The essence of car modification is taking what you've got and making it better. It might be a puttering F-reg Nissan Sunny with a donut-sized hole in the exhaust, or it might be a super fast Subaru Impreza with a spoiler so big it blocks out the sun. Whatever. Car modding makes it better.
So it's appropriate that Juice Games' Juiced has been tweaked, tuned and thoroughly pimped in the six months since it was originally due to hit shelves. As the most high-profile casualty of the demise of publisher Acclaim, Juiced found itself in the unusual position of being rolled back into the development garage after it was finished.
In fact, Juiced Mk. 1 even got so far as the pages of the UK's videogames mags, where it scored pretty well. But in games development, as in car modding, an extra 6 months can be used to make what's already good even better.
Rescued by THQ, Juiced is now aiming for a May release date and, according to the developers at Warrington -based Juice Games, is now the street racer it was always supposed to be. The aesthetic differences hit you like a 60mph bumper to the forehead - the whole front end has been given a much-needed bodywork overhaul, and the menus are smarter, smoother, and less complicated. The whole thing used to look a little too candy-coloured, but that's been replaced with tones and attitudes more befitting the West Coast US tuning community at the heart of Juiced.
The visuals have received a similar amount of chamois leather-applied wax once you're into the game proper. Everything's cleaner, sharper, and altogether better looking.
But it's not just Juiced's bodywork that's had a tart up. Juice Games has been under the hood too, tweaking the handling system to make it more responsive and more enjoyable. The back ends of even the most underpowered cars used to slide out like geriatrics on an ice rink at the slightest tickle of the brake pedal. There's a greater sense of balance now. You can still rip huge powerslides like a pro or spin out like a punk, but it feels like you're in control. In addition, the previously ferocious opposition AI has been dragged back to a slightly more competitive level.
Another exciting aspect of Juiced's re-issue is that you'll finally be able to get your hands on the online mode that sounded so promising. You'll be able to take the cars you've created in the single-player game online and race other players for pink slips, and indulge in six-player Crew races where teamwork is as important as driving skills.
There's only one problem. Juiced Mk. 1's intro featuring female UK rap sensation Shystie and her amazing dancing mechanics ("Tits up, clutch down, pedal to the floor...") has been scrapped. It was so bad it was truly, truly brilliant, and we'll miss it.
We'll let Richard Badger, Juice Games' lead designer on Juiced, explain why this travesty was allowed to happen and tell us what else we can expect from the new, improved, and fully-modded street racer.
The whole Acclaim situation must have been extremely worrying for you, but did the company's demise offer any advantages for the further development of Juiced?
Richard Badger: Naturally we were extremely distressed when the seriousness of Acclaim's financial trouble became clear to us. Thankfully the quality of the game and the fact that it had been funded by a third party, Fund 4 Games, strengthened our position a little and meant that we didn't stand alone when it came to finding a new publisher. As you can expect there were many interested publishers. However, THQ were ahead of the field because of their unmatched enthusiasm.
To be honest the outcome could not have been better for us. We were delighted when THQ picked up the title. It's a major publisher with a view to building Juiced in to a successful franchise over the coming years. The icing on the cake was the opportunity to spend a further six months refining the existing game for a May 2005 launch.
The game has been tweaked a fair bit from the review code that was sent out last summer. Why did you decide to make changes to the game?
Richard Badger: Our project timescales with Acclaim were extremely tight. This pressure was compounded by Acclaim continually shaving weeks off our delivery date, as they became more and more anxious to release the game. In fact, during the development of the game we lost nearly 2 months from our original schedule, which in game development is an eternity.
As a result Juiced had a fair few rough edges and lacked polish here and there. Moreover the game had not been fully play tested, and some areas of the game needed some very serious attention, especially in the area of physics and game interface.
So, since we were presented with an opportunity to spend some time fine tuning and tweaking the game we naturally grabbed it with both hands.
Most games mags reviewed Juiced last year and it scored pretty well. How encouraging was that?
Richard Badger: We were of course extremely encouraged by the review scores, and there was no doubt in our minds that Juiced is a cool game. However, we knew the game would benefit from some additional polish. In addition every review had one or two negative points, which we were then able to address.
How nice was it to be able to address criticisms of the game after it had been reviewed?
