It’s funny how even video games follow trends in the automotive world. Back when import tuning became popular due mostly to the movie Fast and the Furious, games such as Need for Speed: Underground became insanely popular with the new tuning crowd.
Video games since then have evolved quite a bit, and appeal to a much wider range of car (and game) enthusiast. The new Midnight Club: Los Angeles, for example, has a wide range of available cars – tuners, muscle cars, exotics, luxury cars, and motorcycles – and all of them are customizable to your heart’s extent, if you so choose.
Being a racing game fan, I got a copy of Midnight Club: Los Angeles and have been playing the hell out of it so I could let you know if it’s worth picking up…
Midnight Club: Los Angeles is made by Rockstar Games – the same folks behind the Grand Theft Auto series. You can tell – they use the same “RAGE” gaming engine used in GTAIV. That’s not a bad thing, though – it allows for some fine control over the 40+ cars in MCLA, each reacting different to the same environment based on each car’s specifications and characteristics.
The entire city of Los Angeles is your playground as you speed through the streets, parking lots, and back alleys in Midnight Club: Los Angeles, all on your way to becoming the most notable racer in the city. As a new arrival on the racing scene, you’re going to need to earn REP for others to take you seriously, and earn the right to upgrade your ride or purchase an even better one. Reputation Points can be earned by completing any task or race in MCLA, regardless of what position you finish. Midnight Club Los Angeles features over 40 vehicles from 4 different classes. Tuner, Luxury, Exotic and Muscle cars as well as Bikes are available to race throughout the game. All cars can be fully customized in one of two garages found in the game.
Simply put, the graphics in Midnight Club: LA are some of the best I’ve seen in a racing game. The cars (and bikes) are rendered in fine detail, interior included. Driving around the city, I’ve only noticed a few graphics pop-in or rendering errors, but they’ve been barely noticeable. Reflections and textures are beautifully done, almost photo-realistic.
One of the coolest things about the graphics is when you hit the button to get into your GPS map. The camera zooms out and up from your car, flying into the sky for a birds-eye view of the city, whether it’s night or day. This is no static image; it’s in real-time, showing rain falling if it was raining, street lights, and even the occasional plane flying by as you’re looking down on it. Going back into driving mode reverses the process, zooming down as if you were a falling rain drop, and back into the car.
For those who are familiar with the city of Los Angeles, you’ll notice it’s not an exact recreation. The MCLA map has many familiar landmarks and many of the same roads, but on a much smaller scale due to the immense size of the real LA. Consider it a good thing that in the game, we don’t have to drive through miles of boring residential areas. Don’t get me wrong, the city in the game is plenty big, and Rockstar Games did a great job recreating the cool parts of the city. Tons of shortcuts and secret areas are scattered about as well, adding an exciting aspect to searching around the city.
The handling and physics in the game are great – each car handles very differently. Tuners handle vastly different than exotics and muscle cars, and each have their own advantage. Handling can be tricky though, especially around turns, where it’s all too easy to slam into buildings and traffic. A nice addition to this game is the dynamic “Action” mode camera, which provides an excellent sense of speed while racing, and a cool camera-shaking effect when starting, to simulate the take-off.
Upgrading and getting new cars is similar to other racing games; you race to build up money so you can upgrade your current car’s performance and appearance, and so you can buy more cars. I like that there are real officially licensed cars in this game, instead of fictional cars like in Burnout Paradise. You can also win cars through racing for “pinks,” which leaves your money open for performance upgrades.
The game is on an open map, meaning that it doesn’t follow a set story-line and you’re free to roam around the city and challenge other racers, or following the missions that they assign you. This open gameplay is a very good thing, but leads me to my first complaint about the game: when roaming the city, it’s too easy to get the cops chasing you. Driving through an outside mall and knocking over some tables is enough to spawn a reckless driving complaint, which gets the cops looking for you. Get within a cop’s line-of-sight, and you’re in a high-speed chase. This wouldn’t normally be a problem, but you’ll find yourself losing the cops, then as you’re on your way to your next mission, getting into another chase and ending up further away from your destination than before.
And that leads me to my main complaint about the game: It’s just too damn hard! Even starting off with your first car, you’ll find yourself playing the same race a few times just to come in first. Once you get used to the easy races (denoted in green on the map,) you’ll start doing medium (yellow) races, which some are damn near impossible. On top of that, many of the challenges are series races in which you need to win (for example) two races in a row to actually win. Win the first race, lose the second or third, and you have to start the whole series over, which nearly results in a $60 controller flying through a TV screen every time. **Update, see below**
This is partially due to the “rubber-banding” effect which is used in many racing games, but seems to be excessive in this one. Rubber-banding is a term used to describe the built-in feature of the computer-controlled cars to slow down when you’re behind them, and speed up if you’re in front to keep things even. The problem with this is you can be doing an exceptional job throughout the whole race, and the other cars will stay right on your ass the whole time. Mess up once close to the end and you’re done, no matter how well you did before.
A couple more things which contribute to the exceptional difficulty of the game seem to be the superhuman driving skills of the computer-controlled cars, the excessive on-road traffic in your way, and the fact that if you upgrade your car, your opponents automatically upgrade their cars as well.
This wouldn’t be a modern racer without online play, of course, and Midnight Club: LA excels at it. Lots of online modes (including normal racing and games like capture the flag) will keep you playing for hours on end, and you can be assured that the real people you’re racing won’t be rubber-banding to win.
Customization deserves its own section, because there’s just so damn much of it. Just about everything on the car can be customized, from body kits, headlights, taillights, neons, interior colors, gauge colors, tires, doors, graphics, and of course the performance mods. Each modification takes place in your garage, and the more you race, the better modifications you unlock. You can rotate the view around your car as well as look around in the interior, and change parts in real time.
If you’re particularly proud of your creation, you can upload it to an online feature called “Rate my Ride,” which is like an online marketplace for customized cars. You can go on there and rate other people’s cars, as well as buy them if you really like it. An interesting feature to check out.
Altogether, Midnight Club: Los Angeles is an excellent racing game that I would recommend to any fan of the genre. It can be frustratingly difficult, but has good overall gameplay that will keep you busy for a long time. Excellent graphics and gameplay make this one of the best racing games on the market right now.
***UPDATE*** – It seems Rockstar Games has just released an update for Midnight Club: LA which makes it less difficult! Apparently, the update will make the first third of the game or so easier for beginners to advance further into the game, forcing the AI (artificial intelligence) cars to make more mistakes. Advanced racers, however will probably not see much of a change, since the game implements a dynamic racing structure that depends on your skill level.
Disclosure: Writer was provided a copy of the game by Rockstar Games for purposes of review