I've never really been one for self-titled art. Musically, for example, it just confuses people. "Yes I was listening to that the other day." "What?" "Blur." "Yes but which?" "Just Blur." "Oh you mean the self-titled one." "Yep." "But Blur's rubbish." "What, the self-titled one?" "No." "The band?" "Stop that." But then I suppose it doesn't happen very often.
For example, it's not happening now: Juiced comes from similarly named Juice Games, but that's hardly confusing. Released after much fanfare, original publisher bankruptcy, tweaking and a second wave of fanfare to middling reviews in the summer of 2005, the console-and-PC version took a slightly different approach to the average car-collect-'em-up, by offering "a full extension of the culture that embodies street racing," as Rod Cousens, the former CEO of Acclaim said in January 2004. Which, in the real world, basically means it's a bit like The Fast & The Furious.
The same's true of the PSP version, except it's been dialled down in various areas. So, for example, you can still customise your car to perfection and then actually wager it against real people; it's just that those real people will need to be within Wi-Fi distance of you as there's no infrastructure multiplay. It's also been dialled up though, with two new areas (both of which consist of several new routes), eight new crews and over 100 new parts with which to customise your car.
The basic structure's the same, and it is fairly distinct. You start off in a rubbish car - like a Peugeot 206 or a Beetle or something - with no friends and one contact, a new girl who looks a bit like Teri Hatcher. So you hit the starting grid, and the first thing you're asked to do is place a bet. You can bet against any of the other starters; the better ones will wager more, but if you doubt yourself you can always target the one with rubbish stats - that way you can finish all but last and still make some money.
That said it's not very difficult to begin with, since you're still in a class 7 or 8 car and the rest of the field disappears into your rear-view fairly quickly. Which is handy, because you'll pick up respect points for finishing further and further ahead. Respect is a good barometer for progress: the more you have, the more rival crews will give you racing rights in their areas of town, and challenge you to one-off races and those pink-slip showdowns, which involve wagering your own pride and joy against theirs. There's genuine risk there, too, because with the exception of a few one-offs, you lose your wagers if you quit out, restart or sneakily rip the battery out of the PSP and pretend you were struck by lightning.
Before any of that of course you'll have to develop something worthy of your pride and joy, which you can do by customising. Juiced offers loads of combinations. As well adding your own crew decals, paintjobs and body-kits, you can improve performance by purchasing new tyres, turbos, nitrous systems and other parts, with better parts unlocked for purchase as you make progress with your current car. You need to be careful though, because investing heavily can move your car over the threshold into a new class and life's different there; it can be a bit like buying in lots of players and winning promotion in football and then finishing bottom the next season. The customisation system is deep but uncomplicated though, with room for experimentation with ride-height, suspension and so forth for those who want to muck about instead of just hoovering upgrades.
On a similar note, you'll also receive the occasional approach from a racer who wants to join your crew. It's good to recruit, because it opens doors later on, but the actual process of managing your fellow racers is a bit dull. The online aspect of the game, sadly absent of course, was designed to let you build crews out of real people; it's still semi-possible in ad-hoc modes, but it's up to you whether that's useful or not.
General car customisation, of course, is the other side of Juiced's gambling equation; you need to decide whether to invest in big wagers or big upgrades. At first this isn't much of a concern, since you have loads more cash than most people are wagering and the parts don't clean you out. But obviously it gets a bit tougher, and can all come crashing down on you. As Kristan noted in his review of the Xbox version, the main problem with the system of progression in Juiced is that if you suddenly find yourself battered by the opposition (which does happen after a while), it takes a lot of work to stand back up. That's sort of the problem with professional gambling: if you bet the farm and lose the farm, you don't get to try again; in fact, you're lucky if they'll let you come round and stroke the cows.
Meanwhile, the race-types included aren't staggeringly exciting. There are Circuit, Point to Point, Sprints (drag-races with manual gear-shifting; think Need For Speed Underground) and Show Offs (where the idea's to collect style points by daisychaining fancy J-turns and the like), but we've been here before. Even the newcomer, Eliminator, is the racing game equivalent of writing "Deathmatch" with a capital D - the person losing at the end of a lap is eliminated, as racing game fans knew before they read the description. Relay is a nice Wi-Fi addition, but, again, only you know whether ad-hoc Wi-Fi play is something you'll use.
This theme of feeling under-whelmed is a constant, really. Juiced feels like a well put-together, varied racing game, and the customisation and quest for cars is certainly moreish, but you look down your list of notes after a few hours playing it and you don't really know what to underline.
The new sections - Chinatown and Angel Raceway - are alright, if a bit repetitive. Career challenges, where the object is to embark on a career-mode game and fulfil certain criterion, like finishing 15 eliminator races in 30 days, are unlikely to provoke street parties. Ditto the arcade challenges. The new post-race CG sequences, where the new guy/girl/Teri Hatcher offers up some smack-talk or guidance, feel a bit contrived. I also can't think of any one track that stands out in my memory. Admittedly this does tend to happen with games that carve routes out of the same city layout, but I can usually still remember favourite sections - I can think of plenty in PGR3, for example, and I last played that six months ago. Something like Midnight Club, where you followed markers through an otherwise open city-space, might have been preferable - half-chancing it through potential shortcuts was brilliant and surprising, and there's nothing that really hits either note here. There are pluses, certainly, like the way rival crews challenge you, or alert you to options you might not have figured out organically - like the ability to set up your own races on blank calendar-days. But on the PSP, a system that's always forcing you to wait for things to load, you'd rather just do some racing.
All of this muted praise about the structure and progression would be rather moot, naturally, if the racing itself was brilliant. PGR3 had a weird sort of you-can-have-everything-immediately and don't-worry-about-losing structure to it, but the racing was fun. Ridge Racer 6 had about a million rubbish races in it to start with, but it was fun. Etc. Racing in Juiced, despite an excellent sensation of speed, is a punishing combination of sluggishness and twitchiness - using the analogue nub to find the middle ground between under- and over-steer is like trying to fish a thimble out of a bucket of treacle. Having to rely on sensible use of acceleration and braking rather than huge rollercoaster power-slides isn't an exact, exacting science like Gran Turismo; after a while it's just kind of dull.
None of this is helped by the game's rather weak visuals and audio. The cars merely look alright, even when they're glammed up, but the scuffs they show for the (almost negligible) damage system are blurred, the textures are often drab and naturally it's all rather low-res. Meanwhile the sound effects are a bit tinny and the soundtrack is sufferable and boring at turns, and you can't replace it with your own tunes.
The AI is fairly good, once things heat up - and certainly a fairer challenge than you'll find in certain other high-scoring PSP racers - while the inclusion of a one-on-one game-sharing option is also welcome. But I can't think of much beyond faint praise, much as I'm trying. Everything I type just reminds me of another "well, never mind". For example, talk of game-sharing reminds me that there's no PS2-PSP connectivity, despite the huge volume of content to work through - an OutRun2-style option to continue a game on the go could've driven it up a mark. Well, never mind.
Juiced: Eliminator definitely does things a bit differently to its rivals, but it's let down in too many departments. It's a content-packed, well-produced handheld game - they can put that on the box if they want - but the racing's a bit boring, the load-delays are too regular and too long, it's very punishing when you start getting somewhere, and the lack of online options hurts it (after all, pink-slip racing against the AI is basically just a new way of putting the boot in when you lose; you can always unlock cars in racing games). When you've played it for a few hours, you can see what it's doing and what it's going to do, and all that's really left is to prove yourself right. As much as it's not bad, I can't really think of any reason to recommend it unless you live in a house of blinged up PSP-owning petrolheads.
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