Kinect title Dance Central generates crazy buzz at E3

Before heading into E3, everyone knew that Microsoft’s Kinect reveal — formerly known as “Project Natal” — would have everyone talking, for better or for worse. Sunday night’s ostentatious reveal (a costly, uncomfortable event featuring Cirque du Soleil), no one really knew what to think.

But only days later, after many folks had reluctantly stepped in front of Kinect and Harmonix’s and MTV Game’s upcoming Dance Central, it was the talk of the show. In a sea of high quality, big budget “hardcore” titles, it’s shocking that a game like Dance Central could stand out. Using the Kinect camera to detect your movement, MTV Games and Harmonix hope to have you cutting a rug — or whatever the kids are saying these days — with your living room as the dance floor. Sounds like, well… not the thing a show of weary games journalists would want to prattle on about.

Its not the first dance videogame, with Konami dominating the market for the longest time with Dance Dance Revolution. But Dance Central’s core ideas are probably a bit closer to Ubisot’s Just Dance, the mega-popular Wii exclusive that has players waving around the Wii Remote and nunchuck to simulate dance moves. So what’s so special about Dance Central? Props have to be given to the Kinect technology (which allows the game to read full body movements in real time with surprising accuracy), and the game’s easy-to-read UI that helps guide the player and provide real time feedback.

But most importantly, Dance Central is infectious and a hell of a lot of fun. And it’ll make you sweat your ass off.

The concept is pretty simple: you stand in front of your TV and dance move diagrams show up on the right side of the screen. You’re asked to do the “Reach Lunge,” the “Banjo,” and the “Hitch Hike” among the game’s 600-plus dance moves. Don’t know what any of that means? That’s okay, just watch the on-screen avatar he (or she) will help you keep the pace, showing you just what you need to do. As for the authenticity of the moves, Harmonix has hired an entire crew of professional dancers and choreographers, many of which were in the Los Angeles Convention Center showing uncoordinated game nerds how it was done.

While your movements won’t be one-to-one with the on-screen avatar (how would you know what you were supposed to do?), the game provides plenty of feedback to keep you on track. Because the cameras tracks your movements at all times, if you’re doing something wrong — not moving a body part, off the beat, etc. — you’re told in a number of ways. Not moving your feet to the beat? The on-screen dancer’s legs will start flashing red. Not waving your hands in the air like you just don’t care? Check the flashing red arms and make adjustments accordingly.

Even when you are moving how you should be, you’re also required to move with the beat of the song; the game keeps track of that, too, of course. A circle, or a spotlight, will appear under your characters legs, slowly moving outward in time with the song. If it turns blue, you’ve nailed the move flawlessly; green, not bad; red, it’s time to get your act together.

On the first go, getting into Dance Central is a bit intimidating. Because, you know, what the hell is a “Jazz Square”? No worries, because playing on the easiest level truly eases you in, throwing only a few dance moves at you within the frame of a single song. Once you start to know the moves and start to build a dance “vocabulary,” you’ll find that you’ll start knowing and anticipating moves as they come up on the screen. Even within one song, I found myself flailing around aimlessly as it began, but by the closing measures of the song, had come to grips with the handful of moves the game was asking me to perform. No coordination? No problem — the game’s “Break It Down” mode will allow you to slow down and practice individual moves on the fly.

Dance Central will ship with over 30 songs, with more than 90 dance sequences, some of which you might recognize from the videos or performances of the tracks included. On the demo at E3, six songs were playable (danceable?): Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face”; Lipps Inc.’s “Funkytown”; M.I.A.’s “Galang 05”; Bel Biv DeVoe’s “Poison”; and The Beastie Boy’s “Body Movin’ (featuring Fatboy Slim)”. You can also expect plenty of downloadable content following the game’s release, but it’s unlikely it’ll be able to keep up with the same schedule and rate of a title like Rock Band.

When Dance Central hits store, it’ll come with a multiplayer “Dance Battle” mode, which Harmonix and MTV Games aren’t going into details about just yet. But even though the modes playable at E3 were really only one player, that didn’t stop other people from hopping in and dancing along with you. At any given point, you’d see one person busting a move with at least two back-up dances. As the E3 show floor was set to close, I was roped into a group dance with Harmonix and MTV staff, including professional dancers; there’s video if it, and I’m the one who looks like he didn’t know what he’s doing. (I didn’t.)

Deep down, you know you want to dance. You’re sitting at home reading this and bopping your head to “Hella Good” right now. Okay, maybe that’s just me. And dammit, I’ve been doing it since last week, when I first got hands/feet/body on Dance Central. Point is, if you’ve always wanted to dance but never knew how, here’s your chance. Just make sure you draw the blinds first, you silly fool; until you work your way up to at least “hard,” you’ll probably want to keep this to yourself.

Nick Chester