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Dance Central

Review: Dance Central

3:30 PM on 10.31.2010 // Nick Chester

Dance Central’s premise of getting people off of their asses and dancing to the beat isn’t a new one in the world of videogames. Konami’s had years of success with its Dance Dance Revolution series, but that only gets you moving your feet, and arguably not actual dancing at all. More recently, Ubisoft knocked it out of the park with the extraordinarily successful Just Dance for the Wii, but that only uses Nintendo’s console’s controllers to track arm movements. 

By using Microsoft’s Kinect sensor, Harmonix is taking the genre to the next level, tracking arm and leg movements for a full body experience.  It’s a game that has players performing movements that more closely resemble actual dancing than its predecessors. 

Shake off that bundle of nerves and the idea that you might somehow look silly playing it, because Dance Central is a ton of fun. Despite its relative on-the-surface simplicity (there’s actually some pretty sophisticated software behind the scenes here), it also happens to be one of Kinect’s most attractive launch titles. 

Dance Central’s premise of getting people off of their asses and dancing to the beat isn’t a new one in the world of videogames. Konami’s had years of success with its Dance Dance Revolution series, but that only gets you moving your feet, and arguably not actual dancing at all. More recently, Ubisoft knocked it out of the park with the extraordinarily successful Just Dance for the Wii, but that only uses Nintendo’s console’s controllers to track arm movements. 

By using Microsoft’s Kinect sensor, Harmonix is taking the genre to the next level, tracking arm and leg movements for a full body experience.  It’s a game that has players performing movements that more closely resemble actual dancing than its predecessors. 

Shake off that bundle of nerves and the idea that you might somehow look silly playing it, because Dance Central is a ton of fun. Despite its relative on-the-surface simplicity (there’s actually some pretty sophisticated software behind the scenes here), it also happens to be one of Kinect’s most attractive launch titles. {{page_break}}

Dance Central (Xbox 360)
Developer: Harmonix
Publisher: MTV Games
Release date: November 4, 2010
Price: $49.99

Dance Central is incredibly easy to play, and therefore when described, it doesn’t really sound all that impressive. You stand in front of the Kinect sensor and you mirror the moves of an on-screen dancer; “flashcards” scroll down the right side of the screen, indicating the current move and what’s coming up. As moves are performed, the game is using the Kinect sensor to judge your limbs. Are you arms in the right places at the right time? Did you move the proper leg to the proper position with the beat of the song? 

Nail any move and a spotlight below your dancer will fill to tell you how well you’re rocking the dance floor. Perform a move flawlessly, the spotlight fills in blue; get sloppy with it and it turns red. The game does a pretty great job of giving you feedback on your actions if you’re performing them wrong -- whatever limb you’re moving wrong, the on-screen dancer character’s corresponding appendage will flash red. 

This brilliant, yet subtle, feedback is essential to success, and you’re going to need it to -- unless you’re both psychic and a professional dancer, many of these movements and dance routines will require practice. That’s where the game’s “Break It Down” mode, which teaches you each of the routine’s moves one at a time. The ability to slow down some of the moves, especially with some of the more complicated movements, is welcome. Walking you through the dance is a pretty helpful instructor, who will count off moves and give you valuable pointers. 

Let me get this out of the way right now -- you’re going to feel like a complete tool playing this game. There’s beating around the bush, there are few games that will likely make you feel as self-conscious as Dance Central, especially when playing in front of a group. When you first start, it’s likely you’ll miss moves and fumble through routines like a fish out of water. But as you work through the various “Break It Down” trainings for each song, it starts to click. First with the simple moves, then with the trickier multi-limb actions. Maybe it’s cliche to say you’ll lose yourself in the music, but that’s what happens, and soon it’s just you and the game. It’s infectious, too; it’s likely you’ll find people around you wanting to try a dance next, either to just see if they can do it or prove to you how easy that step you keep missing actually is. 

