HelloGames are a small development team made up of industry veterans. Smoke ‘em out and you’ve got guys in there who’ve worked on top sellers like Burnout 3, Black, Virtua Tennis 3 and Geometry Wars: Galaxies. A diverse pedigree but when you first see the blue skies and cute, cuddly, cartoonish world of Joe Danger you can’t help but be impressed.
Now the game’s suddenly a PS3 exclusive (for now at least) you can understand why the HelloGames guys jumped into bed with Sony and fully embraced the ethos of “Play, Create, Share”. By rights, even if Joe Danger fails to sell purely on its single and multiplayer modes alone, it should become something of a community-led cult classic nonetheless. You can make your own levels but let’s not get ahead of ourselves, more on that aspect of the game later.
Before the game was even released, comparisons were made between Joe Danger and other motorbike games like Trials HD, Excitebike and even the creaky old Kickstart games from the 8 bit era. Those comparisons were even mockingly referred to by a couple of cute pre-release screenshots. To be fair, there are elements of each of those games in Joe Danger but it still manages to stand on its own two biker boots and bring something refreshing and new to the table.
Based on the career of an aging stunt rider, you jump into Joe Danger’s tight jumpsuit and helmet to revive your career after an accident that saw you break every bone in your body except your coccyx. With one final spectacular stunt tour, Joe Danger aims to become the number 1 super biker guy once more.
At your party be a smarty, just call…Joe Danger
What’s immediately evident the moment you fire up the game is just how much the four main guys at HelloGames enjoy what they do. The game positively exudes love and attention from every pore, and from the menu through to the actual gameplay itself, it’s extremely clear that they’ve applied more spit and polish than some of the biggest studios manage in their mundane annual sequel-drivel.
In single player “career” mode you begin your comeback tour with a few simple levels that swiftly introduce the mechanics of the gameplay. Using the left and right analogue triggers on the PS3 pad, you can control your bike’s braking and acceleration. Oddly your bike seems to be just as happy going backwards as well as forwards but you’ll see why later on.
Stunts, flips and signature flashy moves are performed by timely manipulation of the left analogue stick in conjunction with the L1 and R1 buttons. You can also use the face buttons on the Sixaxis to perform bunny hops, duck under objects or fire off your boost if you’ve performed enough tricks to fill your boost bar.
When you first start playing, the game feels like a simple case of racing from the start to the finish line but there’s more to it than that. Each level contains a number of star challenges, and completing these is the key to further progress later on. Skilled bikers will undoubtedly enjoy polishing off multiple challenges in one run, but with a delicious piece of design, you can restart a level at any time if you manage to mess up (and you will, trust me on this).
Stunt combos and tricks enhance your score, and you can get the usual satisfaction of bragging rights amongst your PSN friends list if you notch up a particularly impressive one (curse you, Syroc! :)
At times, the game feels more like a collectable platform game than a stunt racer, but a gradual and satisfying difficulty curve combined with the extra challenge elements in each level, intertwined with head to head races against AI opponents mixes up Joe Danger’s content enough to keep you coming back for one more go. In this respect, you could imagine the game working beautifully in an arcade but costing you a lot more than the £9.99 it’s selling for on the PSN store.
Multiplayer modes are equally satisfying, with a range of split screen and online gameplay options. Playing for scores, or just first past the post, Joe Danger feels very sociable and is exactly the sort of game where you could drag a few friends away from the snore-inducing tedium of the World Cup to gather round the PS3 and the telly for a spot of gaming instead.
Can we build it? YES WE CAN!
The neatest trick up Joe Danger’s white leather sleeves is the game’s level construction mode. With the same promise that everything in the game was built using the editor, HelloGames have provided gamers with a superb level creator that allows you to concoct your own crazy stunt-based stuff. The editor is intuitive and satisfyingly fully featured. Once you’ve come up with something cool, you can then share it online with your friends and compete in races on your own home-grown tracks. Though I’ve only dipped a toe in the water with this stuff, I can see there’s a lot of potential for extending the game’s lifespan way beyond the completion of the single player career.
Summarising, perhaps it’s indicative of the industry as a whole that a small team can produce such a polished and satisfying game, that fully lives up to the hype and expectations that surrounded it pre-release whereas huge development teams suffer from in-fighting, falling out with their publishers and all manner of bollock-busting trauma before a game lurches onto shelves disappointingly. With the team twittering their heads off since the game was announced, and early hands-on impressions at last year’s Eurogamer Expo being favourable, Joe Danger is a superb launch title from a studio I’ll be keeping a firm eye on in future. Let’s hope that the exclusivity deal is a short one, and other platforms get a taste of the blue-sky-gaming action really soon.