Standing on a promontory watching the heat rise from the urban sprawl of Los Angeles, gamers would be hard pushed to pick a better setting for a street-racing videogame.
Your eye traces the impossible curves of Mulholland Drive fused with the gridlocked box-junctions of Downtown and one thought creeps into the back of your mind. “I wonder what that all looks like at 200 MPH?”
For years, EA Games have had it all their own way with the Need for Speed series but the last few games have careered downhill and got stuck in the grit and dirt of the emergency braking lane. Rockstar’s Midnight Club series has always felt like the slightly poorer country cousin. Until now.
Midnight Club L.A does not try to reinvent the wheel, it merely covers it in enough shiny bling to make the game feel like a fresh new racing experience. For gamers who terminally curse driving games that force you to live out your vicarious street-racing alt-existence at the dead of night, one feature of MCLA that will be most welcome is the fact that the game features a transitional day-to-night cycle so you will get to see the heat haze rising off the cracked and baked tarmac as you go nose to nose with other racers. There’s a great weather system in the game too, and racing in the pouring rain is hazardous but a lot of fun.
Following Midnight Club 3’s rather over-the-top pimped rides, Midnight Club L.A once again uses proper licensed car and bike models, and there truly is something for everyone here from zippy little European hot hatches to immensely powerful American muscle cars.
You start the game as a faceless unknown on the underground racing scene in Los Angeles. You have a tiny amount of cash to procure your first ride with, and a limited choice of vehicles to choose from. Pick one, then scrape together a few modifications and it’s time for your first race.
Midnight Club L.A’s zooming map is quite something to behold. Your viewpoint changes from a distant overhead satellite shot and blitzes in to street level, all in real time really bonding the player with their surroundings and making you feel properly immersed in the environment. From your GPS system you can highlight and target other racers to challenge. Green icons are low-end races so are perfect for beginners, and the icon colour system cycles though amber to red. Red challenges are for the serious contender so you’re better off chipping away at those green races first.
The presentation of MCLA is superbly done, with plenty of gritty voice acting complimenting the look and feel of the game. Visually, if you’ve ever found yourself watching films like Gone in Sixty Seconds or The Fast and the Furious you’re really going to love what Midnight Club is all about.
Races are blisteringly fast. As a personal preference I was delighted to see that you could kill off the “shaky cam” setting in the game, which really makes the whole thing feel like a smooth glitch-free experience and shows off the game’s rapid framerates. Considering the sheer amount of traffic in the game, Rockstar San Diego have done wonders. Compare and contrast what’s on offer here with the relatively sparsely populated streets of Burnout Paradise, or the Ghost Towns in Need for Speed Undercover and you’ll feel like Midnight Club L.A is truly set in a living breathing city, with everyone going about their business regardless of whether you want to race around their neighbourhood or not.
The open sandbox of L.A is bountifully populated with races but sometimes it’s good to just kick back, and drive whatever your latest acquisition is, listening to the game’s superbly fitting mix of music tracks.
Of course, you’ll soon find that racing around L.A at ridiculous speeds doesn’t go unnoticed by the local constabulary. The police will co-ordinate to chase you and shut you down, using real-world police pursuit techniques such as boxing you in or employing ramming techniques. If you are stopped, you’ll lose a little of your street respect. If you’re a good enough driver to outwit and outstrip the law, you’ll earn plenty of kudos amongst your peers and this will unlock more and more goodies at the game’s garage.
Speaking of which, as you’d expect from a street racing game, there are a whole plethora of customisation options for your car or bike. Everything, inside and outside the car, can be chopped and changed around. Custom parts can be fitted to boost your vehicle’s performance (and unlike a lot of games, you can actually feel the benefit of performance tweaks). You can go nuts with the paint jobs choosing everything from harsh matt finishes to sparkling shininess. You can also pimp the interior of your car with matching colour schemes, new clocks and even custom steering wheels. In fact it’s almost a game in itself tinkering around in the garage to see just how much performance you can wring out of your car before it’s time to trade up for something bigger and better.
One last thing worth mentioning is the fact that you can also outfit your vehicle with special abilities that can give you the edge in races. For instance, you can grab yourself an EMP blast that will temporarily disable any vehicles in your vicinity, allowing you to blast past. You can also fit your car with a supersonic roar, which has the effect of blasting vehicles out of your way. This may all seem a little fantastical but it really can mean the difference between winning and losing.
Midnight Club: L.A is not a game for the faint hearted. Even from the outset, it’s relentlessly tough and uncompromising, demanding a lot of skill and dexterity to ensure success. At any given moment in a race, one lapse of concentration (such as scratching your nose, why does that always happen in driving games?) and you will end up ploughing into an oncoming member of the public or worse, wrapping your new ride round a lamp-post or traffic signal.
At least there’s a slim chance of recovery and if you can regain your position enough to slip-stream your opponents, you can whip past them with a timely nitro boost and once again regain the lead.
The game may feel like it’s treading an extremely well-worn path but with a plethora of races on offer, so many customisation options and a superb online mode, Midnight Club L.A sets a high standard for other street racers to follow, and EA’s Need for Speed could have a lot of catching up to do. The only sad thing about MCLA is the fact that it’s been released at a time when gamers are absolutely spoilt for choice so it may be brushed aside. That said, in a week that’s seen the release of Far Cry 2, Dead Space, Fable II and countless others, Midnight Club L.A is the game I’ve spent the most time with and it’s been one heck of a blast.