The game doesn’t allow for players to dance simultaneously and be scored, but there’s a “Dance Battle” mode that has players hopping in and out to take turns performing segments of a routine. While in many cases this gives the second player the upper hand by letting them see the routine ahead of time, this isn’t an issue when two experience players face off. For those not interested in competition, the Kinect camera is smart enough to distinguish between more than one body in the frame. Yes, this means you can have “back up dancers” dancing behind you or to your side, although they won’t be scored. 

With dance routines designed by actual choreographers, the performances look authentic enough to appear in an actual music video. Whether or not Rihanna is going to call you up for back-up dancer support on her next tour is another story. As you’d expect, the routines vary in how complicated they, but even on the easiest difficulty level you might find that the game is kicking your ass into shape. The routines also look pretty good, too, a mixture of original dance steps and cribbed from the real world choreography for the track. It’s going to take a hell of a lot of dedication and practice to nail these routines on the most difficult levels, with some of them never repeating the same moves twice on one song. 

From a software perspective, what really makes Dance Central work is that it doesn’t overextend itself, instead working comfortably within the limits of the Kinect hardware. While many of the other launch titles have you moving on-screen avatars one-to-one (or at least trying to), Harmonix decides to go the route of an on-screen avatar moving independently of the player. The avatar never fails a movement, even if you do. The on-screen feedback is really all you need to know that you are (or are not) performing moves correctly. By limiting it so that the game only really looks for arm and leg movements, the margin of error is decreased. Still, there’s a of variation in how it can track arms and legs -- left and right, forward and back, and all combinations -- so you’ll still have to be on point. While I didn’t notice it truly paying attention to minor things like hand position or head movement, I found myself trying to mirror those movements regardless, simply because it was more fun to do so. 

Dance Central features 32 tracks on the disc, which by comparison to other music titles (Harmonix’s Rock Band 3, for instance, features 83) seems a bit weak. (Ubisoft’s original Wii-exclusive, Just Dance, also featured only 32 tracks and went on to be a mega-success.) But the lack of song could be chalked up to the fact that some of the routines are so complicated, with over 650 dance moves on the disc. 

What’s here is pretty good, too, ranging from Lady Gaga hits to old school classics like Bell Biv DeVoe’s “Poison” to Cascada’s “Evacuate The Dance Floor.” During my hours playing the game for review, I also barely scratched the surface of the routines, having not touched many of the more difficult numbers. Harmonix and MTV Games are also promising downloadable content for the title in the future; if they’re half as regular with it as they are Rock Band tracks, you’ll be dancing your ass off here for awhile. 

Despite feeling and playing like a well-thought out, full-fledged retail game (i.e. it’s not a series of throwaway mini-games), Dance Central is a barebones affair. You’ve got your “Break It Down” practice mode, your performance, the dance battle, and a workout mode that counts calories, but that’s pretty much it. All of the songs and approaches to the songs are accessed via what’s essentially a “quickplay” option. You choose the song, you get scored, and then you can pretty much move on to whatever you’re interested in next. There’s no career-like progression here, although you can “rank up” and unlock content (new venues, new outfits for the dancers, by playing and mastering routines. It would have been nice to have the progression incentivized a bit beyond these basics, something I’m sure we’ll see in a sequel. 

Of the Kinect-enabled titles available for launch, there’s been the most hype surrounding Dance Central. It’s buzz that’s hard to understand unless you’ve experienced the game, but it’s a buzz that turns out being completely justified. There’s room for improvement in terms of what the game offers, but Harmonix nailed the core experience, and that goes a long way towards making it one of the most compelling Kinect launch titles. 



THE VERDICT

8

Dance Central - Reviewed by Nick Chester
Charming - Not perfect, but it's easy to ignore the rough spots when faced with so many engaging design decisions and entertaining moments. A memorable game that's hard not to like and recommend to others.

See more reviews or the Destructoid score guide.

Nick Chester, Former Editor-in-Chief (2011)
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