The dancer demonstrating Harmonix' Dance Central at Microsoft's Christmas Showcase was, in all sincerity, the most attractive example of the female gender I've ever seen in my life. She had a perfect head of flowing auburn hair, electric blue eyes and a body that would have made Aphrodite herself jealous. I had to take a second to calm myself down after watching her cavort about the stage in a rhythmic fashion to the beat of Poker Face. This isn't particularly relevant to the discussion at hand, but hopefully it gives you a good mental picture to work with as you read. Dance Central is a cool game for attractive young people, a far cry from the DDR days of old. Once again Harmonix is taking something that Konami has done for years, and made it fresh, funky and relevant. And there isn't a cheap plastic peripheral in sight.
Wii gamers are welcome to kick up a fuss here. After all, Ubisoft's Just Dance abandoned the dance mat long before Harmonix was on the scene. Let's be honest though: while it was hugely successful, it wasn't a great game, was it? Dance Central is different. It retains the high production values and gorgeous aesthetic of its instrumental forbears, and uses the Kinect technology in an incredibly fitting way. With Just Dance laying the ground work and bringing motion-controlled dancing to the masses, Harmonix is free to swoop in and show the industry how it's really done.
The concept is alarmingly simple: you stand in front of your TV (with the Kinect camera placed appropriately on top, of course) and dance along to the music as prompted by a series of tiles that scroll down the screen. Instead of following notes, as you might in Rock Band, you execute specific dance moves as designated by the game. This might be a 'chest pump' a 'hitch hike' or a 'hip swing', but either way you'll have to pull off the move in time to the beat, ready to execute the next one straight after. There are over 200 of these move tiles, and becoming familiar with each and every one of them is the key to high scores.
'Perform It' is Dance Central's equivalent of a career mode, allowing players to work their way through the games routines in a progressive fashion. Like other rhythm action titles, successive correct moves build up to form combos. String together enough moves, and you'll get yourself that familiar multiplier, allowing you to attain higher scores and the opportunity to Freestyle - the equivalent of Guitar Hero's Star Power. Freestyle allows players to ditch the move tiles and dance without instruction. The screen becomes a mess of psychedelic swirls, and the Kinect camera tracks your moves as a live stream of your performance appears in a silhouette on the screen. It's a nice little deviation from the structured nature of the routines, and a chance to really let the rhythm take over. One chap at the event used the opportunity to get down on the floor and break-dance, which although spectacularly bad, was just as entertaining as you'd imagine.
The gorgeous, chunky character models we've grown accustomed to in Guitar Hero and Rock Band have made their way into Dance Central too. It looks great. As the lovely dancer lady (God, I wish I knew her name) strutted her stuff, her on-screen avatar faithfully mimicked her routine. I did wonder what would happen if she fluffed a move, though. Would her avatar mimic the mistake also, as a true 1-to-1 representation would? Or would her avatar slip into a stock fumble, and then pick up when she started dancing correctly again? This is something I'll just have to find out for myself; our girl wasn't about to make a mistake anytime soon.
The full track-list has yet to be announced, but 'Body Movin' by the Beastie Boys, 'Hella Good' by No Doubt and 'Galang '05' by M.I.A. all join Lady Gaga's immortal classic 'Poker Face' in the initial line-up. The teeny boppers of younger generations will revel in the game's topical collection of tunes, and I suspect an older, more dignified audience will probably do the same - albeit behind closed doors and with copious amounts of alcoholic beverages. Dance Central will shine in social situations such as these, especially given the fact that two backing dancers can bop alongside each player in a routine.
My experiences with Kinect thus far have done little to fill me with hope. The few games I've played have lacked originality, not responded to my input and been met with more than a twinge of frustration. While I didn't get the opportunity to bust out any crazy moves of my own, I saw enough of Dance Central to know it looked promising. It might just be the best example of the Kinect technology out there, and is a genuine leap forward for the dance sub-genre of video games.
A prediction to finish, then: Dance Central will be phenomenally successful, the start of another massive franchise from Harmonix, and one of the very few games people will be talking about with enthusiasm after Kinect launches. Mark my words.
Dance Central will be available on Xbox 360 this October