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Joe Danger: Special Edition Review

December 19th, 2011 by

Vital Stats

Genre: Action
Players: 1-4
Online: Leaderboards
and level sharing

Developer:
Hello Games
Publisher:
Microsoft Studios
ESRB Rating: E
Release Date: 12/14/11

Platforms

  • XBLA

It’s the holiday season and there’s a hell of a lot of cheer going around. So I’d like to call you back to one of your less pleasant memories. Recall opening up your presents on christmas morning as a wee tyke. You’re drunk on the last six weeks of advertising and nothing eclipses your love for a toy car playset. There’s gonna be ramps and loops and racing and crashing, and it’ll be the best toy ever. Now recall what it actually was: a bunch of boring plastic that barely fits together and is fated for the first garage sale of the season. Remember that disappointment. Joe Danger: Special Edition promises to right that wrong, and for the most part it delivers.

Danger Is Also His Middle Name
Joe Danger is the eponymous stuntman on his comeback tour. An accident some years back kiboshed his career before it could reach its apex, but modern medicine and an indominitable spirit have brought him back to the biz. Your job is to strap Joe onto his motorcycle, and ramp, race, and crash him back to his salad days.

Joe Danger SE is a sort of hybrid of puzzle platformer and racing game. It consists of about 100 stunt tracks, and at the most basic level, you’re trying to guide Joe safely from start to finish. Being stunt tracks, there are a number of explosive, spiky, and spring-loaded hazards in your way. However, there are also a number of loops, ramps, and conveyor belts to help you dazzle and defy death, at least when they don’t launch you directly into it. Don’t worry though, because no matter how often Joe slips, splats, and ‘splodes, he’ll just bounce back to the nearest checkpoint, none the worse for a few sharks. If you’re thinking that’s exactly what a hot wheels playset should be, I agree. Joe soars and plummets and bounces and skids. It’s all comic violence, but credit to the physics engine and animators, because when Joe hits something you feel it.

See what I mean?
Incidentally, this trailer is a pretty accurate portrait of play.

In fact, success and failure are where Joe Danger really excels. Whether you’re motorcycling up a vertical wall, or a giant mousetrap flips you into a shark tank, it’s amazing. This is partly because each level is an intricate Rube-Goldberg machine, and partly because your motorcycle is a responsive and steady machine. Mostly though, it’s really that Joe Danger doesn’t waste an opportunity for action. When you start a race, there’s a boost meter mechanic to instantly kick Joe into motion. When things are going well, you can press your luck with wheelies, flips, and acrobatic poses to refill that boost. Then then you can burn your fresh boost for bigger jumps that you fill with more tricks, and it makes a beautiful self-perpetuating cycle of excellence. When you do screw up, things keep hopping because Joe bounces back to the nearest checkpoint with zero lag and the cycle begins anew.

If that’s all there was to Joe Danger, it’d be a sweet little popcorn game suitable for parties. Instead the game much bigger, and that ambition sees some mixed outcomes. For instance, in addition to survival, each level comes with between one and five extra objectives. Most involve collecting knickknacks, but the collectables are just proxies for impressively complex stunts. For instance, most levels come with fifty or so blue stars to entice you across rooftops, over spikes, and under hurdles. There are also coins to collect on speed runs, targets for big jumps, and hidden stars only accessible through derring-do. This sort of invitation to awesomeness is a great idea when it’s optional, but Joe Danger uses those objectives as currency to unlock levels. The good news is that you only need about half of them to unlock 99% of the content, but the bad news is that many of them are maddeningly difficult to achieve. The steep difficulty will probably be a feature for the serious hardcore, but it’s a shame when an otherwise casual-friendly game can completely shut you out.

That’s not to say that ambition is inherently a bad thing, because without it we’d probably have missed out on the excellent level editor. Every last ramp, school bus, and pinball bumper in Joe Danger SE is available to build the death race of your dreams and inflict it on your friends. Tap one button to call up the grid of level features, and tap another to start dropping rickety wooden planks over your shark tank. It’s trivially accessible and pretty fast for a level editor. In fact, it’s the tool developer Hello Games used making Joe Danger, and when you use it you can feel why.

This has got to be illegal.

Special Edition
New to the Special Edition is the Lab, a painstakingly engineered series of fifty-ish challenge levels. The lab is more than a level pack though, it’s an iteratively constructed series challenges, a sort of tutorial with teeth. The lab breaks into groups of levels. Each group teaches you something new, like using your boost to fly, and then adds that feature to an ever-growing “final exam” level. The final test grows into a wildly complex integrative gauntlet, but by the time you arrive there, it’s something you can do. It’s an expertly-crafted difficulty curve that merits kudos, and if you’re ever hurting for advancement in the campaign, the Lab will shave off your baby fat and make you a real stunt man.

Aside from doubling Joe Danger‘s level content, the special edition adds bonus alternate costumes and a handful of bonus campaign levels. The costumes are purely cosmetic, but if there’s anything better than a 720° flip with no hands, it’s doing it dressed as a chicken.

He’s OK, folks!
Joe Danger SE is a simple game with epic ambitions. The core gameplay is built on a foundation of “do it again until you get it right,” which you may love or hate. However, either way Joe Danger SE has the pacing and spectacle to make both winning and losing fun. Unlockable progress puts a lot of responsibility on losing to make the game fun, but the performance thresholds are fairly reasonable. That said, Joe Danger SE transcends casual and hardcore foibles. If you were one of those kids who would ram toy cars together and make little crashing noises, this game will remind you how much you miss it.

What It Costs: $15

What It’s Worth:
To The Hardcore: $20 (buy)
To The Genre Fan: This game doesn’t map well to a single genre, so just give the demo a whirl.
To The Casual: $10 (demo before you commit)

P.S.
You’re looking to pick up Joe Danger: SE, there’ll be limited release of free Christmas DLC from 12/21/11 through 12/25/11. The package comes with a Santa suit for Joe and a bouncy ATV called the Quadbike. From the press Release:

I think of the Quadbike a bit like unlocking Luigi in Mario Galaxy. Suddenly the controls and handling are different, and every level has to be relearned and replayed. The ATV is faster for instance, but very bouncy :)

Aside from that being the cutest thing I’ve ever seen in a press release, you may want to take the free bonus content into account if you’re contemplating a purchase. Get it while it’s cold.

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