Dance video games are not a new phenomenon, but the full-body tracking capabilities of the Kinect have created a new controller-and-mat-free opportunity for the genre to strut its stuff. Enter Dance Central, a game that invites experienced move busters and reluctant rug cutters alike to stand up in front of their televisions and dance to a wide variety of popular songs. Dancing along to these songs is inherently fun, but it's also very satisfying to nail a tough routine or master a tricky move because you know the game is actually tracking your whole body. The large, expressive dancers and clue-laden flash cards give you all the visual information you need to learn and then master the routine. The broad spectrum of dance complexity also caters to players of all skill levels. As long as you are willing to shake what your momma gave ya and aren't worried about a little perspiration, Dance Central can light your living room up like Saturday night at the dance hall.
One thing that makes Dance Central so appealing is how easy it is to play. You start up the game, pick a song, and then mirror the vibrantly animated performer onscreen as you dance through the song-specific routine. Helpful flash cards scroll up the side of the screen and tell you what move is coming next, and there's even a small window where you can watch your silhouette in action. The whole display is so lively and communicative that it's easy to get drawn into the action and forget that--to any onlookers--you might look kind of silly. In fact, the music and visuals create such an infectious dance vibe that any onlookers will likely be tempted to join in the routine themselves. Even though the game only tracks one player at a time, anyone can dance along, providing they don't obstruct the primary player. Dance Central is one of the rare games that encourages and enables multiplayer action without requiring any extra profile sign-in or peripherals. This makes it a very welcoming and social experience, but it's not without a few barriers.
Firstly, you need space to stand up and move around without bumping into things. Many moves require side-to-side or front-to-back movement, and though you can tone your own movements down to take up less room, you still need more than a few square feet. Secondly, you need to be willing to sweat. Dance Central is an aerobic game that engages your whole body and will likely elevate your heart rate. Some may consider this (and the optional calorie counter) a benefit, while others may not be up for it. Performing more than a few songs in a row is definitely an athletic activity, which makes social Dance Central gatherings somewhat less casual than those featuring other rhythm games.
Anyone who has played other rhythm games will be familiar with the scoring system in Dance Central. You earn points for busting moves correctly, and your overall performance is graded on a five-star scale. The Kinect tracks your whole body very well, covering a diverse range of motion, and the game even gives you partial credit for moves you don't completely nail. You also get some helpful feedback from the dancer you are mirroring: If one or more of the dancer's body parts flash red, you know that part of your body is out of sync. Dance Central strikes a nice balance by tracking you closely enough to make it rewarding to nail a move, but not so closely that one errant hip sway is going to ruin your routine.
You can't fail out of a dance or do so poorly that the music suffers, so it's easy to just keep bopping along even if you flub a given section (or every section). Dance Central wants you to have fun dancing, so there is no punishment for having two left feet. The 32-song setlist features a good variety of dance styles from multiple decades, though the focus is clearly on songs that could play in a dance club. The routines range from simple and straightforward to complex and vigorous, and each song's routine comes in three different versions: easy, medium, and hard. The first time you play any song, the medium and hard routines are locked, which keeps you from getting overwhelmed with complex and varied moves. This three-tiered difficulty system not only adds further layers of challenge and accessibility, but it also creates a sense of progress within each song. Moving up the difficulty levels as you become more and more comfortable with a song makes you feel like you are mastering the routine, which makes it all the more satisfying when you deliver a five-star performance.
If just dancing your way through the routine isn't enough to propel you on the road to mastery, the exceedingly helpful Break It Down mode is the place to go. In this mode, you are accompanied by a disembodied trainer voice that guides you through the moves in a given routine section by section. If you nail a move on the first try, you progress to the next move. If you don't quite get it, you are prompted to try it a few more times before moving on, and you can even slow down the music to really help you master the movements. This repetition is a helpful learning tool, though it may sometimes make you wish you could just get on with it already, and it's definitely better suited for solo play. Yet, even if you aren't mastering every move as you go, Break It Down mode never grinds to a halt by forcing you to achieve perfection. Practicing not only helps you perform better physically, but it also hones your ability to take cues from the flash cards so you can better anticipate what is coming next.
Dance Central doesn't have a career mode to speak of, though there are unlockable characters, outfits, venues, and challenges. There are also leaderboards and a persistent ranking to track your progress, as well as a Dance Battle mode for those interested in some living room competition. You can battle on any song, alternating sections and striving to outscore your opponent. It's also worth noting that there are freestyle sections in each song that encourage you to cut loose and show off your own moves. During these sections, the screen turns into a psychedelic rainbow and the Kinect rapidly takes pictures of you, which it then displays in a quasianimated slideshow before the normal routine resumes. Because the photos seem irregularly timed and the slideshow plays random snippets in forward and reverse, these sections feel more suited to just doing weird stuff in front of the camera than actually trying to record some legit moves. The game also seems to grab photos during your routine that you don't end up seeing, which is a little weird, but you can always disable photos in the menu if you so choose.
Though Dance Central isn't the first dance video game on the block, it boasts moves that no other can manage. From a tech standpoint, the full-body tracking system is not only novel, but it also provides great feedback to help you hone your skills. The slick dancer animations draw you into the game, and the flashy effects that kick in when you're doing well are a nice touch. Perhaps most importantly, the broad difficulty spectrum and the intuitive visual prompts mean the only barrier to entry is your own willingness to break a sweat and risk looking less than dignified. Dance Central may not offer much beyond the opportunity to stand up and dance in front of your television, but this is one invitation you shouldn't turn down.