Version tested: Xbox 360
Thrown into the lion's den of the Christmas 2007 line-up, Juiced 2 faces the exact same problem that the last one did: too much competition. Competitors which have raised their game considerably since Juiced battled it out with the big guns in the summer of 2005.
Sure, you might argue that Juiced 2 doesn't compete directly with Project Gotham Racing 4, SEGA Rally, Colin McRae DiRT, Stuntman Ignition, or Forza Motorsport 2, but it does have the looming spectre of EA's latest behemoth just a few weeks away. It's not so much Need For Speed, but Need For Sales, and in that particular race Juiced 2 is likely to struggle to reach the podium faced with such superb rivals.
But as much as it's easy to write off Juiced 2 as an also-ran before we've even considered if it's any good, it's waving, not drowning - if you're prepared to give it a chance to impress. Admittedly, it's not an easy game to get to like, largely thanks to the eye-rolling posturing and too-cool-for-school 'tude that comes as standard issue with Street Racing games. But if you can ignore the chest-puffing alpha male bull, then there's a fairly decent game trying to kick it's way out of the razzmatazz of Hot Import Nights TV-style glitz and faux glamour.
Based on the old-style SEGA Rally drift handling model (but feeling much more like Ridge Racer), Juiced 2 has been pushed much further towards arcade-style dynamics than the original ever dared venture. It's a game which relies on that well-worn, but satisfying principle that you can throw your car into corners with abandon, easing off the throttle and then blasting forward when momentum straightens you up. To its credit, Juice Games has nailed an accessible if lightweight drift handling system, and it's a hook that helps drag you through the game.
Diving into the game's main career mode, you first have to choose from one of 15 available cars, each based on popular real-life brands such as Audi, Saab and Ford. A handy performance bar at the top of the screen lets you know where it rates between one and 100, as well as its potential performance if you were to eventually mod it. With ratings for most of the available cars hovering around the 15 mark to begin with, the main considerations appear to be to buy something with good long-term potential, so you can unlock the various mods and eventually turn it into something world-beating. As you'd expect, Juiced 2 also has a multitude of visual customisation options, and although it's not exactly in Forza 2's league, most players won't be left wanting when it comes to pimping up their ride just so.
In terms of the racing, after you've got your wheels sorted out, you'll be ready to face what appears to be a standard tier structure (think DiRT) where the races start off easy and gradually become more challenging as you qualify for each 'league'. But, although you might be somewhat overwhelmed by the number of events on offer at times, you're not obliged to enter everything available.
Juiced 2 differentiates itself somewhat by giving players a series of over-riding tasks to chalk off - inspired, in part, by Need For Speed Most Wanted's approach. So, rather than having to mechanically work your way through every single event, you'll find yourself with, say, eight main objectives to chalk off, and can attain those in a variety of events. For example, you might have to beat a specific driver in a circuit race, or 'spook' certain rivals during an event by driving up close behind them until they freak out and spin off. Other tasks might involve winning a bet totalling $10,000, or winning a pink slip race (where the winner takes the other's car), or finishing at least second in a challenge event. Progress isn't necessarily dependent on winning everything - which is, in itself, a smart decision on the part of the designers. As with the original Juiced, you can choose a driver to bet against, with a limit imposed for how much you can bet. Presumably imposed to stop you losing too much cash if it doesn't come off - If it does, though, you'll find yourself quickly accumulating enough cash to spec up your existing car, or add another to your garage.
Another point of difference in Juiced 2's canon is the whole concept of a racer having their own 'DNA'. What this amounts to is slightly less clever - it's just another term for their racing stats, such as their propensity to overtake, their speed and aggression and so on. In terms of how it affects you - that's slightly smarter. As you speed around the tracks, powersliding, cornering, boosting, drift-chaining and overtaking, the game keeps track of your actions and effectively 'evolves' your driver's personality for you. Over the course of playing the game, you'll end up with a graphical indicator of exactly how you've been driving. (Which is nice, but actually just a bunch of stats - thanks for trying though.) You can even upload your DNA for others to see what a lunatic you are behind the wheel, and vice versa - with the ability to use them as your offline crew-mates, which is a lovely touch.
Once you win races and tick off enough tasks, you get the chance to enter a 'promotion' event, which will allow you to jump to the next tier and unlock loads more events. But in order to actually race in the next league, you either have to buy a new car that's adequately specced, or apply a new tier of mods to your existing car. Divided into three levels of performance, level one is always available regardless, but in order to gain access to levels two and three the game throws further challenges into your path, such as maintaining a set speed around an entire lap, beating a demon driver or performing a lap within a time limit. These mini challenges on their own provide some teeth gnashing moments of one-more-go addiction, and go a long way to giving the game the personality it so desperately needs.