With Need For Speed Underground racing ahead for its fourth straight week of chart domination, and Criterion's critically acclaimed Burnout series now lost to EA and their marketing gurus, Acclaim's street racing credentials were in danger of evaporating this week, and who could blame them for giving up? EA could market a flaming tyre to chart success these days, and now own the most successful street racing title of the Christmas period (with PGR2 way down the listing) and one of the most revered games in the genre. How to respond?
Going deeper Underground
Well, if you're Acclaim, you start by dragging the team behind abandoned Rage-developed racer Lamborghini in from the wilderness. Second, you sign an exclusive global publishing agreement with them. Third, you, well, you get on the blower. "Juiced is not just another handsome racing game, it is a full extension of the culture that embodies street racing," says Acclaim CEO Rod Cousens of the publisher's new charge, in development at Juice Games. "Today's racing enthusiast wants more than just the control of the steering wheel; they want to fully personalise their experience, from the drive-train to the decals."
That's right - Acclaim has a new street racing game. It's called Juiced. The folks behind it, Juice Games, are probably better known to you either as Digital Image Design (DID - a developer responsible for games like EF2000 back in the day) or Rage Warrington (the team who developed unreleased racing title Lamborghini for ill-fated Rage bosses). They came back together as Juice Games in January 2003, and since then they've been working on PS2, Xbox and PC-based street racer Juiced, which is due in autumn with a feature list that tops NFSU for attention to shiny, ten-thousand-dollar chrome rim detail.
Juiced aims to combine simulation and arcade style racing in the same way as titles like Need For Speed Underground and Project Gotham Racing 2, and then some. The game model is much more closely tied to "real street racing" (or at least The Fast And The Furious sort of view of it), with drivers linking together in racing crews, constantly personalising their cars with any of thousands of extras, and racing to gain notoriety, funds and above all respect.
Cruisin' for a crew
On the realism side, Juice Games is promising more than 50 licensed vehicles from global car manufacturers like Toyota, Honda, Nissan, Dodge, Ford, Mazda Mitsubishi, Pontiac, Holden, Volkswagen, Fiat, Renault, Subaru, Peugeot and Chevrolet, matched to hundreds of parts via a real-time modding system using authentic parts from the likes of A'PEXi, AEM, Bridgestone, Ferodo, Konig, Alpine and HKS. It also promises realistic physics and damage models.
But this is being billed as a mixture of realism and arcade values, and nothing underlines the mixing process better than the crew management features. In Juiced, players are expected to develop their cars by regularly adding new parts bought with race funds, but also to ally with former rivals and form what we can only assume are "bad-ass" crews. The game model is non-linear and focuses on character buildings and crew construction, with the player recruiting fellow drivers for his crew, managing them and managing the team's approach to rivals. It's all about how the street reacts to you, as studio manager Don Whiteford said in an interview with C&VG. "You can be absolutely minted in Juiced, but unless you have gained everyone's respect you'll never make it to top slot."
"Your relationships with other crews and what they think of you affects the way you choose to play the game," he said, fleshing out the crew system idea. "Winning races certainly gains respect, but if you trash other people's cars indiscriminately you'll find it increasingly tough to get along. What your opponents respect also varies from crew to crew... some rate individual performance, others team skills, some judge the way your car looks, others your choice of car. You'll be managing a team too, in addition to an increasing collection of cars modded to suit the many different styles of racing."
But although the crew building dynamic has the potential to change the way you play racing games to some extent, you still have to ask what makes Juiced so significant in a field of games like Project Gotham Racing 2, Midnight Club 2 and of course closest comparison Need For Speed Underground. Says Whiteford, "Driving games have long needed to break from the obvious formulaic approaches and the street racing and modding scene provides much needed opportunities to do this." It'll be interesting to see whether the consumer shares his view of the distinction come autumn 2004.
By which time of course, online gaming could be an even more significant draw than it already is. Juiced is already promising head-to-head racing, and although Whiteford points out that the studio no longer owns the Lamborghini source code, and that Juiced is based on an entirely new technology, his comment that "understanding previous mistakes meant that this time around we could do it better and make it work properly across different platforms" rings particularly significant. After all, Lamborghini was originally planned as a key component of Microsoft's Xbox Live push in Europe. Experience there will pay dividends in bringing Juiced to PS2 Online, Xbox Live and PC online gaming fans in one go. It's unlikely to benefit from the same level of online integration as PGR2 - thanks to the realities of multi-platform game development - but if Juice Games can implement the crew-gathering dynamic online then it could prove particularly important. Think Quake clans for street racing.
Early screenshots show that the developer means business. Although it falls short of the rain-soaked neon and multiple layers of detailed grime in NFSU and shines to a lesser degree than PGR2, cars are sharply tuned models with plenty of reflections and individual, customised components clearly visible. And although we don't yet know exactly where Juiced takes place, the sight of a big red suspension bridge in one screenshots and what are worryingly burning suburban homes in another suggests a big, American city playground.
New fastest lap?
Juice Games still has a bit of convincing to do with Juiced, but you've got to admire the desire to topple EA's now-dominant street racing franchise. From the get-go Juiced is a clear NFSU competitor, and if the mixture of crew and car management can recruit a competitive racing model and some varied online racing options, then Acclaim could well sneak into contention. The street racing championship just got a back marker.