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.
The character models - the guys and gals you'll spend 99% of your time with the game staring at - are gorgeous. They're chunky and stylish, with charismatic smiles and buckets of attitude. They're very Harmonix. I think Miss Audrey is my favourite of the bunch; an auburn-haired babe who never questions her talents for a second. She's cocky in that totally hot kind of way, and a joy to watch bopping about the screen. As you start putting some stars on the board and improving your rank, you'll unlock new venues and costumes for your dancers. Dressing Miss Audrey is an activity I could indulge in for hours.
Considering every song in the game is open from the word go, unlockables are a welcome incentive to do well. That said, the structure of the experience as a whole is slightly uninspired. With Harmonix doing such interesting things with the single-player campaign of Rock Band 3, it would have been nice to see some of that innovation brought into Dance Central - cutscenes and challenges, that kind of thing. As it is, the game is a simple case of working your way through a list of songs (of which there are 32), with challenges unlocked after each set of four-starred songs. Challenges don't add much in the way of diversity, however, and are a simple mash up of the four songs in the previous set. Still, it's surprisingly good fun to bring a range of dance moves into one routine.
So long as you're playing in a big enough room, you can enlist the services of two backing dancers, who can jump in at any time to join the routine. The game only really tracks the movements of the lead dancer, however; backing dancers won't contribute to the score in any way. If you're interested in playing with a friend, Dance Battle mode is the way to go, which will split a song into two halves, and score you both separately. This is where I actually had the most fun with the game, forcing me to cast aside my nerves in order to beat my opponent.
It might be a mundane point of discussion, but with the Kinect tech being so new it's worth taking a moment to discuss menus and navigation. While other launch titles require that you hold a virtual hand over a button for a set period of time in order to confirm a selection, Dance Central asks that you highlight an option with an extended arm, and then move that arm across your body to slide that option into a confirmed state. It's kind of like using the slider to unlock an iPhone, except with your arm. I found this to be quicker and more intuitive than anything else I've yet experienced with the technology, and will keep my fingers crossed that other games will adopt the same method.
Dance Central's biggest letdown is its omission of a video sharing feature - or video playback in general. During Freestyle dance mode (a period in each song where you can invent your own moves), a series of photos will be taken which will be played back in quick succession at the end of the routine. Kinect Sports and Kinect Adventures both allow players to share videos through the Kinect Share website, and a lack of something similar in Dance Central is a crying shame. Just imagine the hilarity of sharing videos of your friends and their crazy dance moves during an alcohol fuelled dance party! The game doesn't even allow you to save and view photos from the game itself, which - in comparison with the rest of the Kinect line-up - is pretty odd.
Despite this wasted opportunity, Dance Central is a very accomplished game. It's got a decent array of songs, with both modern hits and dance classics forming a well rounded track-list (doing the Soulja Boy dance to 'Crank That' is a personal favourite of mine). It looks great, too, polished to a shiny finish with excellent visuals and an accessible interface. But above all else, it works. Unlike a lot of the tripe launching alongside Kinect, the technology is used in a way that's appropriate and responsive. Boogieing about in your living room with a couple of friends is the perfect application of Kinect, and a huge leap forward for the dance genre. There's still room for improvement, of course, but any problems and requests can be happily added to a wish list for the inevitable Dance Central 2. This could well be the start of another huge franchise for Harmonix.