Preview: Moving my body to Dance Central

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Dancing games get a bad rap. Either they’re something like DanceDanceRevolution, or they are something like Just Dance. One is a hardcore score-based game that doesn’t ever look like real dancing, and one is a much easier motion-controlled party game that… doesn’t really look much like dance, either.

Harmonix is stepping up, and Dance Central is its attempt to make a respectable dancing game. To quote CEO Alex Rigopulos: “Stepping on mats or posing with handheld controllers just doesn’t capture the spirit of dance.” That’s a big goal, as not only are Harmonix selling this new IP, they are selling an entirely new gameplay experience.

Dance Central, love it or hate it it, has become one of the most anticipated games for Kinect. And why wouldn’t it, with Harmonix’s pedigree and the recent popularity of dancing games like Just Dance? After the original Guitar Hero and Rock Band redefined music games, it is clear that Harmonix is one of a very few developers that could make a game that “captures the spirit of dance.”

Dance Central (Xbox 360)
Developer: Harmonix
Publisher: MTV Games
To be released: November 4, 2010

The basics of Dance Central are this: characters on the screen do stuff, and you re-enact it, with the assistance of flash cards indicating what move you need to perform. Pretty simple — that is, until the game hands your ass back to you because you can’t keep up. With each of the songs having multiple difficulties, and a sort of training mode to make sure you know how to perform the routines, there’s a lot here to guide would-be dancers. Oddly, I had no problem with this at E3, but somehow, with the bright lighting of an almost empty white room, I struggled to perform any of the moves correctly. Hopefully this won’t be an issue when I have the device in my own house… but then, maybe I just suck. 

That’s not to say I didn’t have a ton of fun. Far from it. Dance Central is a very enjoyable game, and to say otherwise is pretty silly. Sure, I might have to actually memorize routines to get any good, but once you’ve got a routine down, it’s hard to not feel pretty awesome about the performance. It’s just a bummer that the tech isn’t quite there to do some moves on the ground, or to interact with objects, but that’s how the cookie crumbles.

However, one area that perplexed gamers was the lack of multiplayer for the game. Talking with Dance Central‘s Project Director, Kasson Crooker, about this very issue, he was clear that Kinect is capable of recognizing two players doing the routine. Unfortunately, what Kinect cannot offer is space. Already, the device needs players to stand four to eight feet away, and as a dance game, Dance Central needs a lot of space. With two players performing the intense routines of the game, Crooker noted that they’d be slamming into each other, and that to make it fit with two bodies, the routines would have to be scaled back.

That doesn’t stop multiple people from dancing at once; actually, that’s something Harmonix wants. It’s just that with two graded dancers at once, things become much more complicated. But there is a multiplayer mode, though. It’s called Dance Battle and has players alternating between segments of a song. Players with the highest score win. It’s pretty simple, and switching between players offers perfect opportunity for trash talking.

Another new addition announced by Harmonix is the calorie counter. Nothing wild here, but it does keep track of generally how many calories you’ve burned up in the process of dancing. It’s a nice bullet point for those who want Kinect to be the next big health device, but I doubt many people will care too much about it.

It’s a little too early to call Dance Central a system seller for Kinect. It does have a strikingly high level of polish, and while I struggled with the game, it looks like that was an issue on my part, not on the game. If  Harmonix can follow through with its goals of making a game that captures the spirit of dance, it could have the “it” casual game of this holiday season.

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