Version tested: Xbox 360
It's the dance mats I feel sorry for. Where do they go to die? Is there some sort of dance mat glue factory where their electronic innards are ripped out and their PVC shells turned into Wendy houses?
Or do they just get thrown out on the street? Perhaps soon we will see tramps with dance mats instead of sleeping bags draped round their shoulders, swigging Tennent's Extra from hollowed out PS2 network adapters, begging signs propped against Tony Hawk skateboards.
Who knows. What is certain is that the age of the dance mat is dead. The end began with Ubisoft's Just Dance, which introduced the notion you need nothing more than a motion-sensing remote to get your groove on. It was a surprise hit, with more than three million copies shifted in six months.
By an amazing coincidence, other games companies began producing new dance games of their own. This week sees the release of SingStar Dance - Sony's attempt to prove that dancing is even more fun if that motion-sensing remote has a magic ping pong ball stuck on the end.
Also out this week, in the US anyway, is Dance Central. This game takes things one step further – now you can throw away not only your dance mat but your remote controls and ping pong balls too. Yes, You Are the Controller! Well, you and that £130 camera sitting under your telly, staring up at you like something out of Batteries Not Included.
More on Dance Central
Hands On: Xbox 360 Kinect
Kinect Sports, Kinect Adventures, Dance Central, Your Shape, Joy Ride.
That aren't Dance Central, Rock Band.
Any fears that this game is a cynical attempt to ride the Just Dance wave may be eased by the knowledge that Dance Central is the work of Harmonix. That's the studio behind classic titles Amplitude and Frequency, the first Guitar Hero titles and the Rock Band series.
In other words, they know what they're doing when it comes to music games. And they've no need to knock out cheap cash-ins, already having so much money they sprinkle diamonds on their cornflakes and have holiday homes in space.
Dance Central's intro movie also suggests this is going to be a quality title. It appears to be, cough, inspired by the work of Gorillaz artist Jamie Hewlett - think cartoon visuals drawn with thick black outlines, stark but funky urban landscapes and hip characters sporting sharp jawlines and angular limbs. It's very fresh, slick and cool.
So it's a bit of a shame that when it comes to the in-game visuals, we're lumbered with the same old Rock Band-style 3D avatars. You know, the ones with the sausage fingers, plasticine hair and inexplicable eyebrows. And instead of stark but funky urban environments they strut their stuff in naff, luridly lit 3D locations, surrounded by similarly sausage-fingered spectators.
While SingStar Dance and Just Dance feature stylised video footage of real-life dancers, here you're copying these CG avatars and their motion-captured moves. The downside of this is these instructors are never going to look as realistic or seem as human.
However, those rival games only feature one piece of video footage per song – and therefore one dance routine. Changing the difficulty level just alters how generous the scoring system is, so you rack up a different amount of points for trying perform the same moves.
Dance Central gives you a choice of three routines per track – Easy, Medium and Hard. The higher the difficulty level selected, the more types of moves you must perform and the quicker you have to switch between them.
Easy routines are available for every track from the get-go, while Medium and Hard dances must be unlocked. This makes sense – serious soloists have goals to aim for, but casual types and party players can access all the songs right away.
The song selection menu divides tracks into categories ranging from Warm-Up to Hardcore, according to how complex the routines are. Tracks are then listed in order of difficulty within those categories.
Working through them systematically illustrates how finely tuned Dance Central's difficulty curve is. It ramps up in subtle increments, introducing new moves gradually and making you feel like you're truly becoming a better dancer as you progress.
If you get stuck on a particular track you can practice it in Break It Down mode, which teaches you all the moves of a routine individually. You can skip over steps you've already grasped and rehearse the trickier ones as many times as you like. It's a smart system with a slick interface, and putting the extra effort in does improve your dancing.
This is something you're likely to care about more when playing Dance Central than you might when playing a more casual dance game such as Just Dance, which is often accused of not being a proper game by virtue of the fact it doesn't have structural features like a formal progression system and unlockable content.
Obviously that's like complaining about the lack of narrative complexity and sophisticated leitmotifs in an episode of The Chuckle Brothers. But let's not start. The point is, those critics won't have so much to complain about when it comes to Dance Central.
This game is as solidly structured as the likes of Guitar Hero and Rock Band, due to the fact it follows the same progression model – the one Harmonix spent years fine-tuning with those titles. Like them it offers a rewarding, enduring single-player experience. It's perfect for those who can only dance like there's no-one watching when there's actually no-one watching.
