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Midnight Club: Los Angeles Review

3
  • X360
  • PS3

A suffocating level of difficulty limits the appeal of Rockstar's latest street racer.

Day or night, you can run the streets of LA.
Day or night, you can run the streets of LA.
When the original Midnight Club first hit the PlayStation 2 way back in 2000, the whole street-racing phenomenon hadn't really hit the mainstream yet. Heck, The Fast and the Furious didn't even come out until the following summer. At this point though, street-racing video games has become a broad genre unto itself. Midnight Club: Los Angeles has the kind of open-world structure and bevy of customizable licensed cars that are part and parcel for the genre, but it differentiates itself by losing some of the neon-lit glamor in favor of a somewhat more grounded look at the City of Angels. It can also be a supremely difficult, frustrating game, due in part to that open-world structure, as well as some unrelenting racer AI.

Midnight Club: LA puts you in the role of an anonymous East Coast transplant whose only apparent interest is street racing. You'll meet plenty of colorful and often obnoxious characters as your reputation improves, but the game keeps it pretty light with the story stuff, so don't expect a crazy crime epic about dirty undercover cops and counterfeit krugerrands or anything like that. Instead, it's more of a street racing procedural with a focus on methodically working your way up in the scene.

Your character is a bit of a blank slate, but the real star here is the city of Los Angeles. Midnight Club doesn't attempt to map LA block-by-block a la True Crime: Streets of LA, but the general layout--which includes Santa Monica, Century City, Westwood, Hollywood Hills, Beverly Hills, Hollywood, and the downtown area--is quite accurate, and the game features enough real landmarks to capture the feel of the city without being too romantic about it. And not just obvious stuff like the Hollywood sign or the Capitol Records building either, though those are in there too, but also Carney's Restaurant, Pink's Hot Dogs, the Standard Hotel, the Saddle Ranch, the Viper Room, Ripley's Believe it Or Not, and the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica, just to name a few.

I've totally bought shoes at that mall!
I've totally bought shoes at that mall!
It's a really sharp-looking package, though one of the flashiest bits of Midnight Club: LA is essentially a loading screen. Any time you pause the game to look at the map or jump to a new location to start a race, the camera dramatically pulls up and away from your car, eventually showing an overview shot of the entire city, before zooming back down on your current location. It's a neat trick that lends the game a seamless feel while hiding any potential load times effectively.

The actual driving in Midnight Club is fast and loose, though it's also got some weight to it, something that's accentuated by the game's intense, borderline nauseating camera rattle and a default camera angle that really kicks out around corners. The game features some 43 licensed cars, as well as a few motorcycles. Most importantly, it's not all just late-model supercars, though there are a few of those, and everything features a driving profile that exaggerates that vehicle's strengths and weaknesses. There's plenty of car customization, both performance-based and aesthetic, though there's nothing here that hasn't been seen in other street racers.

Drafting is a big deal in Midnight Club: LA, and if you hang out in another racer's slipstream for a few seconds, you'll earn a quick nitrous-style boost. In probably the game's most ridiculous turn, you can pop your car up on two wheels, which is useful for avoiding scrapes and for keeping other racers from drafting behind you. Actually, more ridiculous than that are the unlockable special abilities, which include the ability to slow down time or use an electromagnetic pulse to disable competitors.

Like past Midnight Clubs, the game doesn't limit where you can drive during a race, though most races are littered with enough mandatory checkpoints that there are usually only a few feasible routes for any given race. You can't always see the next checkpoint from the last one, and the game never shows you more than two checkpoints at a time, requiring you to constantly check against the on-screen minimap to figure out where to turn next.

The online modes can be an awful lot of fun.
The online modes can be an awful lot of fun.
While the boulevards of Midnight Club: LA can be very wide, they're also almost always choked with traffic, and splitting your attention between the map and the road all but guarantees lots of head-on collisions and wrong turns. This wouldn't be such a problem if the computer-controlled racers reflected these navigational issues. In most cases, if you make one significant mistake, your chances of catching back up are slim. Exacerbating this problem is the fact that many of the races run pretty long, and any lead you might be able to eke out will often disappear in the closing stretch.

Series races can be even worse, since they're often based on the first racer to win three races. With five racers in the mix, that means you can run 10 races, each of which can potentially run a good five or six minutes, before finally losing and having to do the whole thing over again. You still earn a little bit of money and rep for crossing the finish line even when you lose a race, but it's still a consistently goddamn infuriating experience.

Luckily, there's a nicely integrated 16-player online component that eliminates both the AI and traffic issues. The online cruise mode essentially turns the entire city into a giant lobby where players can queue up different events, kind of like Burnout Paradise, but more democratic. Here you can compete in standard races, a number of different free-for-all and team-based capture-the-flag variants, unordered races, and more.

I really enjoy the look and feel of Midnight Club: Los Angeles, and there's a good amount of content here, but the severe difficulty level makes it all much harder to appreciate. It's punishing, but if you're up for it, there are some sights worth seeing here.