Midnight Club: Los Angeles
The latest instalment of Rockstar's long-running street racer franchise, Midnight Club: Los Angeles, reminds us of the beauty which high-financed production values and meticulously detailed visuals can provide. LA has never been virtually depicted with such lavish accuracy and panache. This latest instalment is the first next-gen release in the series, and coming three years after its predecessor it is marked by satisfying sound-effects, glitzy graphics, and staggeringly realistic detail. These factors combine to make this one of the most appealing street racing games on the market.
The game, much like its older brothers, presents an action packed arcade-style racing format which is embedded inside an accurately recreated real-life city. The basic portion of the game takes place in a free-roaming game world, wherein the player can drive around LA seeking out various types of street racing challenges. Races take several forms such as a pure races from A to B, or a race along a set of pre-defined waypoints. Some races allow the player to define their own terms; including start location, whether the track is a loop, and what time of day the race takes place.
There's a loosely-knit and mildly entertaining storyline interweaved throughout the various brainless street racing events, but basically it's nothing more than a bit of lip-gloss presented in a well produced cut-scene format. It may not be in the same league as the GTA IV school of storylines, but for a racing game it's about as good as it gets.
Races have an over-the-top go-go-go feel, as opposed to the realistic handling of games like Forza 2. The races feel playfully bouncy and action packed; the race path being marked out by a number of colourful flares. Hand-break turns and power-slides feature heavily in the veteran driver's skill-set; and colliding with an opponent causes the game to slow-down temporarily - emphasising the impact wound and allowing the player a minute to navigate their mistake. The game also features a plethora of power-ups: slip-streaming an opponent builds up the ability to turbo-charge; and classic additions such as nitrous and EMP attacks can be purchased as upgrades.
Despite the casual appeal of general arcade-style games, the difficulty of Midnight Club: Los Angeles is actually rather high. The AI is of the "cheap catch-up" variety; make few mistakes, and it seems that no matter how well you drive you won't pull too far ahead. This approach rather limits the way you use power-ups, because it means players will often be inclined to only make use of nitrous and speed boost power-ups at the very end of the race, since it will almost always be a close finish. Furthermore, many races will need to be repeated throughout the impressively long single-player campaign, which will weigh in at about a 40 hour completion.
Cash and street cred are earned by completing the various races and challenges marked throughout the city. Street cred unlocks new races and opponents, and cash is used to purchase car upgrades and of course new cars.
Players can upgrade their car in a variety of both performance increasing ways and pointless but aesthetically pleasing ways - redoing the paint job or slapping on some alloys. These upgrades range from the everyday expected tweaks, such as new exhausts and turbo engines, to the power-up variety, such as nitrous and the EMP attack. Tweaks can also be implemented automatically for the less petrol-headed type of gamer.
Occasionally the cops will start burn some rubber on your tail, it's a rather random occurrence which contributes to the diversity that a street racing game should provide. Furthermore the game features a variety of destructible scenery; this is particularly special when visiting fragile landmarks such as the famous Santa Monica Mall - a bull's favourite china shop. All of the most famous hotels and landmarks of LA are built into the game, albeit with the occasional name-change here and there. In no other game has a concrete jungle or sunset beach street race looked so good.
High production values and excellent attention to detail shine throughout this title; and the lack of in-game loading screens does not go unnoticed. LA has been constructed brilliantly, with real-life streets rendered in great detail. The game is smothered in glossy presentation, such as the slick real-time zoom-out to a bird's eye view of the city which often happens between races to give the player a handle on where they are and what's to be doing nearby. In addition the game has a timed day-night cycle and even the occasional race-effecting rain shower.
There's absolutely no faulting the audio in this game, either. The banging soundtrack fits perfectly, the sound effects do credit to the excellence seen in other areas of the game's production, and the voice acting is of the highest order - even though the mediocre filler storyline demands nothing of the sort.
The online game meanwhile caters for up to 16 players at a time. Multiplayer action is as riveting as its single-player counter-part, and features some interesting unorthodox competition types such as a variety of capture the flag modes.
Midnight Club: Los Angeles captures an unmatched sense of speed coupled with a fantastic representation of a real-life city, and a stylish veneer which is observed all the way from the game's slick intro sequence to the final race you drive. The very challenging difficulty will not go unnoticed by casual gamers, and perhaps a handicap would have alleviated this problem. Still, as far as action-packed racing goes, it doesn't get much better than this.