The first dancing game to really take off with the mass market was Konami's Dance Dance Revolution series. Debuting in arcades and on the original PlayStation, the game required players to keep time to four on-screen arrows (up, down, left and right) by stepping on a dance pad. You can think of Dance Central as the next-gen version of that original idea — only this doesn't need a pad.
Putting the Kinect sensor to good use, Dance Central presents players with a title that is part game and part learning tool. Because the Kinect can do skeletal mapping, Dance Central knows where you're moving as well as when you're moving and judges you appropriately. Simply bopping in place isn't enough to win competitions. You need to pull off the choreographed moves accurately and on beat if you want to excel.
Dance Central opens with a straightforward menu system. There is no story mode here, as tthe developers at Harmonix decided to focus on getting players directly into the action. This starts with the menu system.
Once the game recognizes a player, you can start navigating the menus. The right arm moves up and down to select, while a swipe across the chest confirms the selection. Your left arm is used in the same manner as the back button on the standard controller. This works for the most part, though players with short arms can sometimes have difficultly registering a swipe. Oddly, it is in the menu system where the motion controls are at their weakest.
After picking a song, you're given the option of practicing the choreography or jumping right in to dance. If you're a regular on the club circuit and know how to bust a move, chances are good that you can go straight to the competition. If you happen to have two left feet, then practice mode is a good starting point.
In practice mode, you select a song and then the game breaks it down into groups of two or three moves apiece. The move is demoed to you, and then you need to repeat it for the camera. After going through the basics, you'll have a better idea of what to expect during the main song sequence. While the practice mode is incredibly helpful, it does have one odd quirk: You can practice groups of moves, but not a single move. Since the game automatically moves on, even if you fail a move during practice, there is no easy way to try the same move over and over until you nail it.
Starting up a performance is as easy as choosing one of Dance Central's available songs, picking easy, medium or hard scoring and confirming your choices. After that, it's all a matter of how well you can dance. Each song's choreography is broken down into individual flash cards highlighting the same steps seen in practice mode. When the flash card cycles up onto the screen, the selected dancer performs the move. In order to score, you need to match the movements of the on-screen character.
How the game rates you is based on how well your movements match the AI dancer. Do it perfectly, and you're walking away with a flawless. Do the wrong move or step off beat, and the game highlights your error by placing a red glow around the body parts that are doing the wrong thing.
The sensor tracking seemed to be mostly dead-on, but there was the occasional hiccup where it seemed to miss an arm movement. These were the exception rather than the rule.
In addition to the standard dance performances, Dance Central also offers up the ability to have a dance battle with another player, the option to track the number of calories burned and some multi-song unlockable mixes. Level backgrounds and extra character outfits are also unlockable.
Dance battles are done with players taking turns in front of the camera. The first player performs until a break in the music appears, when the game tells you to switch. At that point, player two hops up and performs the same song segment. Players alternate until the end of the song, when points are tallied and the best performer wins. Calorie tracking in workout mode is just that: calorie tracking. It'll tell you how much energy you've burned while playing, but nothing else. Don't expect to find a full-on exercise routine.
Song selection is an area where Dance Central comes up a bit weak, not because of choreography or genre selections, but simply because there aren't very many songs, especially when compared to other rhythm games. Out of the box, Dance Central offers up 32 tracks from 31 artists (Lady Gaga has two tracks on the disc). What's here is solid, but when 50- to 80-song track lists are common among top-tier music games, 32 feels a bit anemic. Yes, you can purchase additional tracks via DLC, though be prepared to spend extra there. Harmonix will happily sell you any song you want for the Rock Band series for 160 MSP ($2), but if you want more moves for Dance Central, it'll set you back 240 MSP ($3) per track.
Even though it can feel a bit threadbare at times, Dance Central is still worth picking up, as it is a great way to experience the Kinect sensor. The routines are well choreographed, and difficultly levels scale well, so rank beginners won't feel out of place. The game does what it does extremely well, but we wish there was a little more meat on these dancing bones.
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