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Midnight Club Los Angeles

Score: 89%
ESRB: Teen
Publisher: Rockstar Games
Developer: Rockstar San Diego
Media: DVD/1
Players: 1 - 16
Genre: Racing/ Racing (Arcade)/ Mission-Based Driving

Graphics & Sound:

It seems like forever ago that we reviewed the original Midnight Club at the launch of PS2, but the emotions that game stirred are alive and well in Midnight Club: Los Angeles. Very little in the game formula has changed, but the scale and scope that impressed us way back then has only grown bigger and better.

Another memory I have is a waking dream, a daydream, that involved me imagining a game where I would drive around and everything would look real. Driving wasn't in the cards yet, this being set during my early teens, and the hot driving game at the time was Spy Hunter. The imagination and desire that lots of us had back then has been fully realized in games like Midnight Club: Los Angeles. The entire city of L.A. is mapped out in loving detail and recreated here, not just for exploration but for interaction. Destructible environments add to the realism as you drive through bus stops, overturn magazine stands, and watch pedestrians scramble to get out of your way. The true racing fans know that pulled-in-tight is the only camera angle worth using, but if you can't stop looking at your car there are plenty of other views. One camera angle puts you in the driver's seat and shows off all the customization you can do inside the vehicle.

The options for tweaking your ride are immense. Branded parts and Rockstar's signature creations are available for each ride, although not everything can be accessed in the beginning. Through some skilled racing, you can unlock upgrades and vehicles unavailable at first. There are even community boards that will "Rate My Ride" through Rockstar's online Social Club feature. Browsing the list of hot posted vehicles, it is apparent that dedicated fans are already well underway with their tweaking of rides in the game. The DUB brand is back, but as one-of-many rather than the dominant name. The other staple of Midnight Club: Los Angeles for some time is the music. Switching between songs and genres is accomplished with ease and there is something for every taste. The bands aren't all top-shelf, but they all sound determined. Some of the bigger acts include Ozomatli, Beck, Bloc Party, Chemical Brothers, Disturbed, NIN, and Snoop Dogg. Even from this short list, it's easy to tell that every musical taste can be satisfied. The only disappointment is the fact that a personal musical library can't be selected.


Gameplay:

Street racing is so dangerous, it should be illegal. Wait, it is? Okay, now this all makes much more sense... We shudder to think that Rockstar is training a generation of young people to drive insanely fast throughout the city of Los Angeles, but Midnight Club: Los Angeles is a nice simulator for some action along these lines. My time in the city in real life mostly included foot-traffic around downtown and some easy drives in Orange County and Rancho Cucamonga, so it's not like I've earned my stripes on the L.A. streets. Midnight Club: Los Angeles puts you into the heart of the city, and the hills, and the beach... as a racer trying to make his mark. The possibilities are virtually endless, a Rockstar specialty after all. The storyline is pat and not worth spending much time on, since it just revolves around the idea of an up-and-coming racer battling it out on the streets of L.A. for asphalt supremacy.

There is a seamless quality to the game's modes that is almost too effective. You may not realize while cruising that there is anything else to do, although the game does help you by showing a few key sequences like launching a race by flashing your headlights at a designated opponent. Once the basic mechanics are explained, you are on your own to cruise L.A. or launch one of many special modes. Arcade Mode is included as a quick-play option for races you've unlocked in Career Mode. The ability to pop in and out of Career Mode makes it easy to experiment, including the option to test drive locked cars for fun, from your garage. Starting Career Mode is easy at first, just as getting into some online competition requires only a little bravery, but much skill. Moving through Career is accomplished by racing assigned cars through several different race formats. Freeway was our favorite, where you flash lights at a moving car and just keep rolling as the race begins. Moving through the busy L.A. traffic in real life is insane anyway, but blowing through in this game at speeds over 100 mph is about as close to a deathwish as you can have. Within Career, Ordered and Circuit races are the classic styles that have you chasing after checkpoints, but this time without that Rockstar signature "floating arrow." Instead, we now have a GPS and smoke-plume waypoints. Much like Freeway Races, there are racers that will immediately take off after you flash lights to challenge them, so you can race them to the starting point. Midnight Club: Los Angeles is a game that will please anyone with a short attention span and a high standard for action gameplay. Time Trial modes round out Career and if you like a track particularly well, you can save it to your favorites or use the Race Editor to roll it up with another segment you enjoyed into one giant track.

Also available in solo mode are special missions that offer greater risk and reward. Racing for a pink slip is a great opportunity, as long as you win. There are some nice cars on the road, after all. Delivery Missions just involve driving a set path through the city to a destination, and Payback Missions are like a destruction derby with nicer vehicles. Tournaments and Series Races work about like you'd think, but it's beautiful that there's no break in the action to kick these races off. The only caveat, as mentioned before, is that the way you go about launching some of these special races isn't always clear. Once you build a few contacts within the game, you'll be able to launch races quickly and easily, according to how you'd like to play. Once online, you'll have the opportunity to play up to 15 other people, with the trade-off being that they'll pick the rules. These rules may include standard races, but more are like a variation on Capture the Flag, where you in the car are obliged to carry, hold, and collect flags to earn points and defeat opposing teams or individuals. Other similar modes are Stockpile, which builds in attempts to steal as many flags as possible for your personal collection, and Keepaway, where everyone rolls off to capture the flag and keep it from others players. Getting online is a great way to connect with players at your level or just jump in and try your hand at a race. The problems with online are that if you don't have the kind of souped-up rockets most players seem to possess, you'll be bringing up the rear most of the time. The best thing about Midnight Club: Los Angeles is its incredible ambition. Not every car you'd want is included here, but a good list of classic tuners and muscle cars is included here, more than enough to keep you very busy for some time. Even when you don't win, you earn some "rep" and some money that will help you along.


