I was frequenting my local drinking establishment the other week, when an excitable barman began goading us into a corner of the room where a Wii was set up. I frowned and took a generous swig of my drink; I would have put money on the game being either Wii Sports or Mario and Sonic at the Olympics - the only two games that pubs round my neck of the woods seem to own. I knew I was wrong when the girls in my little drinking group ran to grab a Wii-mote, giggling inanely as they went. Just Dance appeared on the screen and I rolled my eyes. "I wouldn't play that in public if my life depended on it!" I muttered to a friend of mine, who grunted in agreement. Two hours, three beers and a shot of Disarano later, and my friend and I were dancing along to Katy Perry, with inane grins plastered across our little red faces.
Just Dance is inexplicably good fun with a few pints swishing around the old stomach, but the truth of the matter is that it's not a great dancing game. It merely monitors the movements of the Wii-mote, ignoring genuine talent at moving your body in time to music. Spending some time with Harmonix's Dance Central really brings the shortcomings of Ubisoft's title to the surface – this is how all dance games need to be from this point forward. Controllers and mats have no place in the genre anymore; with Kinect, Harmonix has single-handedly redefined an entire genre.
Of course this wasn't really possible before Kinect, so a dancing game of this calibre has never really been feasible until now. In that respect I might have been a tad unfair on Just Dance, but it's incredibly ugly and unresponsive in comparison. With Dance Central, every move you make is tracked with the camera, from an exaggerated thrust of the arms to a subtle rotation of the hips. While Just Dance lets you get away with mindless Wii-mote waggling, Dance Central expects you to copy a routine down to the smallest detail.
It's probably worth explaining the game in terms of Guitar Hero, as it shares more with its instrumental cousin than it does with Just Dance. Flashcards scroll up the right hand side of the screen, each showing a diagram of a specific dance move. As a card reaches the top of the screen, the idea is to execute that action, much like how you'd pull off a note as it crossed the bar of the Guitar Hero stave. Depending on how well you mimic the move, you'll get a yellow, green or blue score – yellow being average, green being good and blue being flawless. Stringing together flawless dance moves will build a multiplier, which will of course lead to bigger scores. A boom-box in the bottom left-hand corner of the screen tracks your score, with a familiar five-star score system.
Things quickly get very difficult. It's entirely comparable to that moment you first try Guitar Hero on hard, and all those notes come whizzing down the screen and your brain turns to mush. The only difference is instead of staring dumbfounded at the neck of a plastic guitar, you'll be flailing around in front of the TV like somebody in the process of turning to jelly. At these moments, it's worth taking the time to play the track in Breakdown mode, which is like having your very own choreographer explain the routine to you. Each move is slowed down and explained in detail, and once learnt you'll be asked to put them all together in a recap routine. It's more than just a tutorial, though, it's the practice required to tackle a song on higher difficulties (which in my case was anything above easy). It's the learning process you'll need to go through to be any good at the game. Ultimately, it's what real dancers do every time they're given a new routine.
After repeated play, you'll learn the flashcards off by heart and barely need to look at the right hand side of the screen to play. For the hardcore dance master, flashcards can even be turned off – but with over 600 moves to master, you'll need a pretty good memory to play without them. Still, it's entirely doable, which I found out firsthand. After performing Cascada's 'Evacuate the Dance Floor' about nine times in a row to get the four star rating I needed, even I was finding I could mimic the routine without looking.