Rockstar Games has quite a portfolio of work but we haven't heard from one of their long time franchises in this gen until now. The Midnight Club series, known for it's free roaming, urban underground racing prowess, makes its first appearance on the Xbox 360 and PS3 in the form of Midnight Club LA. Overall, it's a very solid title, but some drawbacks keep it from being an absolute must-have.
Start Your Engines
We received the PS3 copy in for review and my first surprise came in that there was no install, which is cool considering that there are essentially no load times. After downloading a small patch (about 12MB), I was all set.
The single player campaign is the obvious choice. When you fire this up, you're treated to a well rendered in game cutscene that shows your character arriving in LA needing a car. After setting up a meeting with some locals, you have your choice of three very old, and very slow vehicles to get you started. I went with the 1983 VW Golf. Booke, your contact in LA that set you up with the car, tells you to get out there and start proving yourself, and that's exactly what you should do.
The default controls threw me for a loop initially, and I was pretty quick to change them, but as I continue to play I'm considering switching back to them. Unlike any other racer I've played, the right analog stick is used for accelerate and decelerate (and reverse), depending on which direction (up or down) you push it. The left analog stick is used for steering; it feels weird for a while if you haven't driven this way before. Most gamers, including myself, are used to using triggers for accelerating and decelerating, but at the same, holding down the deep R2 button on the PS3 controller for extended periods while racing starts to get uncomfortable. Either way, controlling your car (and eventually motorcycle) is responsive and smooth, especially once you begin to tune the heck out of it with the dozens of after market accessory options you will have to choose from.
Midnight Club LA uses a ranking system to basically gauge your progress in the campaign. Your first overall goal is to increase your rank to 400 points, and in doing so you'll open up another cutscene, get a little more plot development (although don't look for a great story here), and unlock new accessories and cars to buy. Progress is kept rather strictly in check with the level of difficulty, which is probably the game's biggest drawback, and I'll elaborate more on that soon.
Finding races is done via a couple of ways that are probably familiar to anyone that's played a free roaming type of racer before, like any of several of the last Need For Speed games for example. You can either look at your map by pressing Select (depending on your control scheme), which will show you approximate locations of various race types and their difficulty (although this is often misleading), or just cruise around until you find another street racer and flash your headlights at him or her. Sometimes you will also receive objectives from Booke or your mechanic, i.e., people in the story that will prompt you to drive to a certain location to find races.
Several types of races or events are included: ordered races (go from checkpoint to checkpoint), circuit races (laps), time trials (race against the clock), red light races (nearest red light to specified landmark), and freeway races (race up to a freeway racer and enter a checkpoint race). Other types of events include Tournaments, Series Races (win a set number of race events in a series and takeover a rival racing group's hangout), wager races (the higher your bet the higher the difficulty), pink slip races (one on one, winner takes the others' car), delivery missions (deliver a car in a certain amount of time with the least amount of damage possible), payback missions (take a car provided by the mechanic to damage out non-paying customers of his), and telephone races (you get a call with a challenge, if you accept you're transported to the start of the race). As you can see, that's quite a few modes, so there is definitely a lot to do in LA.
No matter the type of race you choose, it's extremely helpful, but not imperative of course, to know the area and seek out any shortcuts you might need to use in advance because the AI is rather unforgiving. You should also be familiar with using NOS and slipstream turbo, too. NOS is just an upgrade you can buy that is used with a button press, but slipstream turbo is basically a fancy term for drafting. When you get behind another racer to draft, you can see a visual representation of a slipstream flowing by. A meter on your HUD will fill up the longer you do this, and once it's green, you can pull around and press, by default, R3, for a quick burst of speed. If someone is drafting you on the other hand, you can go high risk and drive on two wheels with L1 and the left stick to decrease your aerodynamic profile.
The HUD, Cops, And Other Thoughts
Midnight Club LA's HUD is actually quite slick. It provides a lot of information while keeping its profile out of the way of the on screen action. The best part about the HUD is your gauge in the lower right of your screen. This small graphic constantly changes to show you fourteen different sources of information including your standard speedometer, tachometer, and current engaged gear. Other helpful information includes the speed limit of the street you're currently on, a damage meter, the name of the song playing and street you are currently on, whether or not you have any special abilities equipped, and a your police scanner.
The police and inevitable police chases in Midnight Club LA are not quite as fun or intense as those in the now old, but still classic Need For Speed Most Wanted, but they're still a very welcome feature. Your scanner will help you determine how close and in what mode police are (whether or not they're on to you or just nearby, etc.). Chases are fun and all, but the end result is usually being arrested, but the fines for this are never that severe, usually on the order of several hundred dollars. Once you pay, you're placed outside of the police department and ready to roam again.
It might surprise you, as it did me, that Midnight Club LA features several powerups that you can earn. These powerups can be equipped and used during races to cause your opponents some major headaches. Powerups include Roar, EMP, Zone, and Agro. Roar is an engine rev so loud that it causes traffic to avoid you, giving you a much clearer path ahead. You earn this in the Campaign and it's charged by avoiding damage while driving. Zone slows down time, giving you more time to avoid mistakes, while Agro allows you to smash cars out of your way. Lastly, EMP can actually halt your opponent's vehicle, giving you time to get ahead.
Powerups are just one strategy you'll need to employ to combat the difficult AI. LA street racing isn't for everyone I guess, and you'll find out from your very first race that it's going to be an uphill battle the whole way. I can't tell you how many times I have come in a very close second after a thoroughly tough one on one race. You earn very little money and reputation points when this happens, which stifles your progress and keeps the fun factor in check. Even the marked 'easiest' races are tough given the AI's ability. Fortunately, there isn't any real penalty for not winning races, just reduced earnings in terms of points and money, and you can retry most races over again.
There are a handful of other items I'd like to mention about my experience with Midnight Club LA at this point. For one, I really liked their checkpoint system. The checkpoints are just plumes of yellow smoke that are easily visible even when you're concentrating on the road, and when you get close to them, they also display an arrow showing you which general direction you want to go from there. On the map, two or three yellow checkpoints appear at a time, and when you get close to the end, it's marked in red. Secondly, the ads in Midnight Club are a little too repetitive, at least it seems to me like. The Michael Jordan 'jumpman' logo seemed to be all over the place, although I know that brand is a sponsor for the game. Still, looking at real life LA shows that there are ads all over the place too, so I guess it's not too inaccurate.
I'd also like to mention that there is an arcade mode, and that you can take the action online, too. Online modes include the ability to cruise around town with up to fifteen other friends and several variations of capture the flag. You can also put your car up for viewing, and even sell the vehicle profile to other gamers and actually see the money put into your profile's account, very cool.
Lastly, the well designed manual and included street map of LA are a nice touches you'll find in the box.