Richard Badger: As far as I am aware this was a unique situation for a game developer. To be able to read reviews and then go back and fix the issues raised was really fantastic.
With the help of THQ we collated every review and preview worldwide and produced a table of the perceived strengths and weaknesses. We then arranged all the weaknesses in order of severity and set about creating a project plan to address as many of the weaknesses as possible in the given time.
One oft-mentioned problem with the first version of Juiced was that the handling was extremely twitchy. Have you made changes in this area?
Richard Badger: We have made some fantastic improvements in the area of handling. There was no doubt that some of the cars, especially the more powerful rear wheel drive cars, were twitchy and often quite frustrating to drive. We have now systematically analysed and balanced all 53 car physics model in the game. The results are simply staggering; all the cars are drivable, authentic and very rewarding.
There were also issues with the AI drivers, who seemed really tough. Have you addressed this problem?
Richard Badger: Yeah the AI was tough, and very aggressive. The AI cars were able to take corners much faster than the player's car. This was unfair and often very frustrating. Coupled with this, some quite clumsy 'catch-up' code meant that AI cars would then slow down on the straights allowing the player to catch them up. The resulting impression was that the AI was simply toying with you.
This problem has been completely solved now. The AI system is now completely fair and as a result the whole racing experience is now challenging, believable and exciting.
The behaviour of AI opponents is a thorny issue in driving games. How do you think Juiced's AI drivers compare to Gran Turismo's or, say, Project Gotham 2's?
Richard Badger: What's really cool in Juiced is that you get to meet each of the drivers in the game. Instead of being faceless AI bots the drivers in Juiced have personality, character strength and weaknesses. Being able to put a face to a driver adds a really authentic edge to the gameplay experience.
Also, your behaviour during the race will affect their respect for you, so if you choose to drive round smashing into their cars you will lose a little respect.
Another nice feature is the Di-Stress system. All AI drivers are subject to humanlike frailties. For example, if you drive close behind one of your opponents you will put the AI driver under pressure. As the pressure mounts the AI driver will become more and more stressed, which will eventually lead to mistakes.
Is the game structured differently?
Richard Badger: No. In essence the overall game structure remains unchanged. The problem lay more with the presentation and flow of information. In order to rectify these problems we set about streamlining the game flow and interface in the career mode, by removing some of the subtleties and unnecessary steps from the game. The upshot of this work is a much more intuitive interface and game flow.
Have you introduced any new game modes?
Richard Badger: Yes we have added a fantastic new 'pick-up-and-play' Arcade mode. In this new mode the player is presented with 11 series, each comprising 5 races, to race through. Each series is progressively more difficult than the previous. During the Arcade mode the player gets to drive every car featured in Juiced in every available location.
It's a really compelling and addictive game mode. Even better, if you complete this mode you'll unlock some more challenges, which we're keeping a secret for now!
We've been told Juiced's visuals have been tarted up - can you tell us about this?
Richard Badger: We have done some extensive 'tarting' on the visuals in Juiced. Foremost is the sense of speed. Using some camera trickery and motion blur we have drastically improved the sensation of speed in Juiced. At 100mph it feels scary. At 170Mph with full nitrous it's insane.
We have also addressed the lighting in each location improving the impression of realism. Textures and shapes have been improved and polished wherever possible. We've added more decals for each car, improved the car colours, changed the headlight textures, re-skinned the interface, added progressive scan support for consoles and Shader 3.0 enhancements to the PC version.
Collectively a whole host of small modifications have made a massive improvement to the game visuals.
The car modding section was very well received. Have you made any changes in this section of the game?
Richard Badger: Oh the whole the modding section is very similar, but we have made some cool additions. We have added some more after market brands such as NX and Vex Nitrous and Tein suspension systems. We have also added another 15 or so wheels to choose from.
The biggest addition to the modding section is the Tuning Shop. The tuning shop allows the player to quickly purchase a complete package of tuning mods for their car. The tuning shop analyses the available unlocked mods for a particular car and builds a list of mods packages which best suit the car.
We have also added modifiable horns to the cars, so the player select from a choice of different horn sounds to apply to a car. This is especially cool when racing online, for hassling your friends!
Are there any other tweaks - no matter how big or small - that you're especially pleased you were able to implement?
