Juiced

Squeezed out just in time for E3.

Normally when a games publisher goes tits up - as one-time US giant Acclaim did last September - the chaos that ensues ensures most of their products crash and burn, as developers go unpaid, lose focus, and often themselves fall victim to the liquidators desperate to salvage something from the wreckage.

But in the case of Juiced things were rather different. First of all the game was already finished - and was a matter of days away from release when Acclaim hit the buffers. Reviewers had long since filed their reviews and as such it seemed a pretty unfortunate fate for UK developer Juiced Games to find itself with a fully finished title but no one to put it on the shelves.

Tight fit

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In all the kerfuffle that played out in the weeks before and after it was evident that even if a rival publisher bought the product, putting the game on the shelves alongside similar titles like Need For Speed Underground 2 and Midnight Club 3 would prove a disastrous decision. Far better to take the game back into development, take on board the criticism and feedback from the reviews and put the game out in a more polished form at a time when it wasn't going to be drowning in competitors. And that's exactly what the game's new publisher THQ has done.

However, THQ probably didn't bank on Rockstar also delaying Midnight Club 3 as well - in that case by some six months to mid-April - so Juiced recently found itself moved back yet again; in this case another month to mid-June. Presumably the thinking was that this would be at the point when gamers will find themselves entering the traditional summer release drought, and therefore far more likely to take a punt on something slightly off the beaten track of licensed titles and sequels.

Okay, so Juiced's slick street racing/customisation premise isn't exactly off the beaten track (understatement of the year), but it's certainly a burgeoning genre that the mass market appears to have an infinite thirst for at present. To be fair to Juiced THQ reckons it's occupying a completely different space in the market to the Need For Speed Undergrounds and Midnight Clubs of the world; that of a more simulation-minded approach applied to the actual racing with more authentic handling and damage modelling to take into account.

Leader of the pack

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Indeed, having spent a good five hours or so inching our way through the career mode we've started to get a real feel for where Juiced is pitching itself - despite a few uncomfortable early moments .As with most street racing games you'll probably go hell for leather, finger on the nitrous boost, going crazy trying to barge your way to the front of the pack, but it's a game that requires a less gung-ho approach.

Unlike its many competitors, Juiced prefers to reward a saner style of driving. For example, braking into corners is a much more effective way of getting around the course quickly than, say, trying to powerslide like crazy as you would do in many arcade-minded racing games. Tactical use of the Nitrous also plays a huge part, especially considering some typically elastic AI.

Key to Juiced's charm is the way it takes a completely different approach to the business of career progression, with an innovative and challenging 'Respect' system which requires you to impress eight different driving crews before they'll even consider racing against you. Initially invites-only extend to letting you into racing meets, with serious respect unlocking the all-important Pink Slip events.

To start off, though, the game offers up just one driving crew who'll take you seriously. With an option to bet that you'll beat them you can quickly amass a pot of cash (with audacious bets gaining even more respect, while backing out loses an equal amount) that acts as the means to not only upgrade your ride in the usual plethora of performance and visual customisations, but also to allow you to race in more challenging events later.

Pimp my ride

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But to begin with, the basic idea is simply to scan through a racing calendar, check out which races you're eligible to enter and do your best. Interestingly, you don't actually have to win to get a positive result, so long as you beat the person you've bet against. Eventually, the more upgrades you've applied to your ride, the better chance the you'll have, the more money you win, the more respect you earn, the more cars become available to buy, the more contacts are added to your mobile phone and the greater variety of races you can enter.

However, it's not all about winning or beating your opponent. Drive like a psycho and crash into all and sundry and they'll lose respect for you, potentially restricting your progress. Think of it as a bit like Project Gotham's Kudos system, but with a real sense of consequence to it.

As with most of these street racing games variety is central, with plenty of different racing styles to get to grips with, including the usual circuit and point-to-point races (newly added post-Acclaim), Show Off challenges that let you show off your driving tricks (very Gotham) along with the straight-out Sprint races you'll be familiar with from the two NFSUs. Incidentally, some races are team-based, meaning you have to hire your own crew to gain entry, so there's plenty of variety, and - importantly - a quite taxing challenge that'll take a long time to work through.

Give it some stick

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In total there are 108 routes (up from the 64 originally included) in the fictional game setting of San Ricardo, a sunny American City where the skies are blue and the traffic is blissfully absent. With more than 50 different licensed vehicles making the cut there's plenty to get through, with each car promising a unique handling model, and more customisation permutations possible than you could shake about five billion sticks at.

From what we've seen so far Juiced certainly has what it takes to give its street racing competitors a serious run for their money, while giving punters something a little different. Visually it's well up to par with the competition, with Juiced Games making a decent fist of pushing the environmental, car model and effect detail levels without compromising the frame rate, while the audio also deserves a gentle pat on the back with a worthy and varied soundtrack complementing a solid quality package.

Probably the one thing that makes it stand out from the pack is its canny mixture of realism and arcade, hitting a sweet spot where fun hasn't been sacrificed, and still providing the ability to customise and tune to a degree that should satisfy the purists while providing the more action-oriented gamer the ability to cut to the chase. From what we've played so far it's a game that pushes you hard to succeed, but does it in a way that feels fresh, doesn't insult the player by being cringeworthily 'street' for the sake of it and all round feels like a polished product that's benefited from the extended development time.

Contender or pretender?

With much to plough through we'll be cruising the streets of San Ricardo extensively over the coming weeks, ploughing through the career mode and putting the game's online modes through their paces. Check back soon to find out if the latest street racing contender is the champ or a pretender.

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