Despite my frustration with what Dance Central can't do, I'm giving this game a high score for what it can
- Physically challenging, wide music selection, great party game, you can turn off the freestyle camera that records your most embarrassing movements
- Physically challenging, persnickety menu select system, tedious tutorial system, the sparkly butterfly mode itself cannot be turned off
Dance Central asks a lot of you as a player. Not only do you have to get up off your couch, somehow create six to eight feet of space in your living room for Kinect to register your coordinated flailing as "dance moves" and actually dance, you also have to have faith in yourself. That last bit is something no video game ever asked of me before and I'm not sure if I delivered.
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Here's what I liked about Dance Central: It lied to me. For the most part, the only feedback I had from the game came in the form of a glowing circle that widens or shrinks to tell me how much I'm scoring on a move, an occasional red glow on a character's body part to tell me my corresponding body part wasn't matching up, or an aggressively positive street-talking boom box making excuses for my failures in tutorial mode ("Aw, this gaming is lying!" etc.) Never once did the game actually tell me I was doing something wrong, and when I did completely fail at something, the only punishment I suffered was watching the premade character freak out when the song ended—there's no "failing out" like in Rock Band. It is frustrating that the game won't let you unlock mid-game challenges unless you complete all songs in a difficulty tear with four stars on Medium or higher—but that isn't much of a loss considering the robust song list I have to choose from with no restrictions.
Here's what I didn't like about Dance Central: It won't tell me what I'm doing wrong or offer me an easy way to get better. To be fair, the red glowing body part mechanic helps me know when I know when I'm doing something wrong (as if the pain of accidentally whacking myself in the face with my arm isn't enough). Dance Central, however, won't tell me exactly what went wrong when I fail. For example, I know that the character's right arm is glowing but does that mean I'm not bending my elbow enough or am I pounding my fist too fast to be on beat? Dancing through the tutorial offers some clue with the boom box yelling things like "Right-hand-rock-out" in time to the beat so that I can guess that I should put my right hand in the air and pump it — but what do I do with my feet? Where should my weight distribution be? And what does "step-dip" really mean, hip hop boom box?
The only way to find out is to activate the Slow It Down mode which is so much of a chore in itself, I think it's the first time I've ever rage quit a tutorial (very hard to do with Kinect as there is no corresponding hand gesture). Each song has its own tutorial and you cannot just jump to one move in the move set to work on it — you have to go through the whole tutorial to reach the move and then wave your left hand to trigger Slow It Down. If Kinect can't figure out that you're trying to select that menu option and the game registers you failing the move three times, it moves on and you have to quit out and do the tutorial again to get your shot at selecting Slow It Down for that one move. Once you're actually in Slow It Down, you can take as much time as you want trying to match your motions to the character moves on screen.
The boom box speaks slowly and you can see that "rock" means the fist should be up and "out" means that it should be slightly forward, but not down. You bend your knees with the "rock" but not the "out" and do not move your feet on pain of death. Once you've mastered the move, you have to get out of Slow It Down and back to the tutorial before the game can continue. Doing that is even harder to select Speed It Up as the menu option appears on screen for less than three seconds and, yes, you just have to wait for it to show up again before you can attempt to select it with the Kinect motion control.
I realise that this is probably more Kinect's fault than developer Harmonix's — but would it have killed them to leave Slow It Down or Speed It Up on screen even two seconds longer so I have more of a chance to select it? Better yet, why not give me a Studio mode where I can select ANY move from the entire library of Dance Central moves to practice and string together at my leisure so that I don't have to listen to "C'mon N' Ride It" 19 times (actual count) just to master the Ride It Back move.
This is what's actually wrong with Dance Central — it doesn't trust me to push myself to do better. It's almost like Harmonix knows gamers have trouble with coordination and rhythm outside of finger movements and the occasional arm-swing and is doing its best to trick gamers into thinking that dancing is not that hard. Part of that involves restricting my freedom — I cannot edit my dancer's appearance and I cannot string together my own dance moves from their library to try on a song. I think the reason for that is that Harmonix doesn't want me to take ownership of what happens in Dance Central because when I fail, I might be too humiliated to keep playing.
But this is silly for three reasons. First, if I'm too easily embarrassed to dance, why would I buy a game about dancing in the first place? Second, Dance Central actually does force ownership on you through "freestyle mode" which comes up during every song at some point. Instead of seeing a character on screen, I see a sparkly outline of my own body and the game invites me to do whatever I feel like doing in that space (I call it "sparkly butterfly mode" because if you flap your arms, the game say you did a good job) — and then it records me doing it and plays it back to me mid-song. How is this not more humiliating than a boom box telling me, "Slow down on your jazz squares" in a tutorial? Third, dancing is hard — it's supposed to be hard because it's more than just synchronised motions. It's style in motion, it's confidence in gesture, it's pure personal expression.
This is why Dance Central doesn't fail me, but I might fail it. It's hard to have faith in yourself long enough to get through "Just Dance" on Hard mode (ironic — a song about being too drunk to dance is actually the hardest song in the whole game). I might be getting green circles more than red and I might wind up with a high score at the end of the song — but I don't feel like I really danced the song, I just feel like I stumbled through it. And I feel worse for having the game patronise me with a four-star rating and a happy hip hop dancer yelling "Yo, yo, yo, that was off the hook!"
Despite my frustration with what Dance Central can't do, I'm giving this game a high score for what it can. It can get me off my couch and sweating more than Wii Fit ever did. It can bring my friends and coworkers together for thirty minutes while we try to figure out what a "real" Cabbage Patch is. It can tempt non-gamers into giving it a go because unlike you maybe they actually can dance. And even if it can't wave a wand and make me a good dancer, it can inspire me to at least try.
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