Difficulty:

Obstacles to progress are everywhere in Midnight Club: Los Angeles. Learning to read the streets, your GPS, and the opponents racing against you is a must. At first, only one of these consistently happens but soon you'll find yourself jogging the wheel intuitively in response to a change in the GPS readout. The best way to win is to learn cut-throughs and secret areas that open up and shave seconds off your race. Following the leader for a few races will teach you shortcuts, or you can just explore on your own in Cruise Mode. The transition from day to night brings an entirely new set of challenges. Cars on the road are actually easier to spot at night, but the buildings and landmarks mostly fade away. Slamming into a building or anything solid is a surefire way to be stopped in your tracks, along with a Burnout style of slo-mo crash. You can recover and continue, but unless you had an impressive lead you'll almost certainly be bringing up the rear after a big accident. Special weapons help to even the odds, and dirty driving will also get you pretty far. Especially on the freeway, there's nothing like nudging your opponent up an exit ramp or into the path of oncoming traffic... The dirty driving will unfortunately call another kind of heat down on you. Cops are a menace, and if you flaunt the law with them around you'll face a ticket or jail. Anything can be paid off, but those long getaway chases will build up hefty fines. Hiding or avoiding police once they are onto you is nearly impossible, which does sometimes add frustration. The bigger frustration is how hard you'll work to build up your garage, but some handy Pink Slip races help you get your hands on rides quickly, either to customize or trade in. The fastest rides on the road, exotic vehicles and motorcycles, are predictably the least comfortable in the handling department. Signing up to drive one of these babies means you'll be spending some time eating asphalt, but the speed boost is well worth it.

Game Mechanics:

There aren't many people that would fall in love with the control provided by the stock Xbox 360 controller, when it comes to a racing game. The left stick that controls steering is always too sensitive or too firm, even with adjustments. Throttling or braking is handled on the front triggers, always our preferred layout. Sometimes the control feels wonky; the reality is that you've hit a wall (figuratively) with your vehicle and need to upgrade it or buy something nicer. The irony is that the higher-end vehicles are even more difficult to control well, and it always comes down to that left stick. Controlling camera on the right stick to display behind your vehicle and side-to-side is good placement, as is the D-pad as the jukebox switcher and the front shoulder buttons for triggering special abilities or changing perspective. The special abilities come in handy during the multiplayer, if the host has enabled them. Agro, Zone, EMP, and Roar help you get through some sticky places and disable your opponents' cars in any setting. All are unlocked early in Career Mode and require that you drive "clean." Not hitting other cars seems like obvious advice, but when the penalty for hitting cars at low-medium speed isn't severe, you'll worry less. Catching air from a leading car's spoiler will charge your car's turbo boost, very handy for reaching the goal on time. The ease with which Midnight Club: Los Angeles places you online and matches you with players is impressive. The process of initiating races quickly, setting rules, and seeing players join makes going online fun. Many games with online community components still haven't built their audience. Chalk it up to tenure, but Midnight Club: Los Angeles already seems to have a very active online community.

Your incentive to buy this will depend on whether you like good racing games and want something challenging, funny, and incredibly well designed. The problem is that the entire Midnight Club idea has played itself out a few times too many. Copycat games are out there, or games that include similar driving segments. The Rockstar stamp on Midnight Club: Los Angeles means you can expect a deep game that rewards core racers as much as casual gamers. The Social Club feature is implemented very well, including an easy setup that automatically pulls your Gamertag and syncs your online profile with what is being saved for posterity on your Xbox 360. Benefits of the club are actually quite practical, since members have the chance to earn special vehicles not otherwise available. With all the good marks, it remains true that the Midnight Club formula hasn't moved much toward the side of transformation. Improvements have been incremental over the years, but this is still one of the best Arcade racers available, hands-down. It will be interesting to see how players react once there are three slammin' racers sitting on shelves together, with Midnight Club: Los Angeles competing against Need For Speed: Undercover and Burnout Paradise. Gamers looking for innovation may find Midnight Club: Los Angeles somewhat flat, but there's no denying the joy of cruising online and jumping into races against human opponents on Live or working your way slowly up the ladder in Career Mode. Burnout may have an edge in its pure fun factor, and Need For Speed appears to be focusing heavily on story and mood in its newest installment, but Midnight Club: Los Angeles will at least go down as the deepest in the series and possibly the deepest racer yet on the system.


-Fridtjof, GameVortex Communications
AKA Matt Paddock

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