Dance Central is successful both as a rhythm game and as a good bit of proof that the brand-new Kinect sensor for the Xbox 360 is a functional piece of cool technology. The game does a fine job of detecting your body, using that data to judge your ability to mimic on-screen dancers through a variety of songs and routines. Though it's a little thin on modes and options other than picking a song and dancing, the baseline gameplay is good enough to make Dance Central the game to have if you buy a Kinect.
That baseline gameplay has you moving your body around to match a pre-set routine. The routine is made up of many different types of moves, each of which is broken down and listed on a "flash card" that appears on the right side of the screen. Almost like the "next" box in a Tetris game, you can also see the next couple of flashcards, giving you time to get ready for a transition when you're done with the current step. These individual moves range from incredibly simple stuff, like stepping side-to-side in time with the music all the way up to full spins, jazz squares, and so on. The closer you are to the game's expectations, the better you score. If you're off, limbs on the game's on-screen dancer begin to glow red, quickly letting you know what you're getting wrong. This feedback system is great and the whole thing feels like a big step forward for the dance game genre, largely because the game is actually looking at your entire body instead of your actions on a floor mat or how you can move a motion controller. You feel like you're actually up there dancing, and the game is accurate enough to judge you on your full-body performance, rather than just extrapolating your moves from whatever limited input it can gather.
While it's possible to correct your mistakes on the fly, your best bet at success is to prepare for the dance ahead of time. For that, there's a mode called "Break It Down," where you're taken through a song's specific steps, one at a time, and are given the chance to practice them a few times. If you nail them on the first try, the practice mode moves on, but if you're having trouble, it'll slow down and spend a little time with you on those moves. This is available for the easy, medium, and hard settings on each song.
Though every individual song is open to you right from the beginning of the game, Dance Central does lock away some of its content behind a very basic progression. At the outset, you'll only be able to dance the easy version of a song. If you get at least three of the five stars available for that song, you'll unlock medium. Doing that on medium gets you the hard version of the dance. The difference in difficulty is mostly that the easy dances have you repeating the easier parts of a routine instead of getting into the trickier steps. As you move up, basic sidesteps and claps are replaced with more elaborate moves. Difficulty is definitely relative, though, as some songs are just inherently more difficult than others. I suspect it'll be a case where some players are better at some songs and worse at others, depending on your individual dance weakness. My coordination lapses occur when I have to cross things up, like using my right arm and my left leg simultaneously. If I break the moves down in the practice mode, though, it's usually something I can warm up to. Overall, most of the dances seem doable, but it'll probably help if you already have at least a basic sense of rhythm to know when to expect changes and such.
The other modes include the ability to turn off flashcards, a basic workout mode that gives you a quick and dirty calorie counter as you play, and a two-player mode that doesn't actually let two players dance at the same time. Instead, it's a dance battle, where one player dances a sequence, then changes out with the other player during a freestyle section. Then the other player dances the same sequence, and the song continues. It's not a great substitute for a proper simultaneous mode, but considering how much movement you're doing while you're up there, it's easy to see how dancing alongside someone else could be very, very dangerous.
Dance Central also has one of the best interfaces of any of the Kinect launch games. Instead of forcing you to hold your hand over a button and leave it there for way too long, you move your hands up and down to move through the menus, and then "slap" at the screen from right to left to select an item. It's a much faster solution... though even nicer is the way the game just lets you pick up a controller and make the selections normally, if you'd like.
There's a nice variety of danceable music in the game, though like all things, it begins and ends with Lady Gaga. "Poker Face" is the easiest, first song on the list while "Just Dance" is the last. Different types of hip-hop, electronic, dance, and R&B music can be found here alongside a handful of straight-up pop songs. Even the songs that I found personally distasteful--Soulja Boy's "Crank Dat" comes to mind--were still fun in-game. The game also launched with some downloadable additions, which just integrate themselves into the song list and sort by difficulty, just like the rest. Each difficulty tier culminates in a bit of a mash-up, where you'll perform steps from all of the songs in one session. It's a neat idea, but the way the songs grind together isn't especially graceful, so these mixes sort of jerk from one song to the next. Also, a lot of the songs have been edited for length.
The game offers different backgrounds and different dancers, and these look pretty good, but you aren't going to be blown away by how the game presents itself. Watching and copying the dancer is core to the gameplay, so the camera is locked down during the game, and there aren't any particularly flashy effects. Overall, it has a functional look with some nice dancer designs and animation.
Dance Central feels very basic and leaves a lot of room for future expansion, but it's also a lot of fun in its current state. It's also one of the best Kinect games out there, so if you've got one of those, make sure you pick up one of these, as well.