Version tested Xbox 360
Dance Central was the trendy poster child for Kinect when it launched with deafening fanfare last year. As hundreds of dancers performed in unison in New York's Time Square - in what must rank as the most unrepresentative demonstration of a single-player game in history - millions of hypnotised consumers bought into Microsoft's controller-free dream.
But Harmonix' first stab at the dance genre gave Microsoft much more than credibility with the cool kids. It gave Kinect an excellent launch game that showed off its exciting new technology with fun and flair.
Now, a year on, the inevitable sequel arrives with the back-of-the-box promise of "more moves, more songs, more fun". And it arrives to discover it now has some genuine competition on the Kinect dance floor, in the form of Just Dance 3.
Unless you're blessed with rhythmic coordination, Dance Central 2 is, like its predecessor, a proper challenge as soon as you crank up the difficulty to anything above Easy. But the learning curve is finely-judged and the desire to practice and improve strong - aided by the excellent Break It Down mode.
This has been improved considerably, and in Dance Central 2 you can slow down and speed up specific moves until you've nailed them. If you're really struggling, there's now the option to record a video of yourself performing a move, which the game then plays back alongside a virtual dancer to show you exactly how well you match up. It's a great idea and a great use of the technology, skilfully implemented - a statement that applies to the game as a whole.
It's a pity, then, that you can't use the video record functionality to capture and share your own performances, which is one of Just Dance 3's best new features.
Dance Central 2 does not represent a massive leap over the original, but its improvements do show off Harmonix' expertise in iterative development, with polish applied to all the right parts while enough content is added to ensure it is a worthy and worthwhile purchase.
It still has the best interface on Kinect, and quite why every other developer hasn't brazenly ripped it off is a bitterly disappointing mystery. (Just Dance 3 tried, but cocked it up.)
In the game itself, the tracking feels far more accurate than most other Kinect titles, vitally important for this game, as its long-term appeal relies on the player feeling they're being fairly judged.
It's certainly not flawless - and, as you might expect, there's more of a tendency for it to become unstuck with two players involved - but for the most part it is Kinect at its liberating best.
"There's more of a tendency for it to become unstuck with two players involved - but for the most part it is Kinect at its liberating best."
The same can't be said for voice control. And while the system Harmonix has come up with is great in principle, I had the usual frustrating experience of that stupid, cloth-eared camera only hearing me half the time, so in the end I gave up bothering. But when standard navigation is done this well, it's not a problem.
Single-player has been fleshed out with Crew Challenge, which purports to be a story mode, pitting you against a series of dancing crews you need to impress over the course of a setlist to progress. Or, as the game cringeworthily has it, "gain cred".
The conceit is thin, but it does provide goals and a sense of progression if you're playing alone. And, unlike the competition, this is a game that's genuinely enjoyable to experience as a solo player.
There's also the now prerequisite fitness mode, divided up into workouts of varying length and intensity - and there are worse ways of working off the lard than dancing in your underpants to Bad Romance, it has to be said.
Multiplayer, though, is the major and most-desperately-requested new feature, with Dance Central 2 supporting two players together. It's had its thunder stolen somewhat by Just Dance 3's four-player action, but there's a lot of intense fun to be had in co-op or competitive, with Harmonix' game benefiting from a level of precision not found in Ubisoft's more lightweight, disposable offering.
But does that make it the better party game? The only way to test this out meaningfully, of course, was to get drunk. So I rounded up some willing participants, we all got nicely trolleyed and played Dance Central 2 and Just Dance 3 all night long.
And the verdict of my sozzled companions was loud and clear: Ubisoft's game is just way more fun in that kind of environment.
My friends weren't interested in perfecting routines or chasing high scores, you see: they were in it for the LOLs. I wanted to focus on Dance Central for the purposes of this review, but was basically ordered to put Just Dance back on after a few routines - and many more LOLs were duly had.
It's not just the fact that Ubi's game supports up to four players at once - although that is a notable plus. It's the whole shameless silliness of an experience that cares a lot more about entertaining than impressing.
More on Dance Central 2
UPDATE: Announced at E3.
Boost your Gamerscore and gobble up Avatar Awards.
Free app lets you create personalised music videos.
While Dance Central 2 is undeniably the better 'game' in every mechanical sense, it falls short of becoming a truly great party game because it takes itself too seriously. It's hard to imagine Just Dance highlights like the brilliantly ridiculous This Is Halloween or the charming cheesiness of Somethin' Stupid making it into a Harmonix setlist, and that's a shame.
Dance Central 2, if you like, is the video game equivalent of someone who works for a 'creative agency', wears headphones as a fashion accessory and drinks bottles of unpronounceable European lager in sterile Hoxton bars.
And, like the music in those bars, when the game throws some cheesy pop into the mix, like Bananarama's Venus, it feels like it's with a sense of ironic, too-cool-for-school detachment, treated as a 'guilty pleasure' rather than celebrated for its plain, pass-the-poppers magnificence.
Don't get me wrong: the urban art style is brilliantly realised throughout and the musical content is obviously all just a matter of personal taste blah blah. But in trying so hard to be achingly cool, Harmonix forgets the appeal of being side-achingly silly.
So if you're looking for a dancing game that's only going to come out once in a while for a bit of a pissed-up lark with pals, I'd have to recommend Just Dance 3.
Where Dance Central 2 truly excels is in being an extremely well designed rhythm-action game. Harmonix is the master of the genre, and Dance Central 2 is finely structured to encourage and reward dedicated play that will likely satisfy for many weeks and months.
In short, it's unquestionably the best dance game available on Kinect, and a successful, evolutionary step forward that will certainly please those who loved the original.
But that doesn't mean it's always the most fun. And Harmonix might find there's more "cred" to be gained in future by worrying a little less about being cool.
8 / 10