Midnight Club 2

Rockstar offer us racing at it's coolest. Chris takes the wheel.

Midnight Club 2 is obviously the sequel to Midnight Club for the PS2, and like the original it immerses players in the world of underground street racing, complete with hot wired cars, crazy opponents and annoying police patrols. Making things even more interesting is the option to take your racing online and challenge up to seven other players in some tire-screeching action.

Midnight Club 2 is a simple game to pick up and play. Within a few minutes of booting it up, you’ll be ripping up the streets with the best racers the AI has to offer. But that doesn’t mean your opponents are equally simple. The AI starts out easy enough, with Moses teaching you the ropes and taking it pretty easy on you, but after four or five races, you’ll be facing some of the toughest street racers around. As if trying to keep up with Hector and the other super-fast racers isn’t bad enough, you’ll frequently have to avoid police pursuit cars and helicopters. The cops can be just as ugly as the racers, smashing your car into a wall until you finally stop racing, or until you manage to lose them by blasting ahead at full speed.

The great thing about MC2’s gameplay is that every race is different, be it the racing style of your opponents or the actual format of the race. Some races are simple "get to the finish before everyone else does" affairs, while others challenge you to cross checkpoints in any order before everyone else, and still others need you to outrun the cops before you can even race. There are more than enough race types in this game, each of them enticing you to play it all the way to completion just to see what’s next.

Along with the wide variety of race formats is an AI that’s challenging and realistic. Early drivers are sloppy, speed-hungry idiots who run into everything in sight in their quest to keep their engines pumping. Later racers are exactly the opposite, knowing the limits of their cars and just how much they can push those limits without becoming a smear on the pavement. The AI racers will never let up on you. Just when you think you’ve left one in the dust, he’ll suddenly find a shortcut and come leaping out of a parking garage right in front of you. While the AI obviously has the advantage of knowing all the shortcuts, it doesn’t seem to abuse this knowledge, leaving you feeling challenged, but not cheated, by the computer.

The environments in MC2 are huge and well mapped. When racing in downtown Los Angeles, you’ll feel as if you’re in the real city, with pedestrian malls, warehouses, parking garages and aqueducts strategically placed to enhance the realism whilst also providing some shortcuts through the streets. Paris and Tokyo get the same detailed treatment with the ability to drive down the Champs Elyses, under the Arc De Triomphe and up the Louvres glass pyramid. During many of the races, you’ll be able to choose your route too, which allows you to explore every nook and cranny looking for the best shortcuts and checkpoints in the city.

MC2 stocks a nice selection of cars, around twenty, all of which you’ll earn by winning races. The cars, unfortunately, are not licensed, which leaves them looking very similar but unnameable at times, especially the early vehicles. To compensate for this slight loss of realism, Rockstar made sure each car’s performs as it is spec’d out as possible, so a junk car is going to handle like a tank, while some of the high-end street rockets have great acceleration but lousy grip.

When it comes to vehicle handling, MC2 should be held up as the model of how things should be done. Vehicles actually grip the pavement, and when the pavement’s wet, they slip and lose grip, just like a real car would. Even the slipping is properly done, meaning that a car won’t keep spinning-off into the distance just because it hit a wet patch. The handbrake in MC2 functions like a real handbrake, slowing you down a bit while letting you ease the car into a power-slide to handle a crazy turn. Your car can also take flight when launching-off of a cliff or elevation, which forces you to keep the car balanced in the air so you don’t trash the suspension on touch down. You can even pull the car up onto two wheels to make it around insanely tight turns!

Rockstar spared no expense when it came to the gameplay offerings in MC2. There’s the obvious career mode, which plays like any other campaign, with you challenging other street racers for fame and the title to their cars. In fact, that’s how you unlock new cars in this game; you have to win them from your opponents. The better the car - the better the guy (or girl) driving it is, which means you’ll work your arse off trying to unlock some of the real super spec cars.

Along with career mode, you’ve got circuit mode (race lap-style on any unlocked course), multiplayer and cruise mode (freely explore any unlocked city without having to race anyone.) There’s also a race editor, which doesn’t allow you to create tracks but does allow you to set up checkpoints throughout the city to determine the course racers must follow.

MC2’s graphics don’t exactly push the PS2, that’s for certain. They look good, but that’s about it. The cities are nicely textured, but the vehicle models are just too similar. The smoke that blasts out when cars spin their tires is well done but effects like this are few and far between, but there’s really no "wow" factor to any of the visuals. The graphics aren’t "poor" by any stretch of the imagination; they just don’t do justice to the game’s subject matter; flashy cars and exotic locales. The animation of vehicles in motion, however, is fantastic, and it maintains a fluidity throughout.

The sound is dull and monotonous unless you absolutely adore hip-hop and hardcore techno. The soundtrack’s saving grace is that it can be changed during play, so you’re not stuck hearing that same thumping bass beat every time you retry a race.

The rest of the sounds are quite effective with the car noises sounding realistic and the interjections from the characters amusing if not a little repetitive.

Midnight Club 2 is a title that sets the bar for all other racers to follow. Its combination of gameplay, physics, lush environments and strong AI make it one of the very best racers in my mind. If the graphics were a bit less jagged and the cars licensed, MC2 would have been a difficult game to beat. The open-ended gameplay allows this game to be returned to long after the career mode has been completed, too.

E3 Trailer