The fifth title in the Dance Central series is exclusive to the Oculus platform, and it has never felt more natural—or just plain fun to play.
On the 9th floor of San Francisco’s Marriott Marquis hotel, jammed into the tight hallway of a cozy suite booked out by Harmonix, I stood with an Oculus Quest headset and the dumbest grin I’ve had hanging off my face (while on camera) since I first tried the Quest back during Oculus Connect 5.
The game was simple: follow the instructions of a cartoon dance coach in a packed night club for points while trying not to embarrass myself (too much) in the real world. What began as a series of slow steps and movements opened up into more intricate dance routines, all being lead by a virtual character that could just as easily have been a person standing right in front of me.
Dance Central VR is not only the fifth title in the Dance Central IP; it’s also the fifth stab that Harmonix has taken at VR, following shortly behind Audica. By this point, the team has iterated and tested enough in VR to have a solid foundational understanding of meaningful VR presence, but they’ve truly capitalized upon it here.
When you first load into the game, you’re instantly greeted by a fellow clubber/potential dance instructor who asks you to pull your virtual cellphone off of your hip and set up a time to go dancing with them. The cellphone is both your main menu with which to access all of Dance Central VR‘s content, and it’s also your lifeline to other players, similar to the 3D smartwatch in Rec Room.
On that note, there are a handful of modes launching with the title, including both Standard and Pro difficulty modes across single player and multiplayer. There is also a light narrative campaign that will introduce players to different songs, and while I haven’t confirmed with Harmonix that there will be different club environments to unlock ala Guitar Hero and Rock Band, it’d make sense that those are achieved during the campaign.
Not only will Dance Central VR be a day one launch title for the Oculus Quest, but it’s also releasing for owners of the original Rift and the upcoming Rift S as well.
Even better, you only need to purchase the title once on your Oculus Store account for it to be shared across all available platforms.
The multiplayer modes will include cross-platform compatibility, including both an asynchronous “video challenge” mode where you invite a friend to beat your score (via virtual video recording), but also synchronous multiplayer with up to three other players and yourself with public matchmaking and private rooms. Synchronous multiplayer will place players into a virtual lounge where you can show off your own customized avatar and meet others before going off to dance with them.
Harmonix told me that there are also a slew of multiplayer modes planned, including both competitive modes (think dance battles) and cooperative modes (think choreographed dances between players).
At launch, there will be over 32 tracks to play with, ranging from “chart-toppers from the 1970s through today’s hits with plenty of killer jams in between,” according to an official press email, with DLC likely waiting on the post-launch horizon. Of the 32, Harmonix has already confirmed the following:
• Bruno Mars ft. Cardi B “Finesse (Remix)”
• The Chainsmokers ft. Daya “Don’t Let Me Down”
• DJ Snake & Lil Jon “Turn Down for What”
• Haddaway “What is Love”
• Pitbull ft. Ne-Yo, Afrojack, & Nayer “Give Me Everything”
• Rob Base & DJ EZ Rock “It Takes Two”
In my own demo sampling of “What is Love” and “Give Me Everything”, it felt jarring to be without cable tethers in a totally 3D space. I’m generally used to playing titles on my (fully tethered) Rift back at home, but as I soon realized, Dance Central VR truly benefits from the free-form nature of the Oculus Quest. By letting you stand nearly anywhere in the virtual club (that you can reach) while dancing, the untethered freedom of Oculus Quest affords you the ability to become much more immersed in the energy of the virtual dance club. In fact, if you wanted to walk around the club and even stand with your back facing the instructor, you could.
“It took the choreographers a lot of work to get the moves to work with both headsets,” said Alicia Caillier (Dance Central VR‘s Product Manager) as I sat down to speak with both her and Dan Walsh, Harmonix’s Director of Marketing Communications.
“We did a lot of work with choreography to make it specific to Dance Central but also feel natural,” Caillier continued.
But with the aforementioned freedom of movement came a pressing need to adjust my own playstyle. I found that my movements were stiff and awkward for the first few minutes of each song, not wanting to overshoot or undershoot the moves being telegraphed by the virtual dance instructor. Over time I started feeling less stiff as I became more comfortable with the pace of each dance routine, and I could see how this title could be used to offer fully-fledged dance lessons from the comfort of home.
Notably, this is also the first Dance Central title to fully realize the allure of gamified dancing that it promised with the original title launch back in 2010, no longer being stuck on a flat screen with controls abstracted out to a Kinect camera.
“With the Oculus controllers, we can control fidelity in a lot more ways as opposed to something like the Kinect, because we’re tracking in a full 3D space,” Walsh told me.
While arm movements are tracked with an IK body that does an impressively accurate job of approximating how well you’re mimicking the instructor’s arms, Dance Central VR also tracks a handful of other factors in how well you get scored. Gestures, height, and headset location are also tracked, allowing the game to get creative with the physical versatility of its dance move offerings. In theory, Dance Central could teach you to perform intricate dances that require fancier footwork. However, there is no discreet foot tracking planned on offer at launch.
“Dance Central has historically been on the forefront of new technology,” Caillier told me in reference to the series’ original Kinect releases, which, at the time, were much unlike other titles coming out in the rhythm game niche.
“There are going to be a lot of different people that play this game, so the biggest challenge has been making the game enjoyable for anybody who picks it up,” Caillier continued.
Harmonix has always been at the forefront of introducing new generations to music that they wouldn’t have otherwise enjoyed or been exposed to at all.
“We like to use our platform as a way for people to learn about cool new artists,” Walsh told me as he described the vision of Dance Central VR. Explaining that the team thrives on authenticity in its core design philosophy, he and Caillier maintain contagious enthusiasm that the combination of Dance Central and VR, especially untethered VR with Oculus Quest, could be enough to encourage people to get outside and dance in the park.
Dance Central VR is the first time gamified dancing with choreographed dance moves and a fully realized club environment has hit VR with a high-fidelity AAA sheen. Undoubtedly, Harmonix has brought the fire with what it’s offering here. Furthermore, making it a launch title for the Oculus Quest creates a pretty significant added incentive for buyers if the launch lineup wasn’t already juicy enough.
Are you planning on picking up Dance Central VR at launch? Let us know in the comments.