Of all the launch titles for Kinect, Dance Central stands out as the one with the potential to be the most ‘game-y’, due in no small part to the developer behind it. Harmonix has been ‘the’ name in the music genre ever since it first unleashed Guitar Hero on the world – a game that managed to emulate the feeling of nailing 'Ace of Spades' so well that you could almost forget that you were, in actuality, holding a small plastic toy with coloured buttons.
There are no embarrassing plastic guitars to wave around with Dance Central though. Instead, it’s your body that’ll be doing all the blush-inducing motions, with the game tracking the various limbs and comparing the results to pre-set choreographed routines.
If you’ve never picked up a hairbrush and danced in front of a mirror, you’re going to feel slightly left out by the track listing these routines are set to. Whereas Rock Band and Guitar Hero have expanded out from an almost exclusively metal/rock focus to include more popular genres, Dance Central is adamant the player is a hip hop star or a teenage girl, with routines focusing on capturing the spirit of the song, and most songs’ lyrics focusing on capturing the eye of a sexy man.
There are a few notable exceptions to this rule in the 32 songs available on the disc: 'Funkytown' is an ode to the home of Funk (pop: 4,320), 'Brick House' is about a sexy lady rather than the construction industry (disappointingly), while 'Drop it Like it’s Hot' is a baffling enigma from the master of mumbling and suggestive intonations, Snopp Dogg. In general though, you’ll spend most of the time in Dance Central either making threatening motions with your shoulders or rotating your hips and performing ‘come hither’ movements to the TV.
There are three main modes where you’ll be shaking your booty to: the single-player Perform It, the multi-player Dance Battle, and the training section Break it Down. Disappointingly, there’s no real over-arching career structure to the game – all the songs start off unlocked in Easy mode – but there are still venues and dancers’ costumes to be claimed over the course of the game.
The presentation, from the excellent stylised intro sequence to the dancing itself, is well drawn and smoothly animated, with more than a passing nod to Rock Band’s stylised graphics. The avatars available aren’t customisable as with that earlier title, but instead come across as Guitar Hero-esque ‘personalities’, tuned to modern dancing clichés like the effeminate guy in the sharp threads or the pampered princess with a penchant for mockery.
You’ll want to pick one that doesn’t cause you to want to punch the screen, mind, as you’ll be mimicking the dance moves performed by the virtual avatar, rather than them mimicking you.
During each song a series of cue cards scrolls up the side of the screen with diagrams showing the next expected move; get the move right and the circle beneath the dancer fills up until it explodes with a flash of blue light; get it wrong and the individual limbs that have gone astray are highlighted on the dancer’s body with red outlines.
The cue cards aren’t always that clear though, so performing the majority of moves correctly without practising beforehand (or seeing another player perform them first) is nigh-on impossible. Animations on the cards with an option to switch them over to motionless diagrams once you’re used to a routine would have been far more helpful than the current system.
Halfway through each track, the game suddenly breaks away from the cue cards and throws down an improvisation session in which the player can do all manners of ‘ker-azy’ moves that are captured and animated using Kinect’s camera. It’s tacky, silly and an annoyance in single-player, but these sections do tend to end up as the most raucous moment in the game if you’re playing with friends.
The multiplayer-only Dance Battles follow the same structure and movements as the single-player mode, with players taking it in turns to perform each half of a song (plus two improvisations). It’s disappointing that there’s no option to have both players dancing at once, but given how much energy and space is required to perform the moves this isn’t a completely unexpected omission.
Nevertheless, the quality of tracking these ‘pops’ and ‘locks’ is some of the best yet seen on Kinect. The finest demonstration of this is in the Break It Down mode – a training section designed to get the player up to speed with the various moves used during a track. While there was the odd one or two that Dance Central seemed reluctant to mark higher than ‘average’, we never ran into anything to suggest the game was struggling to keep up with our mad dancing 'skillz', nor letting us get away with it when we plainly cheated.
Unless you’re already a professional dancer, you’ll be seeing this practice mode a lot over the course of Dance Central. Whereas pretty much everyone and their mum will be able to get their way through a round of ‘Poker Face’ or the excruciatingly terrible ‘Hey Mami’ on Easy, the later routines, and anything bar the first few on Hard mode, can feel like the game’s deliberately trying to destroy you with its quick changes and almost breakdance-esque jumps and shuffles.
Just like Harmonix’s earlier music titles however, there’s nothing quite as satisfying as finally nailing a song, to the extent that even tracks that sounded unbearable at first can become extremely enjoyable to play. Managing to 80% ‘Can’t Get You Out of My Head’ on medium (complete with that robot-like ‘hold my face and jerk about’ move from the video) elicited a rush of pride and satisfaction we’ve not felt since 'Ace of Spades' bowed to our majesty all those years ago.
Those of you serious about dancing – and those just looking for a great party game – will find plenty to like about Dance Central. While both the single-player and multi-player modes need a little more fleshing out in terms of structure and options, the gameplay, tracking, satisfyingly well-paced difficulty and variation of moves make Dance Central one of the best launch titles for Kinect.