Impressions: Dance Central

I may be a lover, but I ain’t no dancer. At least I wasn’t before I picked up Dance Central, but it wasn’t for lack of trying. I’m only an “easy” level dancer, but if I keep at it, I’m hoping to tackle “medium” or “hard” someday, when I’m convinced I won’t knock my action figures off of the wall or run straight into my television. We’ve had DDR for so many years (and will hopefully continue to) and I’ve enjoyed the Just Dance franchise, but now with the introduction of Microsoft’s Kinect, dancing has taken the next logical step: incorporating your whole body and getting every bit of you into the groove, whether you like it or not. It’s also the best dancing game ever made, and yet, still feels like we’re just getting started all over again.

Dance Central is a launch title for Kinect and features an eclectic mix of booty-shakin’ singles and club hits, many of which (unlike some other Kinect dance titles) you’re likely to actually hear on the radio: (“Poker Face,” “I Know You Want Me,” “Hella Good”). It pulls from a pool of classic dance hits, rap sensations with unfortunately too-memorable dance steps, and a myriad of other time periods and genres to ensure there’s something for everyone to want to dance to. And that kind of courage isn’t going to come easy when you realize just what it is that Dance Central is asking of you.

Each song comes attached to its own unique routine with different sets of dance moves that an on-screen dancer will bust out like the professional they are. It’s your job to mirror these moves while standing in front of your Kinect sensor in the middle of your too-small living room, looking like a goon. Okay, maybe that’s just me. If you’re quick enough to catch on, you can dive right into a song and attempt to dance right along like a pro, much like the Just Dance series asks of you. Luckily, since your whole body is being judged on proper technique, movement, and form, Dance Central is a liiiiiittle more technical than that.

In “Break It Down” mode, you can choose a difficulty and jump into an extended tutorial mode that slows things down a bit in order for you to catch onto some of the more complex (and even simple) moves you’ll need to nail in order to attain any kind of decent score. You have three attempts to copy the dancer exactly, with positive and negative verbal feedback accompanying each try, though after three tries of failing or passing, you’ll still move onto the next segment whether you mastered the previous one or not. On easier difficulties this isn’t much of a problem, as you’re rarely asked to do anything more difficult than shuffling your feet, making rudimentary hand motions, or hand clapping, though as you make your way up into the higher difficulty ranks, you’re going to want a little more time to practice your moves, especially if you’re not so familiar with the world of shakin’ that thang.

Mirroring the dancer is difficult as it is, so if you can’t even follow things like YouTube tutorial vids that well, you might hesitate before attempting Dance Central, as you’re being watched AND evaluated at the same time.

In the event you do master the several different dance moves required to perform the full song, after breaking it down you can go ahead and choose a character, venue, and then perform to your heart’s content. Performing won’t net the benefit of practicing beforehand, so make sure to jump in only when you think you know you’ve got your moves down pat. Save yourself a little trouble or from being discouraged, because it can be downright brutal.

Different branches of varying toughness in songs lead up to the harder ones at the end of the track-list, but the sudden jump in difficulty can be absolutely overwhelming. Just when you think you’ve mastered the first track, Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face,” you’re hit with things you’ve never seen before. How do you even do that? But interestingly enough, that’s part of what keeps you coming back. You want to learn those new, more challenging steps, and regardless of how you look doing it or how hard you’re being on your body, a perfect score is calling, and how can you pass that up?

Of course, it wouldn’t be much of a game if it didn’t respond too well to the Kinect sensor. And I’m here to say that I’m quite pleased at how well it picks up your movements. I never felt as though I was scored incorrectly from anyone’s doing other than my own. When you screw up, it will be your fault, and not the technology. Unless you don’t have enough room, which is turning out to be the Kinect’s most obnoxious issue so far. There were instances when I was confused as to what exactly I should be doing with my arms and legs, but that was due to the game’s failure to coach more concisely or give real, constructive feedback (turn a leg, change directions, etc.). Watching the red outline of the dancer when you know you’re performing incorrectly isn’t really enough for me and I suspect it won’t be for most dancing noobs, but for what the game accomplishes, as a launch title at that, I can’t complain too much.

Harmonix’s signature cartoony look once again permeates the menus and feel of Dance Central, offering up caricaturized versions of human beings as the ones seen in Rock Band in order for you to dance as. Whooping and excited crowds hover around you while you perform at venues from lunch room to extravagant stages, to be unlocked as you progress through the game, same with new outfits for your characters. I especially enjoyed the hand swipes that the menus required, a swipe to the right to make a confirmatory selection, and a backhand to cancel or exit a menu. Vibrant colors and a clean interface made an interesting experience even more pleasant, and even though making song selections could be slightly touchy, I had so much fun in the menus that I opted not to use a controller out of convenience every time. I guess I’m still adapting to this Minority Report-style of gaming, but hey, why not embrace it?

You’ll also want to embrace Workout Mode, a boon to those of us who want to hop on the weight loss train by way of gaming (having fun versus going to a gym). It’ll track calories burned in the same way Dance Dance Revolution provided, so it’s obviously a good way to keep in shape if you can keep at it.

Dance battles are a great way to get friends in on the fun, but online modes are scant. It’s unfortunate, but at the very least Harmonix has already rolled out a few new tracks to keep things fresh on the music end. They’re pricier than Rock Band tracks, but they will take a while to master, so you shouldn’t need to buy new things for quite a while.

Those who know me know that I’m absolutely addicted to music and rhythm games, and Dance Central may be the best game of its type ever made. It sashays out of the gate swinging with slick presentation, fantastically responsive controls, a shakin’ set list, and the innovative edge of hands-free control. As a party game, a workout option, or even a private break down, it just works; it’s the next evolution for dance games, and the sky seems to be the limit as long as your whole body can act as the controller. I may absolutely love stepping and jumping on those familiar DDR arrows, but why follow when you can lead the pack with actual dance routines? By far the best game for the Kinect and a definitely pick-up for music and dance fans alike. You won’t regret it.

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