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Midnight Club: Los Angeles

Besides their crowd-pleasing Grand Theft Auto moneymaker, Rockstar Games has plenty of games and franchises to dust off every now and then. Midnight Club, beginning life on the PS2, is an open-world game where players can take missions as part of their life of crime. Wait, doesn’t that sound familiar? The series takes the same sprawling approach to level design and game progression, but instead of mobsters and drug dealers, lets gamers mix with the street racing elite. Midnight Club: Los Angeles is the fourth game in the franchise, and the first on this round of consoles. With a more streamlined engine and a host of new online features, is it worth entering another one of Rockstar’s worlds of crime?

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At first glance, things are irritating. Midnight Club: Los Angeles has a grating main character who has moved from the East coast to try something different – I guess the bridges of Madison County just weren’t good enough for our hero. Rockstar’s usual talent is nowhere to be seen in the script – the vacuous, selfish main character travels around the city dealing with other vacuous, selfish characters. Sure, the game is set within the LA street racing culture – and it takes a special brand of asshole to race in and out of traffic for fun – but I doubt that they’re this one-sided in real life. Instead of upbeat wit or biting satire, Midnight Club opts for an unabashedly glorifying take on rich kids risking their lives, not to mention those of normal drivers, for money and street cred. Considering the step forward Grand Theft Auto IV was, not to mention the glimmers of satire in practically every other Rockstar game, it’s a little disappointing to see how vapid Midnight Club: Los Angeles is.

Fear not, however, because the rest of the game is good enough to block out the unpleasant taste of swagger. Los Angeles is recreated in stunning scale and detail, a massive city packed with pedestrians, traffic, and racers. Starting off with a junker hatchback, the game lets players loose to accept missions from other characters, challenge drivers, and purchase new cars to race and modify. Midnight Club 3 allowed players to tweak their rides down to the last detail, and Los Angeles takes it even further. Everything from exterior modifications like hoods, spoilers, rims, and headlights to impactful changes like engine upgrades, new brakes, and gearboxes are available to mess around with. Even little things like the color of the speedometer can be changed – my favorite mod being the ability to have suicide doors. Why even bother? It’s not like you can get out of your car, but it’s nice to see all of the freedom players have in sculpting their dream car. All these changes make a difference, too; each vehicle’s handling alters noticeably after an upgrade. The handling is tight, and the difference between each class of vehicle is pronounced. Driving a muscle car the same way one would drive a VW Golf is going to end in failure, so learning the ins and outs of each car is expected – and rewarding.

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I say ‘rewarding’ because the game is ridiculously hard. Driving at hundreds of miles an hour on the streets of Los Angeles is no mean feat, but Midnight Club takes no steps to help you. Races that take place at night are particularly difficult, because not only do players have to weave in and out of moving traffic, they’ll also have to watch out for parked cars. Naturally, parked cars have no lights on – think you can take this corner on the inside? Think again, bub, Mel Gibson’s car is parked right there. As frustrating as this sort of thing can be, it’s at least logical – but there are a few things that add to the overall difficulty that are honestly infuriating. The AI is godly, darting between other cars like Frogger, and avoiding every possible crash in its way. If you do manage to overtake your opponent, make sure to hold onto first place – bumping into a parked car or a median sends your own car spinning like a dervish. This wouldn’t be so bad if the game didn’t relinquish camera control from you when this happened, but it does, pulling way out to give you a better angle – as if we wanted to see our failure – and not giving proper control back until the wreck comes to a stop. Lovely. That means you’ve not only lost first, but second, third, and possibly first in the next race you decide to take part it. For a game that emphasizes dangerous driving, it’s far too punishing. Still, getting the hang of the streets of LA and besting your foes is a great feeling.

Besides the annoying gangsta motif, Midnight Club: Los Angeles has an impressive presentation. Once the game has loaded, everything is streaming – the game won’t ever stop for a loading screen, even when going in and out of the garage or cutscenes. Even the map is completely in-game, since all the game does is zoom out from your current position to show you the whole city. It’s slick, pretty, and a piece of technical wizardry. A first-person dashboard view is a new addition, and considering the large array of cars available, it looks great. Cutscenes involving character movement aren’t quite as nice as the actual racing bits – the people are considerably less detailed than the cars – but it’s a marvel that the game loads everything on the fly, without ever having to cut to a placeholder screen – and with a huge city to explore, it’s a miracle that the framerate holds steady at all times. The audio presentation is nearly as impressive, with a huge soundtrack perfect for driving to, and lots of ambient city sounds to create the illusion of speed and wind. Unfortunately, there are a few bugs – sometimes, engine noises just disappear altogether, and the music occasionally suffers distortion, which is bizarre. Also, while not a bug, I’m sure you’ll want to mute the game after hearing “Dis be a race homie, you gotta step up yo GAME!” for the fifth time. Oh, gangsta culture.

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Midnight Club: Los Angeles is a shockingly well designed game. With a huge streaming map, an interwoven menu system, and a total lack of loading breaks, it’s a miracle it all ties together so well. Overcoming the brutal difficulty level is a challenge, but at least it’s a hard game that’s fun as opposed to just being a pain in the rear. Racing online is a great way to drive against people who don’t have magic AI controlling them, and some frilly features like Rate My Ride – similar to Forza 2′s Marketplace – offer a decent chance at community spirit. If you can stomach a little two-dimensional West coast gangster arrogance, Midnight Club: Los Angeles is the ride for you.

8 out of 10

The author of this fine article

is an Associate Editor at Thunderbolt, having joined in October 2006.

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