Richard Badger: The audio in the game has been completely overhauled, with the help of THQ we have re-sampled every car in the game and made extensive code changes to make best use of the samples. The result is just brilliant, they sound awesome.
We've added a whole new location to Juiced with 11 more routes to enjoy. Moreover we have added reversed point-to-point routes to all the 8 other locations. These additions take our unique route tally to just over 100.
We have also added three new cars to game, the Focus ZTS sedan, the Volkswagen Beetle and the soon to be classic Mazda RX8.
Juiced's online mode sounded promising but few had the chance to experience it last year. How excited are you that people will finally be able to play Juiced online?
Richard Badger: Having spent hours in the garage fine tuning and tweaking your car, Juiced gives you opportunity to show off your masterpiece online. Car modding is a very social scene and online gameplay will allow players to recreate this over the net.
Juiced has some truly unique online features, you can actually race cars from you single player careers game online. You can 'pinkslip' with other human players online and win their cars for your career mode. You can even race your AI crew driver online.
The Crew racing system could be Juiced's online killer app. Can you tell us more about it and explain why it is so important and unique?
Richard Badger: Okay, imagine this. You create an online 3-on-3 team race. It's a 6-car race, with 2 Human drivers and then two AI members from each of the player's crews, each driving cars that the players have modded themselves in the garage. This race is not just about who is the best driver; it's about who has the best cars and trained the best crew, and who can most effectively control their crew during the race.
Have you made any changes to the online component of the game? Any new additions?
Richard Badger: The online feature set was already very rich in Juiced. We have made a couple of additions, though. The sprint mode is now available online, which we believe will be very popular if you want to find out which car is the fastest in a straight line.
We have also made additions to the already extensive matchmaking criteria, allowing the player to create or find very specific races. For example if you want to find a game featuring only Toyota Supras, between 500 and 600 horsepower, racing only the Downtown circuit, you can in Juiced.
Last but by no means least we have added voice support for PC and PS2. Now you can spend hours in the lobby discussing the mods you have applied to your car, or better still you can mock your opponents as you pass them in a race.
Need for Speed Underground 2 sold amazingly well over Christmas and you'll be hitting shelves around the same time as Rockstar's Midnight Club 3. How do you see the status of the street racing genre at this moment, and would you have preferred to hit retail before these games?
Richard Badger: It's obvious to me that this genre of game is very popular, and to be honest I can't see that changing in the future. To collect, modify and personalise cars is always going to be loads of fun, especially when you can take them online and race them against your friends.
I feel that the driving experience in Juiced far surpasses the games you mention. Coupled with superior graphics and much more varied gameplay I am confident Juiced will be successful despite being launched after NFSU2 and close to Midnight Club.
Do you worry that people may have forgotten about Juiced?
Richard Badger: Not really. THQ will do a great job at getting Juiced back on everyone's radar in time for launch in May
We were dismayed to hear that Shystie's intro - a true cult legend in the making - had been cut. What's the deal?
Richard Badger: This deal is, it was crap! People either hated it, or laughed at it. It didn't really sit well with a game set on the West Coast of America.
Is this indicative of a change in attitude/style within Juiced? Have you replaced the musical or visual style with something different?
Richard Badger: Shystie was never really meant to be indicative the game's style attitude. The video was nothing more than a potential cross-promotional opportunity, which has long since passed.
The music in Juiced has been completely replaced and drastically improved. We now have 22 new licensed tracks, which are much more current and more in keeping with the west coast scene,
Coupled with the fact that the interface has been completely restyled to be much more exciting, with use of neon and vinyls for added realism and style.
Any plans to include the Shystie intro as an unlockable? Or an unlockable 'First Version' of the driving physics, or even the whole game?
Richard Badger: No, sadly not. There are a few cool things to unlock, but unluckily for you, no Shystie video.
As for unlocking the old game, we don't feel that would be great reward. After playing the new THQ version of Juiced you won't want to go back...
You've been through a lot with Juiced. How does the future look for the series now?
Richard Badger: It's been a 2 year rollercoaster ride, but isn't that always the way in game development? Right now things are looking really great, the game is in the final testing phase, it's playing great, and looking and sounding awesome.
Juiced will be available for PS2, Xbox and PC in May. THQ is the new publisher.