Time for a new instalment in the Juiced series, which comes with a brand new name. No, Hot Import Nights does not refer to an evening in with a region 1 DVD and the central heating turned up, as you'll probably know if you're an American and/or fan of street racing. In fact, HIN refers to a street racing show which tours the US on a regular basis.
It's all about screamingly loud music, extensively modded cars and extremely shapely ladies, many of whom look like they've been modded themselves. In short, Juiced 2 is a big, brash arcade racer, all flashing lights and loud noises and brightly coloured cars skittering about the place like someone's just upended a tin of Quality Street. At a rave.
The idea, as project lead Richard Badger explains, was to capture the concert atmosphere of HIN events. In each location where you race - such as London, Paris, Rome, Tokyo, Sydney, or San Francisco - you'll find that the city centre has been closed off so you can scream around street corners with total freedom, with crowds lining up on either side to cheer you on.
You'll see plenty of famous landmarks, such as Piccadilly Circus and the London Eye, for example. They're not exactly laid out with regard to where they're positioned in real life, but that's not the point - Juiced is about the fantasy of street racing. "If you want to race a 1000-horsepower car through the Colosseum, this game enables you to do that," Badger explains.
Watch and learn
At the start of each race, you'll get to see the crowds, lights and girls in full effect - "This is bigtime - multi-million dollar events with 60,000 spectators." It's meant to make you feel like the race is being televised, and it is, to some extent, as "up to 1000" real-life spectators can watch you race online, pressing controller buttons to show their support or disgust in your driving skills which are translated as cheers or boos.
Once again, you can view other drivers' profiles, and once again, you can choose who you want to bet against. But there are also new features, such as the option to create a male or female avatar (with extensive options for hair colour, ear size and the like) who will represent you both online and offline.
There are two types of race to choose from. First up are circuit races, where you zoom around the track along with up to nine other opponents. By powersliding round corners you can recharge your nitrous bar, then use it to edge past your rivals. There's a picture-in-picture window now, so you can receive messages from other drivers and see how they react when you slam them into the edge of the track and zoom on by.
Then there are the drift races, which Badger appears to be most proud of. "I think we've completely nailed drifting - we've got the player feeling like he's the best driver in the world," he says.
"In real life drifting is almost impossible; I've tried it, and it's really hard. Our drift model makes the player feel like he's great. Remember SEGA Rally in the arcade? You felt like you were the greatest rally driver, and capturing that feeling was part of our ethos. I think we've nailed that, more so than any other game."
There are specially designed tracks for drifting, complete with plenty of narrow sections and tight corners, and you score points according to how long you manage to drift for. You can chain drifts together too for extra points. There are plenty of modes to choose from, such as Drift King, where you have to score more points than all your rivals, and Drift Obliterator - anyone who fails to score at least 50.000 points during a lap gets eliminated.
Gears of bore
But although there's a level of skill involved with drifting, Juiced 2 is all about arcade racing action at its core. "When it comes to the handling of the car, the game is really accessible," says Badger.
"We want the game to be arcade and as much fun as possible - we don't want to bog people down with worrying about whether their gear ratios are slightly wrong. The tuning's there, but we've abstracted all the complexity."
Where you will find a great deal of complexity, however, is in the section of the game where you get to mod your car. There are loads more options this time around, with more than 300 licensed parts and 2000 decals and vinyls to choose from - providing you've unlocked them and earned the money to pay for them, of course.
You can now change the lights on your car, add tinted windows or select the wheel size. When it comes to paint effects, old favourites like pearlescent are back, but you can also go for new styles such as a matte finish, flake paint or thin films, and decals can be resized and positioned exactly where you want.
How about some Lamborghini-style doors, a new set of seats or a spankier steering wheel? Not to mention new hoods, mirrors, spoilers, exhausts, bumpers and rims... And don't forget to personalise your numberplate with your name and country of origin. There's no range of Magic Trees to choose from, sadly, but there are plenty of other options to be going on with.
"The visual modding is no longer a unique selling point because a lot of games do it," admits Badger. "But it's absolutely core to what Juiced is about - modifying cars and showing them off. We've made it better, more accessible, easy, fun, fast... You can create works of art."
Show your stuff
As Badger points out, there's not much point going to all this trouble if no one's going to see your creation. Which is why you can race your cars online, again with up to nine other drivers. You can compete for pink slips, or put cars you've modded and decal sets you've designed up for sale.
It's not just about creating a car that looks unique, though. Juiced 2 includes a new Driver DNA feature, where every move you pull off is recorded and used to create a profile of your driving style. So whether you're a reckless and dangerous type or a clinical driver who takes every corner perfectly, that data will be stored.
You can then upload your Driver DNA profile and download other people's, in the form of a ghost car. But unlike traditional ghosts, the car you've downloaded won't follow the same line every time - it will behave differently, but always in the style of the relevant Driver DNA. It's designed to be a good way to learn, for example, how your friends drive and practice how to beat them, and you can also use their Driver DNA profiles for your offline crew mates.
Features like 10-player online races and downloadable Driver DNA will only be available for the PC, Xbox 360 and PS3 versions, but the other games will have unique features. Juiced 2 DS will make use of the handheld's dual screens, and the PSP and PS2 games will feature original track content.
That makes six versions of Juiced 2 in all, but no Wii game. Why not? "If I was doing a Juiced on the Wii, I would look at what the Wii's all about," says Badger. "For example, I don't want to play Need for Speed: Carbon on the Wii, though I'll happily play it on PS3 or 360. For the Wii version, I'd want something different."
Judging by first impressions, Juiced 2 is definitely brasher and flashier than its predecessor. It's hard to imagine how they could have added any more options for modding your car - which, for some fans of the series, is what it's all about anyway. The addition of online pink slip betting should make for some exciting races, and the tracks look better designed and just generally more interesting than those in the previous game.
But so far, it's not possible to tell whether they've fixed the ingrained problems with the original game, such as a flawed gamble-and-reward system. And dealing with those problems is going to be key if this game has any chance of beating the Need for Speeds and Project Gothams of this world. Juiced 2: Hot Import Nights is due out this autumn, so hopefully we'll get a chance to go hands-on before then.
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