If you've never been to the "City of Angels" before there's honestly no way Midnight Club LA
is going to mean much more to you than a reminder of some landmark you saw from an episode of Baywatch or being able to point out the hotel from True Lies Arnie took his horse up an elevator in.
If you have, then before even playing the game you're going to realise Los Angeles is likely one of the best designed cities for illegal street racing. It's ridiculously large intertwining roads, barrier freeways, and seminal grid design already stand as the perfect race foundation, but when the very sport you're doing is based on breaking the rules, LA's hobo-clad alleyways, promenades and massive barren parks make for tantalising shortcuts.
It's also an ugly, ugly city meaning you're less likely to be distracted by architectural beauty (they have a garish Frank Gehry building there), removing any concern for not watching the road with attentiveness and smashing into one of the city's gruesome filth-coloured concrete walls.
Like most modern racing games, Midnight Club LA attempts to exude cool
. I say "attempt" because while the game is actually better at it than most, it still harbours an element of "try too hard". Replete with dialogue, fashion or comments that attempt
- on an aesthetic level - to speak to the audience the game is geared for without sounding (or seeming) condescending, Midnight Club LA comes across as the new kid in school; looking like a cool person but attempting to impress just that little bit too much. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, it's just often pitched across in the wrong way and in MCLA it keels off in the wrong direction from time to time.
Equally, MCLA maintains the modern
tradition of open-world racing (though the concept was arguably created by Rockstar San Diego), giving players an incredibly close-to-the-real-thing Los Angeles to speed through with countless options for reaching your destination (though many races rely on passing through Checkpoints, but more on this shortly).
There are numerous landmarks you'll likely recognise because of the Hollywood factor, while overall this compressed version of LA is incredibly easy to navigate because of the awesome map system which is cleverly tied into the game's presentation.
Whenever you pause the game to check your current status, available races and missions etc, the entire camera zooms out to an overhead view of the city at large. It's seamless and looks stunning, and reverses when you're done with your menu options and want to get back in the driver's seat. All of this is relative to the dynamic day/night system as well, so whatever time of day you're zooming back to your overhead map will maintain the correct lighting. Moreover, both within the map/menu system and in-game, the differences between various times of day/night (ie pitch black, sunrise, sunset etc) are significant beyond their initial cosmetic appeal - traversing roads at the height of darkness while maintaining the incredible speeds of the game can be beyond challenge. It really shifts the gameplay up considerably.
The last time I saw MCLA before being handed a review copy was well and truly before its release. At that time it was looking fairly impressive, but not a patch on how it turned out. I can't stress enough just how good the game looks. It's also important to point out that while series like Burnout and Need For Speed have equally followed Rockstar's open-world suit, the Midnight Club games have always maintained a signature look and feel, and that cross bears here more than ever before.
Tearing down the highly detailed streets of LA at night looks fantastic. Lights leave small trails as you swerve to and fro, while the sense of speed is elevated thanks to some cool effects that range from shifting the camera up alongside your vehicle when engaging nitrus to an almost tunnel-vision focus.
Overall the sense of speed is great, but it can be annoying when you're starting out from a static position and only want to cruise around slowly. Even light touches on the accelerator will relay a ridiculous amount of power under your car's hood, and you'll fight the controller as your tail-end slides out from under you. It's not a detriment to the core gameplay, but annoying nonetheless.
Cars are highly detailed and feature specular highlights based on real-world lighting within the game. Particle effects are equally awesome, and while you will most certainly smash your car at high speeds, there's no complete damage system here. You'll ding your ride up good and proper, but never so much you can't keep racing.
And that's one of the key points of both this game and the Midnight Club series as a whole – it's about maintaining that ultimate race-line with as much speed and control as possible. This is handled in conjunction with an awesome driving model and equally great level design. Rockstar San Diego have improved upon their previous mechanics ten-fold, but there are most definitely still elements of frustration to deal with.
Traffic AI, for example, is utterly blind. There's nothing more frustrating than coming to a giant T-intersection where, if this were Burnout Paradise, traffic AI would swerve or break to avoid
the ludicrously fast car hooning from the other direction, but in MCLA they just keep on driving Miss Daisy often resulting in race-altering collisions.
