Despite being regarded as a less than stellar launch, the PlayStation 2's lineup of SSX, Madden, and especially Midnight Club Street Racing was enough to capture my attention. Of the mentioned three, I spent the most amount of time with the first Midnight Club game, completing it and then going back every so often just to drive around recklessly. As a launch title, and back in 2000, it was an extremely impressive game. It had a decent recreation of New York City and I loved driving around it, spotting all of the various landmarks and architecture. Today, the series has evolved, as Midnight Club 3 moved the franchise into a setting featuring real cars with a plethora of licensed customization options.
This time around, the fourth Midnight Club game takes you to Los Angeles. As is typical with these kinds of games, your character arrives in the area and is greeted with less than love. You're given a cheap pile of heap to drive around and work on, until you've earned enough money and stature to purchase a better, more expensive car. It's the typical formula, so don't expect anything new.
Contrary to what I had thought, the Los Angeles you're thrown into isn't a very accurate depiction of the real thing. While you'll find that the most popular areas are somewhat accurate, the overall map isn't, which is a bit disappointing. But here's where Midnight Club's world shines…the map of L.A. is actually larger than all of the maps in Midnight Club 3 combined, and that's an astounding feat!
Returning for MC:LA are all of the customization options from the last game. Once again, you'll find yourself spending a good dose of time just toying around with the look of your car, by changing its ride height, widening the tires, shrinking the sidewall, increasing wheel size, painting your rims, changing body kit pieces, spoilers, hoods, window tint, car paint, and so much more. Nearly every customizable aspect has a brand attached to it too, so you rim guys will see everything from Volks to Works to BBS.
The list of cars isn't enormous, but it covers some of my favorites including the Audi R8, Ford GT, Aston Martin Vantage, Lamborghini Gallardo Spyder, Dodge Challenger SRT-8, Audi RS4, Nissan Skyline GT-R, and my own Nissan 350Z (unfortunately, it's the convertible variant and not the coupe). There are certainly an assortment of manufacturers missing, such as BMW, and having only three bikes is a bit shortended, but for the most part, MC:LA's offerings get the job done.
And while you may think, "well that all sounds peachy", so why the less than great score? Here are your answers…contrary to what you may have heard about Midnight Club: LA it isn't terribly hard. It's actually just incredibly frustrating; there are tons of stupid issues with the A.I. and the design of the game that robs you of wins. The first rule of racing games is that you never, ever implement rubberband A.I. as a means of making the game feel challenging.
If you're not familiar with the term "rubberband A.I.," simply put, it's when the artificial intelligence makes an impossible comeback, often towards the end of the race, as if it were propelled by hundreds more virtual horsepower, resulting in loss for you. Yes, it's essentially a form of the game cheating, and yes, you will find it here in game's harder races. And yes, it's extremely frustrating. And no, I'm not being slipstreamed when this happens, either.
Another issue with the A.I. is that it's seemingly invincible, try and ram them as much as you want, it'll do you little good. But if they tap you, you'll lose it. Try to return the favor and it's like hitting a brick wall; you'll have to be extremely aggressive if you want to crash the A.I., and it's not worth it at all. You see, the A.I. can also plow right through crashes and continue like nothing happened, while your car will get spun around multiple times, or perhaps even flip over, allowing opponents to overtake you. And even if the opposition does encounter a solid crash, it still won't be anywhere nearly as dramatic as your smallest ones.
Then there's my gripe with the navigating arrow. To put it bluntly, the arrow is obese and poorly drawn; half of the time you can't tell which direction its pointing to because it's such a chunky graphic with awkward lines. This in turn leaves me to rely on the map to see where my next turn is, but that becomes a problem because taking your eyes off the road in MC:LA is not a good thing. Ah! But wait! During races, checkpoints have flashing indicators telling you which direction the next one is, giving you a heads-up for the next turn. Unfortunately, the little feature would've been useful had it been implemented correctly. You see, someone at Rockstar had the brilliant idea of making the indicators yellow. And you know what else is yellow? The smoke markers at every checkpoint. Because these indicators are the same color and placed inside the smoke markers, they are virtually impossible to distinguish from a distance, making them pointless.
