Falling in love with somebody that doesn't exist is one of the most soul-crushing feelings in the world. Like when you meet a girl in a dream, and you're totally going to get married and make babies and stuff, and then you wake up. It's torturous. This is very much like what has happened to me with Dance Central 2 and the mesmerising Miss Aubrey. She was in the first game too, but didn't have quite the same impact on me then. This time, her revealing new outfit, expanded repertoire of dance moves and trademark locks of auburn hair have me well and truly infatuated.
This is a good metaphor for the game itself. Dance Central is more likely to catch your eye a year down the road; it's tighter, brighter and better to show off to your mates. Kinect has been out for almost 12 months now, and it's clear that Harmonix has become better acquainted with the technology. The camera is more accurate when grading your movements, the menus are easier to navigate, and the game is now capable of tracking two players simultaneously. While there are a bevy of refinements, bells and whistles, there are enough significant additions here to warrant a sequel so soon after the original.
Unlike the first game, there's a career mode to bulk things out. Outside of the party environment, I've always felt dance games lack substance - a reason to keep playing when there's no alcohol around - but Dance Central 2 offers a loose narrative and sense of progression that is otherwise absent in the genre.
Each of the five characters from the first game is now part of a crew, pairing up with a brand new dancer. Ultimately, my adoration for Miss Aubrey stems from the slick presentation of these hipsters and groovers. I'm not exaggerating when I say that Dance Central 2 boasts some of the best character designs I've ever seen in a game. Each dancer is proportionally correct (it would be hard to mimic their movements, otherwise), but with slightly exaggerated features. The facial expressions, ridiculous outfits, crazy hairdos, hats, belts and bling - it creates a charm and attitude that polygons and vertices are rarely able to pull off. This is a big part of the game's appeal.
As an up-and-coming dancer, it's your job to earn the respect of these characters by bopping around to a set list of tracks for each crew; it's the Guitar Hero formula in disguise, essentially. The first crew, Rip Tide, is fronted by beach bums Bodie and Emilia, who throw shapes on a paradisiacal beach. Miss Aubrey and her Lu$h Crew partner Angel, on the other hand, prefer the bright lights of a television stage. Each crew has a unique venue and a vague musical theme for its tracklist. Mo and Glitch of the Hi Def crew like to get down to more beat-driven electro tracks such as La Roux's 'Bulletproof' or Daft Punk's 'Technologic'.
For each crew, you'll need to amass 16 stars in order to unlock a final audition. Get four or more stars in this initiation of sorts, and you'll be allowed to join the crew - at which point you'll unlock the next set of songs and can immediately start dancing for the next collective. You have no loyalty to each faction, apparently, and aren't too bothered about buggering off the moment you've been accepted. With three difficulty settings, five dance crews, leaderboards and outfit-based unlockables, there's a lot here to keep those without friends entertained for some time.
The choreography itself is largely excellent, matching the theme and lyrics of each track far more successfully than before. While on Easy you'll rotate simple sequences of movements repeated in a familiar pattern (as indicated by the ever-helpful flash cards that scroll up the screen), the routines become more complex and organic as you move up the difficulty settings, with long, technical manoeuvres that seamlessly link from one to another. This requires a flawless sense of rhythm and a decent memory if you're going to do anything but struggle. Unless you're, like, Usher or something, it's chuffing hard on anything but easy, basically.
The game isn't afraid to let you know if you're rubbish. "Maybe you should break it down," Miss Aubrey told me once. I would have found this insulting if the angry tone in her voice didn't arouse me so much. Indeed, if you're struggling with a track, the new and improved Break It Down mode is the perfect way to iron out the kinks in a routine. It'll show you exactly which moves you're struggling with, and keep throwing them at you until you nail it. The best addition to this mode is the ability to record a video of yourself doing this, which can then be played alongside the on-screen dancer so you can see where you're going wrong. It's an inspired feature for a tutorial mode, but sadly doesn't make an appearance outside of practice sessions.
Unlike Just Dance 3, you can't create your own choreographies or share them with friends. You can post photos to Twitter and Facebook from within the game, but still images of a dance routine fail to paint the same picture as a moving video. While Harmonix has the more technically accomplished game, Just Dance 3 is certainly more innovative in this respect. An option to share videos should come as standard for all Kinect games, as far as I'm concerned.
Dance Central 2 mostly plucks its songs from the generic drivel of the RnB and Hip Hop genres. True, this is a criticism based on personal taste, but it's fair to say Dance Central 2 isn't as musically varied as it could be. It isn't afraid to dip into the 80s and 90s for a few tracks, but there's simply not enough embarrassing cheese for my liking. To my ears, Just Dance 3 has the advantage here, with a wide selection of relevant, chart-topping hits and iconic classics that are simply more fun to dance to. That said, Dance Central 2 certainly has no shortage of tracks. Teeny-boppers will appreciate Willow Smith's 'Whip My Hair' or Justin Bieber's 'Somebody to Love', while dance connoisseurs might prefer the likes of 'Sandstorm' by Darude or Usher's 'Yeah'. With a store full of new routines and the option to import any song from the first game, the full tracklist spills into triple figures.
The multiplayer side of the game has seen considerable improvements for the sequel. The game is now capable of tracking two players simultaneously, although the responsiveness of Kinect does seem to flounder when a second dancer is introduced. Specifically, the player on the right-hand side of the screen seems to have a harder time of things than the person on the left. For Perform It, this doesn't matter quite so much as it's a co-operative affair - a combination of two players' scores - but in a Dance Off, this can become understandably frustrating.
There's little else worthy of criticism. Dance Central 2 is as slick an offering as you'd expect from Harmonix, and it's fair to say the former Guitar Hero and Rock Band devs have hit their stride with Kinect. Let's not play down the importance of voice commands, either. This is the best use of the tech I've yet seen. Shouting a track name followed by "Easy!" and "Dance!" and being in the game twenty seconds later never ceases to amaze me. It's a far less arduous process than waving your hands around, which - despite being one of the better Kinect menus I've used - can still lead to the wrong choice every now and again.
Put simply, Dance Central 2 is the best dance game out there. In terms of visuals, features and competency of controls, there's nothing better. It slightly bothers me, though, that I had more fun with Just Dance 3. The silliness of the choreography, the cheesiness of the songs, the option to share videos - it all contributes to a more enjoyable experience, at least in a social situation. I never intended this to be a comparison piece, but if you're in the market for a dance game I hope this helps highlight a difference. Just Dance 3 might be best for drunken gatherings with friends who have no regard for their dignity, but Dance Central 2 is without a doubt the better choice for actual dancers. If you've got rhythm flowing through your veins, this is the game for you.