I spent a couple hours at Harmonix's studio last week getting a better idea of what the game will be like in our homes this holiday. Now, granted, none of us will likely have two of the games' producers and a publicist on hand when we're playing with our families, but it's as close as I could get to an intimate test.
Dance Central will ship with over 30 songs (final count not yet announced), over 650 moves, single-player as well as co-op modes and an always-on "no fail" mode. Although it keeps score – more on how that works shortly – the game will never stop in the middle of a routine and call you an uncoordinated failure. (That's good news for you easily embarrassed types!)
Initially, I wondered if this "no fail" decision was because Kinect wasn't accurate enough to always recognize what moves the player was trying to pull off, and in some ways I'm still unsure, but I observed enough in this pre-alpha build demo that the concern eased. Also, after playing and observing for a while, it really didn't seem to matter. Like any vocalist who has played Rock Band and wished they could hold a note a split second longer or do some other kind of inflection, Dance Central lets you make moves at a level with which you're comfortable. You don't feel like you're a slave to Kinect's robotic parameters.
Stepping into Kinect's sight for the first time and seeing the infrared version of yourself in the top right display of Dance Central's HUD, you'll be overcome with the feeling that you are, to put it kindly, fat. Even if you're skinny or of "average" body type, don't be surprised if the Predator-victim version of yourself seems to have added 30lbs. When I asked if a wireframe or joints-only version of your body would be a display option in the final build, I was told it was a design decision to use the infrared model -- well, it'll certainly be a great weight loss motivator.
Speaking of shedding a couple pounds, those who are interested in using Dance Central as part of a fitness or weight loss regime will be pleased to hear that the game will ship with a calorie counter. There are currently no plans to add any more fitness integration into the game, though there's the slight possibility of a calorie counter leaderboard. And, yes, you will get a workout with the game -- the change of clothes I brought to the studio ended up being a good idea. Unlike Dance Dance Revolution's gameplay, which boils down to being an elaborate form of Irish step dance, Dance Central isn't messing around and will require your entire body.
The art of the Dance Central
With all the side stuff out of the way, let's talk about the main game of dancing and scoring. Gameplay works in two phases: by teaching you the moves in "Break it Down;" and then completing the actual routine with "Perform It!"
"Break it Down" is actually much deeper and helpful than I had expected. Steps are shown on choreography flash cards that cycle in an order like a "next piece" window in Tetris. If you falter on the move, the game will hold that card in place and slow down the music, along with the main dance instructor avatar. If you continue having problems, it'll slow down even further and a voiceover will give you the step count. It works exactly like a real dance intructor -- minus the embarassment and frustration a human instructor would inflict upon you after screwing up the chainsaw for the third time.
"Perform It!" is putting all the moves you learned in "Break it Down" into an actual routine. Each song has updated choreography, so even old songs have a modern flavor. For example, even if a song is a disco classic, the moves will make it seem like the track had a choreo-heavy music video just the other day. Also, don't expect "easy" to be a waste of time. As Dance Central Producer Naoko Takamoto put it, "No, we're not having a song where you step left and right the whole time."
Dance Central is looking for, as Project Lead Kasson Crooker puts it, "The spirit of the move." If the choreo card asks you to pump your fist in the air, you'll score points for doing it properly at any level, but if you really put your effort into the move it'll score it higher. The game is looking for the most important element of a requested move and your timing. If you mess up a move, you'll see a red outline on the corresponding body part of the main avatar you're mirroring. Once again, for people who are going to take this game super seriously -- and you know who you are -- it's still too early to gauge Kinect's accuracy for scoring the maximum amount of points from what I saw. The demo was pre-alpha from April and Kinect is continually receiving tech updates.
The demo I played was single player, but another person -- perhaps a shy friend -- can stand behind you and the infrared display will recognize them. They won't be scored, but at least they can play along. Harmonix has announced a co-op mode, but there are currently no details to share on that.
Now, on the subject of masculine vs. feminine dance moves ... this is something we get into deeper with the producers of the game in our interview, but Crooker tells us it was the center of some "interesting philosophical debate." There was the conversation of having male and female dance routines for each song, but the amount of effort required just wasn't cost effective, so a "gender neutral" balance was attempted. It's interesting, because as a guy dancing to Lady Gaga's "Poker Face," you may find yourself thinking the moves are overly feminine, but that may be because a Gaga song brings along some ... "baggage." On the other hand, M.I.A.'s "Galang 05," which has way more feminine choreography in the game, feels fine and you can easily imagine boys or girls dancing that way to the track in a club.
Personally, I could see the clinical marketing definition of a "core gamer" getting into Dance Central, especially if they had some solo practice time to learn the moves. If we, as gamers and the mainstream culture at large, could get over using little plastic guitars, we can probably get into a respectable, peripheral-free dancing game that is mindful of the source material as well as any other Harmonix game.