It's equally annoying because the way in which you wind up after said collision seems inconsistent. One race ago you might have clipped a car, light-pole or other and been able to keep everything steady and on course to win your respective race, this time around though, clipping anything might have turned you 90 to 180 degrees with rubberbanding enabling your opponent a ridiculous lead (you can equally rubberband back though).
This sort of gameplay is probably in place to keep races as challenging and edge-of-your-seat as possible, but in my opinion it negates any concept of truly skilful driving.
The only skill involved with rubberbanding in place then, is your ability to aggressively seek slip stream boosts and read traffic properly. Because of this, you're never guaranteed a win every time, which is consistent with the new focus on accessibility, but incredibly annoying to those of us who think we're pretty good behind the wheel.
So this time around, Midnight Club's focus has been moved towards making a product most people can just pick up and play, and regardless of coming first, progress through the game. It makes sense (especially because previous iterations in the series have been workhorses to master), but in opening up the approach Rockstar have taken away division for the overall game. So instead of skill, what's left to keep you powering through?
Customisation and racing my friend, customisation
Because you don't necessarily need to be the best driver on the block, you earn money for racing regardless, and doing so will give you access to various customisation options for the myriad of vehicles available within the game.
You can paint them whatever colour you like, add your own decals (layers and layers of decals), power up with new performance parts (both bought and unlocked) and pretty much make any vehicle you own, your own
One of the key things, from the outset, is despite the number of races available; all of LA is open for your driving perusal. So essentially your goal throughout is to build the fastest car to use to cruise through LA. AI drivers' cars will maintain relative ability to yours, so races are always going to remain up-in-the-air affairs, but beyond the cash you earn for competing there's also another currency earned in the form of Respect
There isn't really a story per se, but MCLA does have contextual encounters with various characters and your very own character has been somewhat fleshed out so you care about what you're doing each time you step on the accelerator. Rockstar could have very easily mistreated this portion of the game, but I'm glad to report they haven't (at least beyond the annoying ribbing that comes from other drivers as you race).
Race options range from Red Light contests (where you race from one red light to a landmark on the other side of town with whatever path in between as your course), to Checkpoint skirmishes that force you to follow a particular path in order to pass through (or at least near
) various checkpoints (these still seem out of place in an open-world racer to me).
Freeway races are also new additions as the game-world is pretty much bordered with freeways. Jump on these, flash your lights at a potential opponent and away you go (clearly with such dubious traffic AI though, these particular competitions are very, very tough).
Despite the overly balanced racing due to rubberbanding (in that everyone can keep up), competing is still an intense amount of fun, it's just like Mario Kart Wii, the potential for a race-end for you just before the finish line is higher than ever (chance
plays too big a role).
Thankfully the various race modes keep everything interesting with the likes of car delivery missions, smash 'em up missions (for douches who owe money), Circuit races (where you compete in a series around town) and more, while the bold can venture online and tackle other drivers who're likely infinitely better than them.
On top of the regular mix of competition is avoiding the police, or attempting to outrun them (of which successful evasion will result in more respect). You're given enough warning, and your opponents will react dynamically when they're around by refusing to race to start line, which is a nice touch.
Add even more real-world influenced activities such as being able to gamble on races and the like (all clearly in keeping with the fact everything you do in this game is essentially illegal
) and you have a pretty stout gaming product from a company who tend to buck the 'yearly update' trend of so many other suppliers.
Despite, in terms of gameplay, never leaving your vehicle, Rockstar San Diego have really crafted a living, robust world for the speed-demon in all of us, and if you can look past a few of the nagging issues mentioned earlier, there's a lot of fun to be had here. Midnight Club LA is a heady mix of various modes and real-world ideas (such as avoiding the police), coupled together with an incredible game-engine that oozes quality. The whole game looks stunning, and nailing that carrot-on-a-string race line is infinitely rewarding (it just might take you a while). I don't agree with the rubberbanding or the terrible traffic AI, but I do agree with the overall product; which is one of polish and forethought.
Racing fans and car lovers alike will have hours upon hours of fun with this.