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Dance Central review: Body movin'


The first hour of Dance Central will sell you on not just the game, but Microsoft's shiny new camera peripheral. Kinect is put into great effect here, enabling wannabe performers to go well beyond Just Dance-ing. For the first time ever, a dancing game requires you to do exactly that, and this singular achievement makes Harmonix's effort an instant success. Like Rock Band 3 before it, Dance Central is undoubtedly the "greatest" game in its genre, with a level of polish and creative ingenuity unseen in any of its competitors. But unlike its predecessor, Dance Central lacks the depth to make it the only dancing game "you need to own."

Although it's literally easy to get into the game -- just jump in front of the camera at any time -- Dance Central is probably the most intimidating dancing game ever made. Unlike Just Dance and its countless rip-offs, you'll really need to swing your hips and move your legs. No flailing here, folks.

Considering the complexity of the moves you must perform, it's overwhelming to jump into a routine blind. For the uninitiated, mimicking the on-screen dancer whilst trying to read the cue cards can seem impossible. Thankfully, the "Break It Down" mode allows you to learn the individual moves that comprise the routine. You'll watch the dancer perform a single move, and then you must mimic the same move three times. If the move is too difficult, you can slow it down. As you practice, the on-screen avatar will highlight parts of your body that aren't in sync.

In short, thanks to Kinect, Dance Central is the smartest dancing game of all time.

Gallery: Dance Central (11/4/10) | 6 Photos

Sadly, its smarts eventually aren't enough. The more demanding moves require you to move your entire body in ways it may be unfamiliar with, and highlighting which body part is "wrong" is ultimately not very helpful. Dance Central can tell you what is wrong, but it can't tell you why it's wrong. Are you moving too quickly? Too slowly? Are you at the wrong angle? Do your hips need to move more? You can perform the same move incorrectly a dozen times over, without knowing how to improve your form. It can be frustrating, to the point that you don't want to bother learning anymore.

Still, perseverance has its rewards. I was ecstatic when I got my first Gold Star performance, and I still wanted more. I wanted to replay the song with the cue cards turned off. I wanted to do a harder version of the routine, and I wanted to try some of the more advanced songs. What makes Dance Central's difficulty progression so unique and rewarding is that it's not based on "accuracy." More difficult songs don't demand you to be more "accurate" with your moves. Instead, the routines themselves get much more difficult, throwing in more complex moves. You may start the game doing mere side steps and claps, but continue progressing and you'll be learning full body spins and jazz steps!

Surprisingly, Dance Central doesn't really work as a "party game," since you really need to take the time to learn the moves at your own pace. (Not particularly fun for a crowd). Dance Battles are novel, but ultimately aren't a real multiplayer experience as two people take turns performing the same routine. (And heaven forbid one person actually learns the moves, it'll be a completely lopsided fight.) Dance Battle is reminiscent of early Guitar Hero multiplayer battles. They may be tests of skill, but they're not real social interactions. Where is the "Rock Band" version of this concept? Why can't I dance with someone else? Why can't we learn together? The lack of a social element to Dance Central really hurts it.

Of course, if anyone is able to make that transformation, it's Harmonix. This is the developer that transformed Guitar Hero into Rock Band 3, after all. So many features in Dance Central feel half-baked right now: multiplayer needs to be rethought. "Workout Mode" is just an obscure option that adds a calorie counter to the HUD. The game's pointless "Freestyle" sections need to be removed altogether. On top of that, there's a laundry list of features that are missing: being able to use (or create) your own avatar, replays, and an integrated download store.

Dance Central is undoubtedly one of the strongest games in the Kinect's launch lineup, but it's hard to ignore the untapped potential awaiting the franchise. Ultimately, Dance Central's greatest shortcoming is that it can't actually teach you how to dance. But, its greatest triumph is that -- against all odds -- it will make you want to.

This review is based on the Kinect retail version of Dance Central provided by Microsoft.

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