GDC Hands-on: Joe Danger (PSN)

Hey PS3 owners, have you been waiting for the PSN equivalent of Trials HD? Well, Joe Danger's for you. Have you been waiting for a new side-scrolling Sonic the Hedgehog game? Then, Joe Danger is also for you. How about an HD version of Canabalt? Yep, Joe Danger is your game. Or, have you been missing those split-screen multiplayer racing games of old? It should be obvious by now: Joe Danger is the game you're looking for.

The little we've seen of Joe Danger up to now has been a bit misleading. It has come off as a simple, cartoony motocross-style racer. During my GDC demo, however, developer Hello Games name-dropped an intriguing, if not seemingly random list of celebrated inspirations for the game -- ranging from Tony Hawk to Super Monkey Ball. After a few moments of play, the shutouts made sense.

While it may appear to be a simple racing game, Joe Danger hides a surprising level of depth and complexity in its stunt system, while not being unapproachable. Tricks are very easy to perform: simply press L1 or R1. There's no need for complex button inputs or tricky stick twirls.

Tricks need to be strung together to maintain a growing combo meter. Taking a page from Tony Hawk, the best way to keep a combo going is to maintain a wheelie in between tricks, by carefully holding the analog stick. It's a surprisingly forgiving system, and for good reason, too: once Joe is confronted with a ramp, a low-hanging obstacle (duck!) or even a spiked death trap, it can be easy to forget to keep that wheelie going.

Performing tricks and stringing together long combos will reward players with a boost ability, which in turn leads to more tricks and higher-scoring combos. In combination with arcade-style scoring, the combo system encourages a daredevil kind of gameplay that will set leaderboards ablaze.

Knowing full well that hardcore gamers will manage to create "perfect" runs, Hello Games is ready to add built-in YouTube support for you to record and upload your best stunt runs.

Joe Danger would be fun, and even great as described up to this point. The controls take mere moments to pick up, and stunt runs become addictive as you build up your score. Even failure has its enjoyment: seeing Joe land on his head after attempting an overzealous spin in the air is hilarious; or when he's punched by a spring-loaded glove; or lands in a pit of spikes -- it's appropriately satisfying. Conversely, landing that 720 spin and barely clearing a treacherous pit is immensely satisfying.

However, Joe Danger offers so much more. There are certain levels that transform the game into a platformer, with branching paths, springs and loops that give the game an intentional Sonic the Hedgehog feel. Manipulating Joe as a platforming character is surprisingly easy, with R2 and L2 giving players an incredible amount of control over Joe's mid-air movement. Scattered around the level are hidden coins, stars and other collectibles. This opens up the game to your well-honed, if not dormant platforming instincts, as you obsessively scour every nook and cranny to find the last star.

Joe Danger is designed to encourage multiple styles of play. Each level features a number of objectives or "stars," and it's up to each player to decide what he or she will attempt on any given run. Perhaps you'll want to go for a perfect stunt run, maintaining your combo meter through the entirety of a level; or perhaps you'll play a bit more risky and attempt to set the high score; or you may want to just search for the hidden collectibles; or even focus on setting a new time trial record. You could even combine a few of these objectives: set the high score while racing to beat the course record. Each completed level objective rewards the player with a star, which can be redeemed to unlock more levels.

Even though it's a downloadable game, Joe Danger looks to be quite the comprehensive title. Not only does each level feature a great deal of replayability, there are simply a lot of levels to play through. And if that isn't enough, the level editor allows players to share and create an infinite number of levels between their PSN friends. The creator should be familiar to anyone that's created a LittleBigPlanet level, featuring a toolkit that greatly resembles Media Molecule's "Pop It" device. Like in LittleBigPlanet, changes to levels are playable in real-time, allowing creators to receive near-instant feedback on the playability of their levels.

However, there is one large caveat with the editor: There is no dedicated server support where player-created levels can live. Instead, created levels can only be sent as PSN messages to other players on one's Friends list. It would be impossibly expensive to maintain a server where user-created levels are housed, although Hello Games is more than welcome to add that support ... provided the studio can sell enough copies of Joe Danger to afford that capability.

Another potential shortcoming of Joe Danger is its lack of online play. The team doesn't think this is a much-demanded feature for PSN games, though, and notes the limited online community for games like Crash Commando. In place of online mulitplayer is an exciting split-screen competitive mode, where players race each other to the finish. What makes this mode work so well? The addition of a punch button. One of the most brilliant moments of my time with the game saw Player 1 catch up to Player 2 and manage to punch the second player off his bike, but in doing so, Player 1 failed to notice a hurdle ahead of him and crashed smack into it. Both players were sent back to the last checkpoint, only to renew their vicious race.

I had the rare opportunity to spend two hours with Hello Games' first and -- if things go wrong -- last game. Hello Games is a true independent studio, made up of four guys that will either carry on or call it quits depending on the success of Joe Danger. Like the happy-go-lucky protagonist of its game, the staff of Hello Games is jumping through rings and playing with fire, living off of their life savings while developing this game. Thankfully, there's a lot to love about the team's first project. Joe Danger is an instantly likable game that deserves a strong reception from the PS3 community.

With virtually no marketing budget, it's going to be difficult for Hello Games to spread the Joe Danger name. Good thing there's a playable demo planned, one that Hello hopes will demonstrate how much fun the full experience can be. We're certainly looking forward to more Joe Danger when it launches on PSN in the coming months.