Review: Midnight Club: Los Angeles

Rockstar is primarily known to most gamers through its spectacular Grand Theft Auto games, but over the years it’s been simple to overlook another of its franchises that hasn’t been in the spotlight as often or as long. I’m talking about Midnight Club, Rockstar’s answer to the Need for Speed and Burnout series, and its most recent iteration, Midnight Club: Los Angeles. Midnight Club has always been a sort of GTA-lite, in that the games contain a open-world approach to the racing theme. It’s also the first entry out of the franchise to come to current-gen systems such as the PlayStation 3 and the Xbox 360. What’s presented is an impressive experience featuring a fantastic marriage of speed and fined-tuned controls. However, even though there are a myriad of finer points throughout the game, it isn’t without fault.

The game finds you in the shoes of one street racing newbie who is looking to earn some street cred by racing with various veterans around Los Angeles. Even though gamers are playing as a nondescript wannabe street racer, the game is gushing with personality. Upon the game’s start, you are given a choice between three cars. As you can imagine, they aren’t too aesthetically pleasing to begin with, but as a budding street racer you’ll get your chance to pimp out your ride soon enough. First on the agenda is earning cred points. To do so, you’ll have to hit the LA streets and compete in various races to prove you can hang with the big dogs. Cred points aid in opening up new races, new parts to install to your car, and new “hangouts” to conquer ordered races in.

To keep track of your racing endeavors, you’re armed with a T-Mobile Sidekick to keep in touch with your friends and fellow racers who want to issue challenges. From the Sidekick you can receive calls for prospective races and receive advice from members of your team. Aside from that, you’re free to roam the city as you please. However, if you grow tired of exploring, there’s always the GPS map to aid in your search for a race or two. It functions the same way as the GPS in Grand Theft Auto IV, except the minimap on the lower left of the screen only points you in the right direction rather than guiding you all the way there. You’re on your own in terms of making your way there, but the city is easy to navigate, so that’s no big issue.

Incorporating quite the interesting zoom-in of the map of Los Angeles, it’s easy to find races. Indicators on the map show a variety of targets that you can drive to. Mission objectives are displayed with a yellow background. Green icons on the map signify an easy race, yellow icons mean it’s going to be a bit tougher, and the orange icons mean that you’d better have some serious driving skills if you’re going to tackle the other racer.

This game is controller-tossing, just-at-the-end-of-the-race-and-I-crashed difficult, until you get used to it. For some races, you’ll need a near-flawless lap or two to even think about placing up above last place. You could easily fly up to first place within the beginning of a race, but unless you can drive without once running into a bumper, a car, or a street lamp, you won’t be at the forefront for long. Even if you do drive flawlessly, it’s not unheard of for opponents to run into you Burnout-style and do their best to run you off of the road and into the side of a building. While this provides a satisfying challenge for veteran Midnight Club gamers and racing fans alike, it can be a turn-off to newcomers to the franchise and the genre as a whole. It cam also impede progress through the game, which can get needlessly frustrating. After all, even though you are racing AI, you’d expect it to make mistakes…sometimes.

Moving at a breakneck pace, Midnight Club: Los Angeles provides a stunning simulation of pure, unadulterated speed. Cars handle beautifully. No need to stand on the brakes, and making turns is surprisingly fluid. Cruising through the city is a breeze, and it’s a breath of fresh air to be able to control a car in the ways you would expect to be able to in an arcade racer. Choosing a muscle or a tuner car actually makes a difference. Both handle in completely different ways from another. Adding another realistic layer to an arcade racer, once you get your hands on a muscle car, the experience completely changes. And if you’re tired of one of the three starter cars? That’s perfectly fine–there are options that open up throughout the game as you complete races, earn street cred, and become a more formidable racer. Once you’re satisfied with a model and type of car, the customization possibilities are endless. You can change every aspect of your car, including what’s under the hood as well as what is seen during races. A wide selection of colors, paint types, and car parts are available to turn your mundane ride into that worthy of a true street king. Granted, there isn’t a very large variety of cars, but to make up for the fact, you can also pick up some sweet bikes as well. Bikes are speed machines, but don’t think that choosing one will give you an edge over the AI.

It’s all well and good navigating famous Los Angeles streets such as Sunset Blvd., and many other names you’ll recognize, but you must remember that what you’re doing is, well, illegal. That’s why the police will attempt to pull you over at every turn. If you happen to get caught racing or doing anything even remotely illegal, you’ll initiate a chase with the police. Much like the GTA’s wanted system, the longer you’re involved in a chase, the longer police will track you relentlessly. Eventually, so many units will be dispatched that you will be lost in a sea of patrol cars who function much like kamikaze pilots–straight into your hood. You can, however, succumb to the man and pay off a ticket for your offenses. Honestly, that’s the quickest route to take if you don’t want to be locked into a potential half-hour chase scene. Unlike in Grand Theft Auto (most notably, IV), it is extremely difficult to lose the heat unless you choose serpentine roads over and over again to confuse them. This lends just a bit of a broken feel to the game, since it’s much less of a hassle to just pay a quick fine. The only real reward received for successfully evading police are achievements and street cred points, which are easily earned elsewhere.

If you’ve never been to Los Angeles before, it’s certain you’ll want to visit after playing. The streets are lovingly rendered and dotted with realistic scenery. In-game advertising is subtly sprinkled within (I noted a GameStop and a Virgin store), but is largely unobtrusive. The game even utilizes a night and day system to keep things feeling fresh and authentic. The cars are gorgeous pieces of work, and their paint jobs sparkle brilliantly under lights. While driving through the city, you’ll even encounter tons of residents who blithely make themselves scarce just as you believe you’re about to power through a crowd. It’s a gorgeous game that practically invites you to cruise the streets simply taking in the sights.

As any good driver knows, tunes are crucial to complete the experience, and this game delivers in full force. Featuring over 97 songs distributed through different genres, there’s music within to please even the most discerning ear. However, many songs are from lesser-known artists such as Santogold, MGMT, and Kudu (a few of my favorites), but after showcasing such talent in a game that will see much exposure, the bands involved couldn’t have asked for better placement. Driving techno, raunchy rap, and even hardcore rock is available. If you don’t like a song? It’s simple–just remove it from your playlist. You can change what plays by selecting a genre or letting each song play. I found the tracklist to be infectiously catchy, and began seeking out the soundtrack after only a couple hours of play.

Since much of the single player story runs rather thin on real story and high on mission-based racing, Rockstar has implemented online gameplay that provides more fun after you’ve exhausted solitary options. Racing with friends is a breeze via the T-Mobile Sidekick, and if that’s not your thing, you can snap photos of your sweet ride with the Rate My Ride feature. This submits your photos (and your car for purchase, if you so choose) to the online Midnight Club community to score. This is an interesting take on customizing rides, and an invitation to spend more time and hard-earned cash on tricking out rides that would otherwise be plain and blah.

Overall, Midnight Club: Los Angeles is arguably the best entry into the series. Cars handle exceptionally well, the city is rendered beautifully, and there is a wide selection of music to accompany you while you’re serving up beatdowns to opponents. While the difficult does provide a disparaging amount of frustration for some gamers, it’s also a good motivator to keep you on your toes. Some gamers may find the small amount of cars available a turnoff, but there’s so many positive aspects of the game that it’s currently one of the best arcade racers available right now. The feeling of speed is alive and well. There’s never been a better time to experience the streets of Los Angeles.

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