Have you ever been on that perfect first date where everything seems new and wonderful and the future seems filled with dreamy possibilities? The date ends at just the right moment and leaves you invigorated and thinking of that person long after the fact. That night you have the best sleep of your life and the next day the birds are out in full force chirping away and everything in the world seems right and fine and good… And then you have a second date and you wonder what new bread of creature spawned this thing and how you can send it back to its maker pronto? Yeah, we've all been there. And Juiced, for all its wonderful possibilities, feels an awful lot like that as well.
Juiced is a game that almost didn't see the light of day. Originally set to be published by Acclaim, the game's future was in serious doubt after the company closed its doors. THQ managed to snag the publishing rights to it however and the rest is history. Previously, a demo had been released by Acclaim, along with customization figures numbering in the trillions, that showed a game rife with possibilities but also a floaty physics' engine that would have to be looked into prior to release. In the meantime though, EA released its much anticipated Need For Speed: Underground 2, Namco released Street Racing Syndicate and Rockstar put out Midnight Club 3. Where Juiced may have had a fighting chance early on due to market exclusivity, being released after all those solid titles would bring endless scrutiny down upon it. Yes, Juiced does bring a few new concepts to the table and hopefully, other developers will take note, but in the end, the game fails miserably where it matters most; the racing itself.
As with all other street racing games of late, this one comes with the same old tired story we've seen at least 3 other times in the past year. When will developers actually put a little effort into wrapping a street racing game into a logical and plausible story? The Fast and the Furious (and even 2 Fast 2 Furious) may not have been Pulitzer Prize winning creations, but they had depth and enough going on to keep your attention. This is not aimed at Juiced exclusively, but since the game was all but ready to be mass produced by Acclaim at the time of its demise, I wonder what was done to it while we waited for THQ to release it. Surely the "story" could have been scrapped in favor of something, anything, better than the typical "new racer wants to make a name for himself" garbage we've had to endure time and again. On the flip side, the developers did try to at least bring life to the game by making your rivals feel like real people. You will often hear from each one during and after a race as well as when you initiate a challenge/wager. These are, for the most part, voiced appropriately and well motion captured, but unfortunately, these get repetitive quickly and will soon drive you to the brink of insanity and back.
As mentioned, when you first begin your "Juiced Journey", you will be enamored by it. This game does try to distinguish itself from the pact by presenting things in a much different way. Yes, you will find the mandatory garage somewhere in there where you will be able to upgrade your car (with real world after market parts) or choose to upgrade in kits/packages which takes a little bit of the fun away but which is infinitely quicker. Much like Forza, Juiced keeps track of the "class" of your cars and restricts you from making a car that will completely blow-out your competition. You'll also be able to customize the look of your car (although body kits are nowhere near as extensive as in NFSU2 or MC3) and paint your car to you liking. It must be frankly stated that Juiced does contain, hands down, the greatest paint schemes of all racing games ever made. The idea is so simple that I'm surprised no one else has done it. Juiced allows you to use all 3 paint types on your car at once (Base, Metallic & Pearlescent) letting you create a look/finish that is original and breathtaking. The decals and vinyls are limited though and not much fun to play around with.
The real hub of the single player career mode is the calendar screen which shows you at a glance all the upcoming events as well as the ones you can participate in. Most events have level/class caps, specific entry conditions or are simply sponsored by a rival gang that you haven't impressed enough yet. On "free" days you can create your own events, with your own conditions and invite other gangs to come race on your terms. This is a nice additions and a quick way to gain respect and money but like the entire calendar concept, it feels repetitious very early on and more of a chore than anything else. Betting against rivals before each race does at least give you some incentive to keep going, but the penalties for hitting other cars (or being hit by them - the game doesn't seem to distinguish between the two) are hefty in both coin and respect lost. The career mode basically follows this pattern: check calendar, race, win parts, get respect, upgrade car, check calendar, create event, win cash, get respect, upgrade car, check calendar, etc. It may all seem new at first because the interface is different, but you'll soon realize how limiting it is and how quickly it gets old.
