As an overweight FPS fanatic, I really wasn't particularly excited about Dance Central. In fact, that's a bit of an understatement. I enjoy getting down from time to time thanks to a not inconsiderable amount of liquid confidence and peer pressure... but the thought of prancing about to sickly pop music filled me with both exasperation, disgust and more than a little despair. Fearing the worst, I threw caution to the wind, stepped up to the sensor and proceeded to deliver a truly horrifying mockery of Lady Gaga's Poker Face.
Imagine my surprise, therefore, when I discovered that Dance Central kicks ass.
Harmonix have absolutely nailed the basics of what makes a fun music game: intuitive core gameplay and big-name escapism. You've simply got to mirror the on-screen movement of several preppy characters (who bear a striking resemblance to Rock Band's caricature design, except replacing sweaty rockers with trendy street dancers) with the sensor detecting surprisingly subtle body movements as well as sweeping gestures. If you move a flailing limb in the wrong direction, a subtle red glow highlights the offending extremity and allows you to correct yourself quickly and effectively.
This simple correction mechanic and range of difficulty levels allow for gamers of all abilities to get involved. Even my ineffectual flailing granted me five stars on the easiest difficulty, with my editor and I able to claw three stars on hard when playing rapt attention. Chaining flawless performances together changes the background from a grimy street, construction site or high school cafeteria to a packed-out club (and vice versa if you put a foot or two wrong). A freestyle section occurs halfway through each song, displaying an oncscreen outline of each player and encouraging us to bust out some truly awful creative moves. Kinect records these and subsequently mashes up the footage into a hilarious montage- which I guarantee will elicit roars of laughter every damn time.
Dance Central contains a selection of over 200 gesture-based routines... and while the easier difficulties can be managed by flopping your way through the tracks and hoping for the best, you'll doubtlessly need a little practice for the harder songs. Luckily, a practise mode lets you get to grips with each move individually, and a move list on the right hand side of the screen will let you prepare for the upcoming action. Oh, and couch potatoes beware... because you can't play Dance Central sitting down. It's one of the most satisfyingly physical games I've ever played, and it's actually going to provide a great way of keeping fit between hardcore gaming sessions.
Dance Central uses the 'drop in' Kinect multiplayer mechanics very effectively. While playing solo, anyone can walk up behind you and start dancing along- taking the role of one of the backing dancers. Kinect almost immediately recognised the new player and instantly added him to the the roster, and even the rep was able to join on my right flank as he walked past. We weren't able to get to grips with any other multiplayer modes, but we assume that a competitive dance-off battle and some sort of full-on cooperative gametype will ship with the final product.
So, that's the intuitive core gameplay c0vered... but Dance Central also manages to handle the escapism. As you've probably seen (and I'm painfully aware of), I cannot dance to save my life... and yet, for a while, I sort of believed that I could. It wrenched me out of my circle-strafing, noscoping comfort zone and let me try something completely new. Not only that, but I genuinely believe that half an hour a day could actually improve my repertoire as well as providing some (much-needed) exercise.
As briefly mentioned earlier, Dance Central displays a real time player display onto the HUD (that resembles a thermal camera feed with brightly-cloured amorphous blobs resembling each player). Whilst it proves that Kinect's outline recognition is exceptional- with it clearly recognising the silhouette of my watch and Matt's hairstyle- there's undoubtedly a little lag. It's not enough to significantly impact on the gameplay, but the motion of the onscreen display clearly trails by a fraction of a second.
On top of this, there are a couple more little problems that occasionally make themselves known. Matt has already discussed the enormous amount of room that even the simplest Kinect game requires in order to function... and when you factor in the extra room you'll need for three players to dance, many people will need to completely reorganise their lounge. Additionally, the Guitar Hero and Rock Band franchises have the scope for a number of different genres and additional instruments, but Dance Central only lets you do what it says on the box. It's an absolute blast to start with, but only time will tell if the experience remains fresh as the months roll by.
In my opinion, Dance Central is going to be Kinect's killer app simply because it plays to the peripheral's strengths. It's a truly intuitive and inclusive experience that lets anyone blow off steam and enjoy themselves... and simply needs to be played to be truly understood. Words don't do this one justice, folks. It's going to sell millions.