to review the Kinect hardware itself (look out for our impressions soon), I’m pleased to say that everything feels really tight and responsive in Dance Central. While the dancers on the screen don’t follow your movements, any rogue body parts will glow red to show you anywhere you need to pay extra attention. Add in the always hilarious unflattering photos as you gurn your way through the trickiest moves and Microsoft’s latest toy more than justifies its presence in your (hopefully spacious) living room.
If you’re familiar with Harmonix’ previous titles, Dance Central won’t present much of a surprise in terms of visuals. Dancers resemble stylised caricatures of well-known archetypes and are detailed enough to make it easy to follow their actions without getting confused (unless like me you sometimes have trouble distinguishing left from right…). The stages jump to locations ranging from a neon-wrapped boardwalk to a mirrored dance hall but, as with other music games, much of this will pass you by as you’ll be too focused on your instructor to notice any window dressing. If anyone playing with you can tear their eyes from the spectacle of your (fabulous) dancing, however, they’re sure to appreciate the imagination and effort that has gone into providing an appropriate setting in which to throw shapes.
Track listings are what make or break rhythm games and I’m pleased to say that there’s enough here for anyone. Chances are that, if you’re interested in Dance Central then you’ll be wanting, y’know, dance music. With selections including hip-hop, pop, electro and some classics (my hips still ache from Funkytown), you’ll be hard pressed to find something you can’t get down to. If Harmonix previous outings are anything to go by we can also expect a wealth of downloadable content to come to scratch any itch from Madonna to Daft Punk to the Jackson Five.
As with the platform itself, Dance Central is limited by the relative youth of Kinect. While Harmonix have done an admirable job of creating something that feels like a fully fledged game, it reminds me too much of the original Guitar Hero. Tracks are varied but in short supply with just 32 on offer before DLC and the game feels a tad sparse on features. Multiplayer is limited to one-at-a-time dance battles, there’s no character customisation beyond a couple of outfit changes and, other than a rising difficulty level and a workout mode (which adds a calorie counter), no substantial new material is unlocked as you progress through the levels. Equally frustrating are the freestyle segments where players are encouraged to make up their own moves. This suffers from what I think of as Drum Solo Syndrome where manic gesticulating works as well as more calculated dance moves when shooting for a bonus.
Dance Central has shown us what is possible with Kinect beyond the inevitable onslaught of Wii Sports clones and tired minigame compendiums. With a little time and polish, its next iteration is sure to build upon the strong foundations that have been laid here. If you’re an early adopter in search of some real innovation, I can gladly recommend you give it a try, but bear in mind that the platform is still in its infancy. See you on the dance floor!
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