Version tested: Xbox 360
The best video games are the ones you can feel. The ones which trade in a bizarre digital alchemy, where pixels spat out from a processor dozens of times per second somehow gain a sense of weight and momentum so tangible that you're able to forget there's a screen in front of you and a controller in your hands, and just slip into the game's world.
That feeling is why Mario has endured for so long while changing so little. When he jumps, you feel it, and it feels right. And it's why Joe Danger is such a joy to play. Developers that understand the importance of feel almost always turn out games that are fun and immediately appealing, and that's certainly the case with Hello Games. Everything about the way their schlubby stuntman moves sends a message racing from your eyes and fingertips direct to your brain - and the message is "Yes!"
It's a message that couldn't be missed in the hugely charming original Joe Danger game, and it's still being received loud and clear in this sequel. You guide Joe through a series of stunt courses, with your top priority being to reach the finish line in one piece. Meeting objectives along the way comes a close second as you ferret out hidden icons, hit targets, collect tokens and try to maintain stunt combos. Each objective met earns you a star and you're free to tackle them one at a time, replaying to concentrate on each in turn - but only those who nail every objective in one perfect run will earn that stage's pro medal: the real source of bragging rights.
This is all familiar from the first game, and Hello Games doesn't stray too far from its winning formula. What the sequel adds is variety, as Joe's motorbike is joined by a snowmobile, minecarts, skis, bicycle and even a jetpack. These vehicles are dictated by the levels, but each has its own unique handling. Crucially, they all hit the same sweet spot as the traditional motorbike, effortlessly turning somersaults in mid-air and landing with pixel precision.
This variety also allows more variety in the levels. The jetpack is particularly innovative, almost completely changing the way the game plays. Swooping through the air, navigating gauntlets of spiked doors, grinding gears and whirling blades, you're using the same basic skills as in the rest of the game, but in a way that feels utterly fresh.
Obstacles and objectives, too, have been enhanced and improved. You can swipe at other vehicles, adding a Road Rash element to chase sequences, while the lane-switching junction points that send Joe from one horizontal plane to another can now be a hazard in their own right. With cars rumbling past or rolling boulders to dodge, picking the moment to switch is vital.
As the subtitle suggests, Joe has now graduated from the rural stunt show circuit and is making actual movies. This allows for more environments - ranging from jungles and snow-covered mountains to gloomy caverns and futuristic cityscapes - but the concept never really takes hold. Each chunk of levels supposedly forms a self-contained movie, but this remains fairly abstract. During Act 4 - the self-explanatory Dinosaurs! - you'll go from smashing dino eggs in the jungle to deactivating robots and chasing a van for no apparent reason. When completed, each section spits out a highlight reel but this fails to stitch your escapades into a coherent narrative. Hardly a disaster - we're here for the gameplay, after all - but it does leave the game feeling thematically undercooked.
There are just 25 basic stages across five initial acts (a sixth "Director's Cut" act unlocks once you've aced everything else) but Joe Danger 2's longevity relies on you feeling compelled to go back and try to ace each one, or at least collect as many of the stars as you can. There are also additional stages, dubbed Deleted Scenes, that act as both advanced tutorials and elite challenges. It's here you'll get to ride a unicycle, for instance. Trying to maintain your balance while grappling with the game's other demands is both frustrating and deliciously entertaining.
And that's the curious terrain where Joe Danger is still most likely to take root. This is a game that will often require painful joypad dexterity, not to mention split-second reactions and vast reserves of patience. Sometimes the game lurches a little too far from the puzzle-like courses of the original and ends up closer to a rhythm title. With the film's "director" barking instructions at breakneck speed, the game's weakest stages are little more than a test of how well you can memorise button sequences across multiple restarts. Duck! Jump! Duck! Duck! Jump! It's here that Joe Danger 2 comes closest to being simply annoying, but it's testament to the breezy aesthetic - and that ineffable feel - that you'll be compelled to stick with it.
Multiplayer is another area where the game has improved, if only slightly. The competitive portion is still, sadly, offline only but now accommodates four players rather than just two. With just five pre-configured stages available for multiplayer games, however, the possibilities are limited.
Compensating somewhat for this is a greater integration of the leaderboard into the single-player gameplay. Replay a level and you'll see the ghosts of other players leaving glowing trails. As well as prompting you to beat the players in question, they act as a surrogate hint system, suggesting the perfect sequence to navigate a tricky section or to locate a hidden bonus. It's no substitute for a more in-depth suite of competitive play modes, though, and it means that multiplayer is still the area where this game is most likely to disappoint.
For all the boundless charm and technical polish on display, there's a sense that Hello Games has played it a little too safe. Curiously, given its daredevil star, the game has inched forwards in many areas rather than jumped, and by the time you clear the last of the stages you'd be forgiven for feeling there's still potential untapped in Joe Danger's cleverly designed but somewhat timidly implemented new features. One level pays brilliant homage to Atari's 1984 arcade game Paperboy, but then the idea - and the hugely promising "throwing things" mechanism - is never used again. Ditto the unicycle, introduced in one of the bonus levels but never fully explored as a gameplay element.
None of which should imply that Joe Danger 2 is a disappointment. Far from it. It's still one of the most enjoyable games around - a game clearly put together with care and passion, built around a core of delightful feedback and quite simply fun at a very deep and instinctive level. It still feels great. There's just a sense that there remains a bolder and more ambitious, game lurking just under the surface and only occasionally showing itself.
It's perhaps fitting that a game so steeped in corny carnival appeal should come to define the old showbiz adage about always leaving the audience wanting more, and for fans of the first game hungry for more of the same served with a twist, Joe Danger 2 is an easy recommendation. It would just be a shame if this were the last we saw of him when he clearly has wilder adventures to share.
8 / 10