Platform: Xbox 360 (Kinect Required)
Developer: Harmonix Music Systems
Publisher: MTV Games
Dance Central is one of Kinect's biggest third-party launch titles... and a longstanding nemesis of mine. Despite publicly humiliating me during preview sessions, I couldn't help but enjoy the experience and look forward to the retail release. Harmonix has never put a foot wrong throughout their illustrious history of making excellent music games- and Dance Central reflects their pedigree in almost every aspect of its design.
Gameplay couldn't be simpler. After choosing a song and character, players simply have to mirror the movements of the onscreen dancer. Each song is split up into a selection of routines, each providing a simple move or set of steps that fills up between 4-8 bars. Simple fist pumps and side steps slowly build up to jazz squares and more complex footwork. A scrolling selection of flashcards on the right hand side of the screen present a list of upcoming moves (and demonstrating the leading leg)... but you don't quite manage to mirror a routine, a red glow will surround the offending limb and help you get back on track. Since songs can't be failed outright, casual players can afford to just dance along and have a laugh.
Slick immediate calibration makes the process of signing players in and out completely redundant- and bystanders can saunter up behind the main player even during a solo song to instantly participate as a backing dancer. Gaming really doesn't get any more immediate and accessible than this, and it makes dance mats look like ancient archaeological relics by comparison.
Oh, and it's great fun. I'm an overweight veteran of Ikaruga and Serious Sam... and I can't stop playing the damn thing. Dance Central certainly isn't designed for everyone; but it's enjoyable regardless of age, gaming experience or skill. You don't actually need to know how to dance to have fun- but while you're playing, you'll feel like a consummate professional. Don't knock it until you try it.
If you want to excel or learn the routines properly for a higher star rating, each song provides a Break It Down setting that functions like the practise mode in other music games. Each routine is demonstrated several times, with helpful voice prompts that coax even the most nervous and graceless dancers (i.e. you, Jon - Ed) into nailing the correct steps. As you'd expect, this feature can be accessed mid-song so that you can master unexpectedly tricky moves on the fly.
The track selection is absolutely top-notch. Club classics rub shoulders with cheesy disco favourites, and you'll find a fair few guilty pleasures to bop along to. You can always trust Harmonix to deliver. In terms of progression, the entire roster of songs are available from the get-go... but they have to be completed either in easy difficulty or the break it down mode to unlock the higher difficulties. This gives players the chance to ease into each song at their own pace, with normal and hard modes introducing increasingly physical routines. As always, points mean stars; which lets you rank up and unlock mashup challenges, outfits and an awesome hidden character. The Dance Battle mode allows two dancers to compete head-to-head, though two extra players can step into frame to back up the lead dancer in the normal mode (if you have the space).
There are a couple of major issues with Dance Central- but it's important to note that they mainly come down to personal taste. First of all, the selection of characters will be deeply offensive and offputting to anyone old enough to actually afford a Kinect sensor. Unpleasantly superior 'rah' girls and trendy douchebag hipsters come replete with dozens of stock phrases that are destined to make you hate them beyond all reason. It's a shame that many gamers will be turned off the excellent core gameplay by avoidable cosmetics.
Finally, it's worth pointing out that Dance Central is a deeply passive and reactive game experience rather than feeling genuinely interactive. Whilst it's undoubtedly good fun and provides great exercise, you can basically recreate the experience by turning on MTV and dancing right along to it. Without a strong on-screen presence (or at least an avatar mode), it occasionally resembles a selection of digitized dance videos rather than an actual game. Dance Central uses the Kinect hardware extremely well and to great effect- but doesn't really show it off.
- Anyone can dance. Fact.
- Expansive, strong track selection
- Instantly accessible routines
- Passive rather than interactive
- Hateful characters
- You'll need to work through your preconceptions
The Short Version: Dance Central is one of the best dancing games of all time. A great selection of tracks and engaging Kinect-controlled gameplay make its competitors feel absolutely ancient in comparison. Despite a couple of issues with character roster and tone, Dance Central accomplishes what it set out to do and demonstrates that everything Harmonix touches turns to gold. Easily the strongest Kinect launch title.