But what about Dance Central's multiplayer offering? Just Dance excels in this area, being the type of game you can play with young children and old buffers simultaneously, or stick on when everyone's so drunk you can't remember which machine is the Wii ("I think it's the white one, no wait that's the fridge") and still have a good time.
The more people join in with a Just Dance session, the more fun it gets, until a kind of critical mass is reached and even the most hardcore PC gaming enthusiast finds himself throwing cycnicism to the wind in favour of fist-pumping to Technotronic. Can Dance Central also generate that kind of knockabout revelry?
Not quite. For starters, the game can only evaluate one dancer's moves at a time. Other people can stand behind you and dance along - and they'll have the space to do so, seeing as you'll have moved all your furniture into the attic anyway so the bloody camera can see your legs. But their performances won't be evaluated in any way.
There's only one multiplayer mode. It's titled Dance Battle, it's turn-based and it's designed for a maximum of two players. You take it in turns to perform long sections of the routine while the other player practices in the background, or just stands about waiting for their go.
If neither player has danced to the track before, whoever goes second has a huge advantage - they get to watch and learn the routine while player one performs it for the first time.
Rubbishly, you can't ever tell who's winning, as individual scores aren't revealed until the song is over. Just Dance displays scores for each player at all times; this encourages players who are lagging behind to turn their waggle on and permits those in front to feel smug. It's hard to care who's in the lead when you don't know, as is the case with Dance Central.
So as multiplayer games go, it's disappointing – but it's still a good party game. Even in single-player mode, the routines are fun to do and hilarious to watch. This makes Dance Central an ideal title to pull out when you've got a mixed group of show-offs and spectators to entertain. It's just a shame you can't dance and score points simultaneously with other players.
It's also a shame that the tracks on the disc won't appeal to all tastes and ages, as is essential for family groups. It's not that there are too few to choose from - there are more than 30 in total, covering genres such as pop, hip-hop and dancehall. Along with familiar chart-toppers like Pon De Replay and Can't Get You Out of My Head there are tracks by the likes of M.I.A. and Soulja Boy, plus classic floor-fillers such as Salt 'n' Pepa's Push It and Poison by Bell Biv Devoe.
Which is all great, if you like that sort of thing, and a lot of people do. But many of the tracks are too recent or too cool to be familiar to small children and old grannies. All of them have a certain cachet, if in some cases it's a purely ironic one. You won't find the likes of Girls Just Wanna Have Fun, Hot Stuff or Fame knocking around Dance Central. This game wouldn't want to belong to any club which would have Boney M as a member.
Here's hoping a broader range of tracks, i.e. some cheesier ones, will turn up in the download store. At the time of writing there was nothing to buy in there but it seems likely Dance Central will follow the Rock Band model, with new songs added on a regular basis. A few more family-friendly ones on the disc would have been welcome.
But in Dance Central's defence, it's not setting itself up to be as family-friendly as the Just Dances of this world. It's meant to be a proper dancing game for proper gamers, one which meets their demands for structure and depth. This game doesn't just evaluate how good you are at waggling your wrist, it tracks and assesses the movements of your entire body.
Or so the theory goes. In practice, there may be a bit of emperor's new leg warmers going on.
Dance Central uses a system called Limb Feedback to help you perfect your performances. Get a step wrong and a Ready brek-style red glow will appear around the relevant appendage of the avatar you're copying, indicating that you need to make an adjustment. When you do well words like "NICE!" and "FLAWLESS!" appear, and you start racking up score multipliers.
Getting immediate, specific feedback is great, and there's a real sense of reward for earning those positive assessments. You don't have to suspend your disbelief as with those waggle-based dancing games – it feels like Kinect really is tracking your whole body.
But how accurately is it actually doing this? After a few hours of play, by which time I was knackered, I found I could achieve those "NICE!" and "FLAWLESS" assessments with the most half-hearted arm movements. I even tried performing a song with my feet rooted to the spot and found that while my numbers were down, I managed to rack up a pretty good score.
There are two conclusions which could be be drawn from this. One, that I am the best dancer in the world, which we knew already. Two, that Kinect isn't really evaluating how well you pull off dance moves with any precision - it's just measuring waggle on a full-body scale.
But even if that's true, who cares? It doesn't affect how enjoyable Dance Central is to play. Nor does it change the fact this is a well-structured, finely tuned and highly polished game.
Yes, it's also a flawed one, with its disappointing multiplayer options and track listing which won't appeal to everyone. All the same, there are hours of fun on offer here for serious solo players and groups of drunk idiots alike.
So fling that dance mat out of the window. While you're at it chuck out all your preconceptions about games like this, along with any shreds of dignity. If you can manage that, Dance Central will show you a really good time.
8 / 10