Believe it if you will, but I used to be quite a dancer in Dancing Stage (or Dance Dance Revolution) back in the day. After having been pulled onto one of Konami's arcade machines I was forever stuck in the rhythm genre. I endured the "5, 6, 7, 8" with The Steps more times than anyone should ever have to and bought myself a dance mat and got quite good at it.
But to call what I was doing dancing is quite a stretch. That bar you could hold on to on the arcade machines were placed there for a reason. Only your feet mattered. Harmonix have told me that they have longed to make a dancing game for a long time, but that the technology just hasn't been there. But once Kinect appeared they made the leap and started working on Dance Central, and all of a sudden your upper body got to join the party.
Dance Central is more or less a Guitar Hero for those who enjoy moving their bodies to licensed R 'n' B or club music. A bunch of dancers with different styles are your on screen guides and you are supposed to imitate their moves, and these are listed in a set order on screen. Instead of colourful notes that travel towards you, its dance symbols that scroll their towards you so you know what to do next.
There are several hundred steps and moves to master, and the sheer amount, variation and ingenuity impresses. The first song many will tackle is Lady Gaga's "Poker Face" and it only takes a few simple side steps and hand claps on easy to clear it. You are well advised to start off with this song unless you want to shatter your self esteem completely early on,
It gets harder. When I try to keep with the moves of the first ten songs on the tracklist I unwittingly look like a hitchhiker who can't make up his mind, a manic cockroach stomper, a Spitfire with burning wings, a Marilyn Monroe who is scraping gum off her shoe and bodybuilder with something stuck on his butt.
But slowly I'm getting there. When I grasp how certain moves are connect, when I loosen up a bit, I'm rewarded with green rings around my feet and a few "Flawless!" - and with that comes a light feeling of euphoria. It's helped on by the music and the fact that I'm moving my body - and Dance Central is one of few games were it really feels called for.
Luckily there is a real helpful training mode called Break it Down. Here you simply break the song down to smaller pieces and you can practise them until you've nailed them. A voice gives you feedback, counts you in and is forgiving when you stumble over your own feet. If something proves too difficult you can lower the tempo in order to master it.
In the middle of a song there is a spaced out freestyle section. The screen is covered by the colours of the rainbow and you silhouette is seen on screen and you are asked to improvise for a few seconds. This is captured by the Kinect camera and the pictures are shown in a quick montage where you will no doubt look very silly. This little detail is bound to be very popular at parties.
Unlike Rock Band everything is not unlocked straight from the beginning, which is a shame. I understand the will to have the players grasp the basics first, but when you have climbed up to the expert level and want to show this off at a friend's house who hasn't gotten as far it presents a problem. Paired with a slight lag with Kinect (not as apparent as in other games it should be noted), this is the only minus I can find.
Since Kinect only tracks one dancer at a time in Dance Central which limits the multiplayer potential. You can allow people to dance along with you without confusing the camera, but their moves won't be registered or given a score. It's hard enough to convince people to dance, and when there is no simultaneous multiplayer where they can make fools of themselves with company it's even harder to convince them.
There is however a turn based competitive mode called Dance Battle where two players take turns dancing. It's all about breaking the other person's score, which is fun. Sadly you can track who's in the lead while you are playing - instead the results only appear after the battle is over.
Dance Central is the best Kinect title at launch by a wide margin. Sure, it's a party game, and a great one at that, but it also holds a depth that titles with furry cats and rafts lack. I can really recommend this game and it's sure to challenge Singstar and Rock Band as the focus of your gaming parties. Who knows, maybe you'll learn a few moves that will pay off the next time you hit a proper dance floor?