A much better single player mode is Arcade in which you are given a certain car on a certain track and must race to beat your opponents. This may sound basic, and it is, but for some reason it is much more fun to play through than the dreary career mode. The final single player mode (Custom Race) allows you to take any unlocked car onto any unlocked track (don't kid yourself though, when you factor in day/night settings, weather and mirror options, there aren't that many) for a race. In the end, all the single player games boil down to unlocking the 50 or so cars in the game (you won't even have to wait that long for the best ones) and customizing them a bit before taking them out for a spin. There's no real reason to keep playing alone after that.
The game engine, which walks a very narrow line between simulation and arcade racer, generally succeeds at what it sets out to do. The cars feel weighty and seem to use real-world physics. What you won't find however, is any thrill to the whole affair. There is never any sense of speed established and this may be more the fault of the sparse and boring tracks than the game engine itself. As it is, the game seems very ho-hum and monotonous and even hitting the nitro on a wet and rainy day doesn't seem to spark any life into the proceedings. The A.I. seems aggressive at first, which is nice, but when you realize that you can be penalized for being hit (and not just hitting others) you tend to want to keep A.I. cars as far away from you as possible (in corners and in general).
As mentioned, the tracks feel lifeless. The graphic quality may be high (with very nice rain effects) and the game engine constant, but this doesn't make up for tracks that are bare and cities that are stark and empty. Every other street racing game out this year has given us living, breathing cities to race in. Juiced fails miserably for the simple reason that it doesn't even try. The cars on the other hand are well detailed, clean and sharp to look at (and the paint does looks amazing) but the lack of body options, decals & vinyls really hurts. The game also seems to have this day-glow shine to it under various in-game lighting conditions that make everything seem a little clinical in detail.
On a positive note; playing races on Xbox Live is almost completely lag free under any circumstance (with up to 6 players). Unfortunately, the type of racing that Juiced inspires will leave you feeling like everyone in the Xbox community is cheating and/or out to get you. Pink Slip races may be fine among friends where you are aware of various skills, cars used, time invested in the game and possibility of rematches. But on Live, Pink Slip races are the worst idea ever. And the fact that refusing a Pink Slip Challenge affects your "reputation" should have been taken out altogether. Live does allow you to race Custom Races or Career races, but be aware that cars lost in Career Races online remove the car from your offline career as well.
On a single TV (or System Link), racing a friend is a lot more fun, but then again, it's also a little uninspired. Pedestrians, street traffic, etc would have helped greatly, but Juiced prefers to play all its races on closed circuit streets. Still, you can customize the type of race you'd like (Circuit Races, Point-to-Point and Sprints) and have a fun time around the track until reality slips in and you decide to play any other game.
In the audio department, the game does try to inject personality into each rival, but some just flat out sound pathetic. And the pet names they give you? Gimme a break! The initial joy of hearing your rivals is also short-lived when you realize that they really don't have anything varied to tell you, ever, and after a while you'll be mashing the skip button to make the pain go away. The music is also a mixed bag, not because the audio isn't well handled (because the cars themselves sound great, but because the song selection runs the gamut between cool and cool-but-like-60-years-ago in the space of minutes). You will undoubtedly at some point or another stop and literally wonder if your Xbox is broken and has channeled some weird swing-show from the 70's baby, yeah. i.e. the music is varied and really not all that fitting in a street racing game.
Like I initially stated, Juiced plays like a dream when you first take it for a spin. You'll navigate the menus and career mode calendar and wonder why all games don't do things like this. You'll race a few races and feel like the game plays nice and tight. You'll start slowly upgrading your car and believe that the possibilities are endless. You'll call your grandmother to tell her how good this game is and then you'll call your mom and ask her set another place-mat for diner cuz daddy's got a brand new bag! But the next day, when you pop this one in again after you've had time to fantasize about it, you'll realize just how shallow and disappointing it is. And yes, you'll wonder what new bread of creature spawned this thing and how you can send it back to its maker pronto? At the very least, give it a rent to see what it's all about.