Version tested: PlayStation 3
The world may have had enough of games involving plastic guitars and rubber drum kits, but that doesn't mean the music genre is dead. Dancing titles like smash hit Just Dance and Kinect-enabled Dance Central are making sure it's stayin' alive. But is there room for one more, or is SingStar Dance a step too far?
From the moment you boot up the game it's obvious this is a much slicker, more self-conscious offering than Ubisoft's effort Just Dance. There's a glossy intro movie starring a trendy man in a checked shirt (for the love of God, men, don't any of you own any other clothes?) and a hot lady who looks like a Latina Louise Redknapp. There she is again on the title screen, gob open, mic aloft, daring the world's filthy-minded Photoshoppers to do their worst.
Just as with regular SingStar you can play alone or with friends, competitively or co-operatively. You can battle it out online with people from your Friends list. And you can visit the SingStore to download extra tracks. At the time of writing, this wasn't worth the effort - there aren't any extra SingStar Dance tunes available.
Luckily there are enough great songs on the disc to keep you going until Sony releases the first update. There's a decent mix of classic floor-fillers (U Can't Touch This, I Like To Move It), contemporary hits (Poker Face, Hey Ya!) and golden oldies (I Want You Back, Celebration). Personal favourites include Sir Mix A Lot's Baby Got Back, for obvious reasons, and Day 'N' Nite, for the reason the video was filmed in the Budgens down Lordship Lane and the bloke behind the counter says Kid Kudi is a nice man.
In the Just Dance games, as fans will know, there are no music videos - just stylised footage of dancers performing the moves you have to copy. I can't say I've ever minded this. The dancers are great, their routines are excellent and their silly wigs and outfits are good fun. In SingStar Dance, all the songs are performed by the original artists and accompanied by the proper videos. The dancer you're supposed to copy appears in miniature on the right hand side of the screen. It's a bit like watching Top of the Pops with sign language.
You can see the dancers' facial features, which is a shame in some cases as they don't seem to be enjoying themselves very much. It's hard to let loose to Mr Boombastic when the person you're supposed to be copying displays all the joyful exuberance of a man taking a broken hoover back to Comet.
When it comes to background viewing, you have a choice of the proper music video or the PlayStation Eye feed. This can be a hard call. Opt for the video and you could end up disheartened – trying to pull off moves like Nicole Scherzinger while watching her actually do them just makes you wish you were hot like her and able to make your elbows do that. Pick the camera feed and you've got a constant reminder of just how ridiculous you look. Nicole it is then.
To play you hold the Move controller in your right hand and copy the dancers, and points are awarded according to how closely you mimic their moves. Because this is a SingStar game, you can also plug in a mic and have someone sing along while you dance. Technically, you can attempt to sing and dance at the same time. (Do not attempt this. If Cheryl can't sing live while dancing at half-seven on a Sunday evening, you can't do it at 4am on a Saturday after three pints of Pinot Grigio and a Jagerbomb.)
As with Just Dance, there's a bit of trickery going on – the dancers instruct you to move your whole body but the game is only really registering the movements of your right arm. However, the Move controller does a better job of detecting your motions than the Wii remote.
The catch is that SingStar Dance isn't quite pick-up-and-play. You have to calibrate the controller at the start of each session, and every time someone else wants to join in. Plus you have to make sure everyone's standing in the right position for the camera to register their moves.
The real problem is with some of the dance routines. All of them look great when performed by the pros, featuring plenty of funky moves, including many lifted from the actual videos. But many of them are too hard for amateurs to copy. Even if, like me, you are literally the best dancer in the world, you can end up confused, frustrated and exhausted.
There are two issues here: the dances are too fast and the moves they feature aren't repeated often enough. Even the harder Just Dance routines repeat the same moves over and over again so the songs get easier as you progress. Dance Central has Break It Down mode where you can learn moves individually. In contrast, SingStar Dance throws complex manoeuvres at you at a rapid rate, and doesn't give you enough time to learn as well as perform.
Changing the difficulty level doesn't help. In Dance Central each song comes with three routines to choose from – Easy, Medium and Hard. These levels exist in SingStar Dance but the routine you're given to copy remains the same, regardless of which one you pick, so presumably it's just about making the scoring system more generous. This is a problem if you really like a song but find the routine for it too tricky.
The good news is that not all the songs are tough. There are plenty of easier ones in there which anyone should be able to pull off with a bit of practice. But why not flag these up? Unlike both those rival dancing games, SingStar Dance doesn't use a rating system to illustrate difficulty levels for each track.
Plus, even the easier routines seem to be more about looking flash than having fun. Try comparing the Just Dance version of Girls Just Wanna Have Fun with the SingStar Dance version. The Just Dance routine is much more like the type of dances me and my friend Jessie used to make up to Madonna songs when we were eight – simple, repetitive, daft, but enjoyably doable. The SingStar routine is more like what you'd expect to see in a proper music video, performed by people old enough to actually know what a virgin is.
Of course, serious dancers will much prefer SingStar Dance because of this. They'll spend many happy hours practising all the routines, and then their friends and family will be forced to spend many tedious hours watching them perform. But those who want more of a party play experience could be disappointed.
The beauty of Just Dance is that all the routines are accessible, even the trickier ones. They are logical to learn, which is a great leveller. It's easier to persuade young children and drunk men to have a go, and easier for them to have a good time. Pick the wrong tune in SingStar Dance and the young child / grumpy old scrote is much more likely to give up halfway through in frustration.
However, SingStar Dance has a trick up its sleeve which no other dancing game can compete with. No, it isn't the fact purple sparkles come out of the on-screen Move controller when you wave it, though that is of course brilliant. It's the fact you can record your SingStar Dance performances and watch them back.
Sure, this feature exists in the other SingStar PS3 games. But if you thought watching a video of your Dad murder Total Eclipse of the Heart was funny, wait till you see him attempting to emulate the ninetiestastic moves and grooves of a Backstreet Boy.
As usual you can record the full performances, select 30 seconds to preserve for posterity and add special effects to your video. You can then save it to the PS3's hard drive and upload it to the SingStar social network if you have no shame. And if you bought SingStar Dance, you probably don't.
Serious dancers will no doubt welcome the video feature as a tool for perfecting their moves and doing more showing off. For everyone else it's a great way of extending the laughs, and of course the humiliation.
And SingStar Dance does offer plenty of laughs, despite the fact it takes itself a little seriously. There are some niggles, like the fact the harder routines are so hard and the fiddly menu system. But this game also features solid gameplay, a great tracklisting, good online functionality and excellent video options. It's good value at 20 quid, especially considering all the tracks on the disc can be counted as additions to your SingStar karaoke library.
So it's up there with Just Dance 2 and Dance Central as a fun, accessible, well-produced dancing game. But none of them could be described as the ultimate dancing game. Can't we have one which is fun AND cool AND slick AND hilarious AND accessible AND properly structured? AND has video capture? AND features the entire back catalogue of Steps songs?
It could be some time before that game arrives. While you're waiting, SingStar Dance is worth a go. Shame it turned out dance mats were just for Christmas, though.
7 / 10