Playing Midnight Club: LA leaves me with nothing but mixed emotions; on one hand, I love games like this, and MC:LA fills the need. On the other hand, the game is riddled with some of the most amateurish and blatant issues I've ever seen. Believe it or not, despite all of that, I still found the game to be enjoyable, if only for my enjoyment of open-ended racers where customization is high.
There is a damage model in MC:LA, but it is purely aesthetic. Previously, we were told that you will not be able to level a car to the point of immobilizing it, but for the final game that isn't true. While you can't shred your car like you can in Burnout, if you take enough damage, you'll damage out and lose a race. And with every race completed, you can opt to perform a proper repair of the car, or do a quick-fix. The quick-fix doesn't properly repair the car, as replaced panels will not be painted, so you're going to have one fugly looking car. Regardless, performing the quick-fix does cure the car's looks.
Races are split up into different race types and difficulties; the darker the color of the icon, the harder the race – Green is easy, Red is hard. Naturally, harder races reward you with more of everything, but at the expense of having to restart very often. Through progression you'll unlock more, but it was nice of Rockstar to at least allow us to test drive much of the game's locked vehicles. When you're not playing through the career, you can take the game immediately online, much like Burnout or Test Drive, and have some fun with 15 others. You'll come to realize that online matches definitely make up a lot of the game's appeal and value.
Visually, an assortment of technical issues exist too. Sometimes the framerate bogs hard, and occasionally the game can freeze for a split-second – it usually doesn't happen when you're in the middle of a race, but it does happen, regardless. There are also some problems with the lighting randomly lighting up and darkening over certain objects. In all honesty, these problems don't hurt the experience much, as they don't happen nearly often enough, but they are there.
On that note, the plus side of things is that this is a good looking game. It renders a 720p picture, but can upscale to 1080p, and the framerate hovers just around 30. Car detail is definitely a plus, and because I know the car inside-out, I specifically chose the 350Z as the car to nit-pick, and I couldn't find any glaring issues with the design – not even the fully modeled interior. Unlike Test Drive Unlimited, there were no inconsistencies found with MC:LA's 350Z, and I'm willing to bet that the other cars were given that same kind of attention. With bodies that are made up of 100,000 polygons, there are some really gorgeous looking cars to see in the game. Furthermore, nice backgrounds and a lack of any significant pop-up makes things even better.
The audio is, perhaps, Midnight Club's best technical achievement. When I was busy messing around with the 350Z and trying to nit-pick its in-game model, I noticed something…"hey! They got the engine and exhaust note down perfect!" The 350Z in the game sounds exactly like any other stock 2003-06 350Z, and I liked hearing that. Again, I can't vouch for the details of the other cars, but if it was done for the Z, then it most certainly was done for the other cars too. Now, as far as soundtracks go, I won't even bother to mention that I'm not fond of MC:LA's tracks…wait, I think I just did. Regardless, what I will bother to mention is that the game supports custom soundtracks! So simply bring up the XMB, scroll to your music playlist and hit play. My one complaint here is that your music plays too loud (even when turned down via PS3), and it drowns out the dialogue of the game (even if that's up all the way). Still, proper car sounds and custom soundtracks make for a nearly perfect recipe.
All in all, Midnight Club: Los Angeles does disappoint a bit, but it's still a fun game that fans of the franchise should be able to enjoy. After all is said and done, I still find myself coming back to the game, because I fall into the fanbase. The game is frustrating, the rubberband A.I. does suck, and there are some unusually poor design choices, but with a large city, good customization, good visuals, terrific audio, and solid online gameplay, Midnight Club is still worth taking a look at.