Are your curtains drawn? You’re sure no-one’s going to be back for hours? And the neighbours definitely won’t hear you? Good. Then it’s time to put down the controller, cease with the façade that you’re going to be playing Black Ops all day today and have sneaky session with Dance Central instead. Because even if you don’t enjoy it that much (and you probably will), if you can bust those moves on a Saturday night at the local discotheque, you’ll be king of the dance floor.
You may be surprised to hear that the developer behind Kinect’s premier dance title was the same studio that brought us the somewhat trendier Guitar Hero and Rock Band series – not that we value our street credibility over the sheer pleasure of playing a finely constructed piece of interactive entertainment. However, before we’d started, the videogames snob in us had already lumped Dance Central into the same department as a million other dance mat games, so coveted by teenage girls, that have been released in the last two generations of consoles. If you’re feeling similarly conflicted as we were, don’t allow that ironsight-for-COD honed taste in games to deter you from playing Dance Central.
It is a Kinect title, of course, and requires no controller whatsoever: as long as you’ve calibrated your profile on the 360 dashboard correctly, a simple wave will bring you into the game. But before we’ve even attempted a simple shimmy, we’re being impressed by Harmonix’s slick navigation system. Your options are lined up along the right-hand side of the screen, but instead of hovering over your selection for a few seconds (as you do with dashboard navigation), you stretch your right had outside of the screen and scroll by waving your arm up or down, then move it in sharply with a slapping motion along an option bar to select it, making the same move with your left hand to cancel a selection and go back to the previous menu. It’s an effortless, intuitive and responsive system that, in these early days of Kinect, has an original appeal all of its own.
The difficulties with Dance Central naturally begin with the actual dancing, because if you’re hopelessly uncoordinated then you will have trouble from the first track. Though just like the original Guitar Hero it’s a learning process, so you may not ever crack the hardest track in the game, but you’ll get your money’s worth out of trying to get there anyway. All songs are available to play from the start by default, but the hard difficulty setting is locked until you can complete the lower tiers, so once you’ve chosen one of the 32 songs available and a difficulty setting, an appropriately pitched stream of dance moves begin to scroll across the screen from bottom to top. The dancing mechanic is very subtle: flashcards indicating the dance move you need to perform scroll upwards in time to the beat into a box that indicates when you need to perform them. These cards have dark silhouettes on the front with the active movement on the appropriate limb in a bright colour accompanied by a directional arrow, which after a few songs is enough for you to get a fair handle on what you need to do, even though each new track brings in different moves of its own. But you don’t need to rely on that because the dancers in the centre of the screen will perform the dance perfectly, so even if you begin to fluff it up, you can simply mirror the actions of on-screen characters. Incidentally, Harmonix’s flair for animation, honed over the course of a decade of musical rhythm-action games, comes into its own here. If you enjoyed watching the on-stage antics in Rock Band then imagine those characters dancing, facial expressions and all, and you’ll get an idea of just how much life they have in Dance Central.
In any case, if the song is too difficult then you can always choose Break It Down, a practice mode that gives you a preview of the upcoming dance moves and lets you practise them for a few minutes. Later tracks in Dance Central’s arsenal, like ‘Funky Town’, ‘Can’t Get You Out Of My Head’ and ‘Drop It Like It’s Hot’ are tightly choreographed and feature some difficult movements, so it’s advisable to get a heads up before you start for real.
Dance Central has a multiplayer mode that is subject to Kinect’s own two-player limitation, but, even so, Harmonix doesn’t appear to have made the most of it. Dance Battle feels less like a battle than you and a friend alternately stepping into the limelight and taking turns to complete a song. It’s not helped by the scoring system, which grades you out of five stars but never fails you on a song in the way that Guitar Hero or Rock Band does. You can step off the dance floor altogether and let the song run its course and you’ll never get that awful fail screen, abrupt music-death, or have the on-screen characters chastise you for your terrible performance. You’ll get a poor rating, for sure, but it does make Dance Central feel a more casual game… and we suppose that’s the point. After all, the early adopters of Kinect will be the fitness fanatics, parents with children and adults looking for an interesting new way to socialise, not the relatively hardcore gamers that were bashing multi-coloured frets in an effort to nail ‘Bark At The Moon’ on Expert in 2005. If you’re buying Kinect anyway then Dance Central should be your first port of call, but its limited lifespan for more grizzled gamers means it shouldn’t be a reason alone to splash £130 or more.