This might just be the hardest review to complete and walk away from with my dignity intact. Harmonix’s Dance Central is an evolution of the rhythm genre: Dance moves appear in a scrolling list and the player must perform them in time to a selection of pop music hits.
As a dancer of no great renown and one who generally requires heavy applications of alcohol before he’ll even consider cutting a rug, performing a dance routine to Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face” was prefaced by the closing of blinds and drawing of curtains.
Nonetheless, with doors firmly locked and hips properly limbered I set my sights on K Fed’s gaudy throne.
It should come as no surprise that the Kinect launch line up includes a dancing game: Ubisoft’s Just Dance for the Wii was a surprise hit, selling three million units in only six months and it didn’t take long for competing platforms to shout “me too!” First came SingStar Dance for PlayStation Move and now, of course, Dance Central.
In its favour, Harmonix has a pedigree in this development field – the studio is responsible for the Rock Band series and early Guitar Hero games. Their talent is firmly on display in Dance Central. Through years of fine tuning with the Rock Band franchise, Dance Central benefits from a solid difficulty curve and applies the same player development model. It features a satisfying, durable singleplayer experience that is spot on for people who blush at the thought of blushing.
Sadly, Dance Central is let down by its multiplayer component. Instead of grouped dance parties or battling out a song against a friend simultaneously, Kinect can only evaluate one player’s performance at a time. As a result, one player dances to a song while the other waits, then they step up to perform the exact same routine. Clearly, whoever goes second has a significant advantage.
That’s not to say playing with friends is futile. Even if you’re taking turns playing the singleplayer game, the choreographed dance moves and required skill can be hilarious to watch. Brought out at a party Dance Central will entertain both performers and bystanders, some of whom may even pluck up the courage or blood-alcohol ratio to have a go themselves. Games like Dance Central are always at their very best when everyone is prepared to share their embarrassment.
Dance Central comes off the shelf with 32 songs and more will become available to be purchased, downloaded and played in the future. The music is the kind you’d expect to find in a compilation CD bought at the supermarket. It ranges from the Beastie Boys to Nelly Fertado, Kylie Minogue and Soulja Boy. The game would really benefit from having some more laid back, entertaining or ridiculous tracks.
All songs are available from the start and have been sorted into degrees of difficulty from Warm-up to Hardcore. As you work your way through them, you’ll get a real sense of the difficulty curve. At the higher levels you’re tasked with increasingly complex sequences that are rotated with greater frequency.
If a track has you stuck and you can’t seem to get it right then you can enter Break It Down mode which, as promised, breaks down each move and teaches it to you step by step. With an intuitive interface letting you move past things you know and practice those you can’t quite get right – over and over – it also showcases the years of experience at Harmonix getting its music games right.
To monitor your movement and judge your performance, Dance Central makes use of something called Limb Feedback. Make a wrong move or get something out of time and the offending limb will glow red on your onscreen avatar. When you’re doing well you’ll get praised with messages reading “Flawless!” or “Great!” and be rewarded with combo multipliers. This immediate feedback is a great asset when trying to pin down what it is you’re having trouble with and helps you understand how to quickly fix your problems and pump up your score.
Dance Central is by no means a perfect game. A disappointing multiplayer and a music selection with no real sense of fun detract from the experience. Even so, as a release title there are hours of entertainment to be had alone or with friends.