Midnight Club: Los Angeles

   25/10/2008 at 12:10       Phil May       6 COMMENTS. - Score 4/5
This ain't no country club

Several times while playing this over the last couple of nights, I've had people on my friends lists figuratively shaking their heads in disgust at me. In a week when the mighty Fable II has been released, accompanied by the equally mighty Far Cry 2 and the surprisingly well received Dead Space, it might seem like an odd decision to spend quality time with a racer like Midnight Club L.A.

Thing is, I've got a confession to make. I love games like this. I've also seen The Fast and the Furious (the original Vin Diesel-starring one, not the ridiculous comic-book sequels) more times than is strictly necessary to maintain an air of aloof gamer coolness. But I don't care, and poo poo to those on my friends list who kept bombarding me with messages saying "Midnight Club LOL" because it's actually a stonkingly good game, unfortunately released in a packed week full of triple A titles that have been hotly anticipated.

Midnight Club 3 was mildly disappointing, concentrating far too much on bling and car customisation and neglecting the race side of things. Midnight Club L.A redresses the balance. Sure there are still those tedious car customisation bits (though this time there's a distinct emphasis on car performance rather than visual appearance, which is a good move) but the game feels a lot more pure than its predecessor, essentially giving the player a raw racing experience with as much challenge as possible rather than trying to be overtly showy.

But it's not ugly, in fact it's a stunning game to look at and see in motion. As soon as you navigate your way through the menus to find the "Camera Shake Off" option, you'll see just how blisteringly silky smooth it runs, and how eye-wateringly fast the action gets.

Gone in 60 microseconds

Rockstar San Diego has obviously done a fantastic job of rendering their locale quite nicely. The game's slickly presented, with a real-time zooming map representing the roadscape you'll be laying down fat stripes of rubber on. You don't really need to know the storyline in the game, just pick and choose any of the usual clichés of the young upstart driver who's "been away for a while" but is back to try and put his stamp on the underground street racing scene in L.A.

Naturally you'll start off in time honoured fashion with a tiddly budget so you can buy an old junker and slowly start to use your skills and cunning to cherry pick the right races for your car's class. Win a few and you'll start to scrape together enough cash to begin strategically balancing between hotting up your current ride, or trading it in to pick out something new.

Midnight Club L.A is pretty tough and uncompromising and does not shower you with cash at first, so each and every new ride or major upgrade are hard fought for. Not least of all because the game's opponent AI is absolutely bloody top notch meaning that the slightest twitch of the wheel in the wrong direction, or the inevitable lapse in concentration caused by "Racing Game Itchy Nose Syndrome" (we've all been there, right?) and before you know it, you're nose to nose with oncoming traffic, spinning out of control and rapidly losing ground.

Strangely though, it's quite easy to claw back from a crash and still grab a few dollars in prize money. There are times when one mistake will cost you the race, sure, but once you start to learn the vast sprawling LA map, you'll find that there's more than one route to the finish line and you might just be able to use "the knowledge" to get the drop on your opponents.

The game's core engine seems to be even more detailed than the sort of sandbox environment we'd expect from Rockstar. Without the need to muck around outside the car (the only time you'll leave your vehicle is when it's in the garage being worked on) the developers have stuffed as much detail into the game as possible. There seem to be thousands of vehicles tootling around, minding their own business and just getting on with the everyday task of getting from A to B - not good news when you're going to be screaming through the traffic at speeds in excess of 100 mph. What's even more impressive is that the whole thing has a day-to-night cycle so you can't even moan that you're left entirely in the dark, there are plenty of opportunities for day racing and that's definitely welcome.

Vehicles are all properly licensed cars rather than the made-up look-alikes you remember from Midnight Club II and there's plenty to choose from ranging from classic American muscle cars, European hot hatches through to slick Japanese racers, each with their own visual and performance upgrades.

Drift King 2008

The game's handling model feels quite twitchy and arcade-like in comparison to something like the overblown sponge-suspensioned physics model you get in vehicles in GTA but this does suit the frenetic action. There is force feedback wheel support but it's virtually impossible to get anywhere with the wheel. This is definitely a game that screams out for fast thumbs on a joypad instead.

There's still a lot of satisfaction to be had when handbraking round a fast corner narrowly missing pedestrian's toes as you take a risky line and cut into the lead. Risk reward is definitely what this game is about and you will eventually find a vehicle that suits your style of driving. Of course, risky driving won't go unnoticed, and Midnight Club LA features some of the most dogged members of the law enforcement community yet seen in a game. Yup, cops - and cops that will stop at nothing to use real-world methods to bring you to a shuddering halt, from boxing you in to ramming you into crash barriers. If they stop you, you'll be fined and ticketed and lose a little bit of your street respect. Outrun them though and your stock with the underground street racing fraternity will rise, which can only be a good thing.

During the game, new missions pop up automatically on the vast in-game map, but you will also be contacted by shady characters from the racing scene who want to pit their machines against yours. Sometimes races take the form of series, with a minimum number of wins being required to triumph. Other challenges are timed, and you will constantly be called on to defend your record times for stretches of road as other AI racers chip away at them. It's certainly a game that contains plenty of content so you won't be left cruising around with nothing to do (though it's tempting to do just that at times because the game's so damned pretty).

Of course that's just the single player side of things. Midnight Club L.A has a fully featured set of online modes, so if you get fed up of being trounced by the AI opposition you can dive online and be trounced by yap-jawed 12 year old yank kids instead.

In essence, this is a game that will be sadly neglected by a lot of gamers who will pass it up in favour of a cutesy Brit RPG or a couple of pretty FPS games. But there's a few of us out there who will knowingly tip each other a wink because we're playing something fantastic here and now rather than waiting for its inevitable downward spiral into the bargain bins. When it gets there though I would strongly urge you to pick it up as it's a polished and effortlessly cool street racing game that puts EA's recent Need for Speed efforts firmly in the shade and ramps up the standard for others to follow.

It might be tough and frustrating for some players but it's furiously addictive and for those of us who relish an arcade racer that doesn't baby you, even in the initial stages, it's an essential purchase.
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