Midnight Club: Los Angeles is the latest from Rockstar Games in their underground racing franchise. Sticking to the same formula as previous Midnight Club titles, players will explore an open city and compete in various types of races, earning street cred and winning prize money to upgrade and expand their garage full of vehicles.
While Midnight Club: LA is indeed an incremental step forward for the franchise, adding new design concepts and gameplay options, it doesn’t bring enough to the table to be a standout entry; it’s just another Midnight Club.
The game’s main focus is its career mode, which casts players as the newest young rookie to hit the Los Angeles street racing scene. Hooking up with a couple of key personalities, players discover that this game is all about locating opponents around the city, and accepting their race challenges. There are a number of different types of races; ordered (checkpoint), circuit (lap), red-light (race from a stop light to a landmark), and freeway races are the basic types, but can be set up as single runs or series, tournaments or time trials, and occasionally allow players to wager either cash or the pink slips to their beloved rides.
There is a fair amount of variety in Midnight Club: LA, but players still might find that the same process repeats itself for much of the game: race, race, race, earn, earn, earn, upgrade/buy car, repeat. The path is a long one, and there are many cars to purchase along the way. The fact that vehicles need to be unlocked is standard fare in today’s racing games, but in Midnight Club: LA the process is slow and arduous, leaving players with few vehicles right off the bat, and forcing them to conquer the career mode before graduating from a small selection of what you would expect to be the average teenagers’ first cars.
The franchise-standard and fully-licensed tuners, exotics, luxury cars, muscle cars, SUVs, and motorcycles make their returns in MC:LA, and each will allow players to make use of special techniques such as agro (smash through other cars), zone (slo-mo), and roar (clear a path through traffic). Clearly, the Midnight Club franchise has always been closer to the arcade end of the racing spectrum, and more for players who care about the cars and speed than actual race mechanics and realism.
The city itself is possibly the best re-creation of LA in any videogame to date. Players familiar with LA will spot not only the various neighborhoods and larger landmarks, but will also be able to recognize the less glamorous, everyday street corners. Even that 7-11 where you buy your morning coffee is in there; unfortunately you can’t get out of the car for a slurpee. Otherwise, players have free reign over the city streets, and an excellent on-demand Google Maps-esque GPS and persistent mini map assist in navigation. Rockstar’s Los Angeles is a living city with a day-night cycle, pedestrians, traffic, and even a police presence, so it is easy to immerse oneself in the game world.
Every other part of the game is accessed from the pause menu while cruising in career mode. Goal Attack and Arcade mode are extra options for solo riders interested in additional incentives or more control over their races. Goal Attack takes existing courses and challenges players to win them in under a set time and with less than a certain amount of damage. Arcade mode lets players choose a course and set traffic, weather, daylight, and AI conditions for a quick race. Additionally, MC:LA offers a race editor, where players drive or pan around the map, adding checkpoints where they see fit. These races can then be used offline or taken into the game’s multiplayer modes.
Midnight Club: LA supports up to 16-player multiplayer in an online or system link environment, but lacks any local, split-screen play. Player matches, ranked matches, and Online Cruise are available, although you’ll be hard pressed to find any opponents anywhere other than the latter. Cruising online works in much the same way as locating opponents in Career mode: drive up, challenge, race. Besides the normal options, multiplayer also includes matches such as Capture the Flag, Team Capture the Flag, Keepaway (keep the flag away from opponents), and Stockpile (collect the most flags at a home base). Finally, there is the Rate My Ride section, where players can post pictures of their best vehicles for every other MC:LA player to critique, score, or even purchase. They only get the specific tuning of the vehicle — not the car itself — so each one can be sold multiple times and players don’t have to worry about losing the last thing in the garage.
The visuals, while not unappealing, actually end up being the game’s biggest downfall. The cars are adequately detailed, although nothing astonishing, and the city is impressive in its scope and accuracy, but the environmental detail is such that things in the distance become difficult to see, as they are aliased, blurry, and blended into a mix of lights, shadow, and textured surfaces. This affects races. It becomes difficult to see what’s ahead, and players will undoubtedly suffer far more crashes as a result of their inability to perceive the path ahead than as a result of their own skill or the game’s AI opponents. As for the game’s audio, it is a mixed bag of typical engine roars, tire screeches, and metal-on-metal crunches along with a basic rock and hip-hop soundtrack that has its high points, but still leaves much to be desired. The game’s voice acting is ok, but if I hear the same 4 taunts during races anymore, I’m throwing my Motorola Sidekick onto the I-5. (How does everyone get my number, anyway?)
Midnight Club: LA is neither wonderful nor horrible. It offers players seeking to customize street machines and race in the most illegal of ways the opportunity to do just that in a long and full-featured Career mode. The journey from chump to champ may be too long for some gamers, and the unavailability of cars for multiplayer matches at the outset is unfortunate, although the online options themselves are very enjoyable. A rental might be players’ best bet with this game, as it certainly has some appeal, but may not be exactly what every virtual street racer is looking for.