Midnight Club: Los Angeles Review
Right out of the gate, I should say I’m not a “car guy.” I don’t know how to change my own oil (just learning to check it was a banner day), I’ve never pimped my ride, I wouldn’t know a Hemi from a hemorrhoid, and ask me about a V8 and I’ll deliver you a healthy vegetable-based beverage. That said, I’ve always had an appreciation for arcadey style racing games. Going all the way back to Colecovision’s Turbo—remember that sweet steering wheel peripheral?—I’ve always enjoyed injecting a little need for speed into my gaming. And Midnight Club, Rockstar Games’ lesser known but still successful law-breaking series, has always done a pretty good job of satisfying my lead foot fantasies.
Their latest, Midnight Club: Los Angeles, is the franchise’s fourth (not counting those money-milking Remix additions) console outing, and first on next-gen hardware. Not mucking with the successful recipe, it sticks closely to the series’ free-roaming formula. This time out, however, they have significantly upped the octane in terms of production values. The game is absolutely gorgeous, and as the title states, it takes place in the left coast’s most famous city. The developers have done a jaw-dropping job, supported by staggering amounts of detail, in recreating Los Angeles. If you’re familiar with LA locales, you can plan on finding them in Midnight Club’s sprawling setting. Obviously, not every down-to-the-dimple detail is present; don’t expect to find that isolated Taqueria you got a burrito at one night after too many drinks on the Strip. However, more obvious landmarks, like Santa Monica Pier, the Capitol Records building, and the Hollywood sign are drenched in detail. And even the more generic locations retain a look and feel appropriate to their real-world counterparts. Other touches, like a day/night cycle and changing weather conditions, further immerse you in the tire-screeching action.
Speaking of burning rubber, Midnight Club continues to deliver the tight, arcadey racing it's famous for. Accessible controls ensure anyone can feel comfortable behind the wheel, and even over-the-top maneuvers—power-slides and hand-break assisted antics—are easily learned after a few laps around the city. As much as I enjoy this freewheeling style, I equally despise racing simulators (sorry Gran Turismo, but your unrelenting realism just isn't for me), and Midnight Club excels at being the best on the block when it comes to serving seat-of-your-pants fun over sim seriousness. Just tooling around the open city is a blast.
Of course, seasoned street racers will be looking for a bit more depth than a simple tour of the city can offer. Thankfully, Midnight Club is packed with both offline and online competitive modes, including variations on straight-up races and capture the flag. While the up-to-16 player competitions are addictive, and will ultimately be where this one finds its true replay value, the solo, story-driven campaign, complemented by some well produced cutscenes, is equally entertaining. Sticking to the freedom-granting formula, the game lets you roam the city, picking and choosing your races. Win one, earn some street cred, and work towards knocking those muscle car drivers with higher reps off their pedestal. This being the ballsy world of illegal street racing, though, you can bet your shiny new rims that nothing is as simple as just racing from point-to-point without incident. Just like in Mario’s kart racing world, power-ups are king, possessing the ability to take your opponents from first place to no place. Grab “agro” for some fender-bending fun, or unleash “EMP” to temporarily disable all nearby rides. Then there’s the ultimate fly in the ointment, the fuzz; nothing gets you pressing that pedal to the medal like a few cops on your tail.
If customization is your thing, Midnight Club’s got your back. You can go nuts upgrading your four-wheeled ride with skill boosting perks as well as cosmetic touches. And the garage full of real-world vehicles should keep any motor head from their latest issue of Popular Mechanics. What’s especially cool, though, for automotive-knowledge deprived heavy foots like myself, is how accessible all this tweaking is. In fact, you can even throw it on "auto" and just let the AI get all the grease under its nails. Midnight Club is simply oozing with cool features, not the least of which is a super slick zoom feature that gives you a real-time bird’s eye view of the race-ready landscape.
As much as Rockstar’s latest foray into underground racing impressed me, it does have one major flaw; it’s friggin’ hard as hell! AI competitors make few mistakes and you'll often end up seeing the business side of a brick wall. This unbalanced challenge makes some of these maddening races controller-spikingly tough. I’m a big fan of this franchise, so I sacrificed some sanity to grind through the more frustrating events. However, newcomers to this often-infuriating street racing circuit might find the learning curve steeper than the game's deepest inclines. I absolutely suggest buckling up for this ride, but do yourself a favor and get comfy with the controls and the daunting LA layout before taking on any competitors.
Get over the hardcore challenge, though, and you’ll discover one of the most satisfying racers on the market for car nuts and noobs alike. And again, the presentation is absolutely stunning; from the amazingly detailed rides, to the sprawling Los Angeles landscape, there’s lots to ogle here. No other game captures the exhilaration of speeding past the beach at sunset or exploring the concrete jungle in the dead of night. Couple all this with a banging soundtrack, unmatched sense of speed, and enough content to fill a two-car garage, and you’ve got a reason to renew your license.