Having sold a total of more than twelve million games to date, the Midnight Club franchise is adequately qualified to comment on that murkiest of vehicular subjects: illegal street racing.
The name is coined from a Japanese motorway racing club, and previous titles have gradually expanded this racing scene to include additional locations, vehicle modifications, extensive soundtracks and real licensed vehicle models. The latter being a particular coup - it's hard to imagine any manufacturer wanting to be associated with street racing, let alone vehicle damage on actual production cars, but Rockstar pulled it off. Paying attention, Polyphony?
For Midnight Club: Los Angeles, Rockstar has gone back to basics and set the game entirely within the confines of the metropolis of L.A. In typical Grand Theft Auto IV fashion they've gone "up" rather than just "out", preferring to concentrate on applying a mind-bending level of detail to every single component within the game, rather than simply providing endless kilometres of boring motorway. If you've been to L.A., you'll recognise real-world shops and buildings in the game - it's that authentic. They've even lifted the same RAGE engine from GTA IV, complete with variable traffic patterns, a complete day/night cycle and realistic, handling-affecting weather patterns. Nice.
The game has been in development for over three years, allowing Rockstar to provide a comprehensive map of Los Angeles that is over three times larger than the city from Midnight Club 3. This became immediately obvious from the beginning of our demonstration, as we were shown the spacious boulevards and large shop fronts of down-town Santa Monica, followed by a jaunt along the beach and a quick look at the highway system. Of course, we were averaging around two hundred kilometres an hour at the time, but even at that speed you can still clearly see the effort they've put in.
Rockstar ran us through various red-light races, race challenges and a fairly detailed look at the customisation options available. Throughout your time in Los Angeles, you're forever chasing cash and reputation points. Cash will allow you to purchase vehicles and vehicle modifications, whereas reputation will allow you to unlock various races and challenges. Rockstar told us that even if you fail every single race in the game, you will still receive at least a small measure of reputation just for participating, meaning that eventually you can unlock all the activities in the city even if you're made of complete fail. It'll just take a very long time, however.
Street races are started by flashing your lights (the 'Y' button on the Xbox 360 version we played) at a vehicle flagged as a potential participant. This triggers a showdown that will see you lined up next to the vehicle and aimed in the general direction of a number of waypoints used to plot your path through the city. The best way to start is to hold down the accelerator (right trigger) and the handbrake ('A') to perform a burnout. It seems to make no difference if the vehicle is rear wheel drive or not - those with real hoon experience will be aware that applying the handbrake whilst spinning the rear wheels is a foolhardy, and expensive mistake. Nevertheless, in Midnight Club: Los Angeles you'll generate a plume of smoke, at which point releasing the handbrake (when the lights go green) will cause your vehicle to slew sideways in a realistic launch sequence whilst you rapidly head for the horizon.
Some races will offer you the option to race your competitor to the start line. This isn't without reward - you can earn reputation points and money based on your ability to get to the start line first, however if you'd rather just skip straight to the race you can do so. Rockstar told us that they want the player to be constantly moving and navigating, so as to get a better understanding of the city.
Once your reputation increases, you'll be informed of new challenges in the form of races and tournaments through your phone. After accepting these, it's a simple matter to jump to the world map and set a GPS target arrow to help guide you along the race route.
You do need to be careful when cruising around the city. Unlike previous Midnight Club releases, the police play a much more dynamic role. Blast past a cop at several hundred kilometres an hour, and you can expect to be chased, along with anyone else you happen to be racing against. Likewise if you run a red light. There were a couple of times during our presentation where we had to wait for our radar detector to stop clicking before we could start a race, and during one epic challenge we spent a substantial amount of time flying on and off the motorway trying to lose a pack of cops; eventually our car was destroyed and we were captured, only to be released a bit lighter in the wallet department.
We were also given a look at the car customisation features. Although we didn't see any of the performance tuning options, we were shown the extensive visual modifications you can apply to your chosen vehicle. It appears that the majority of previous customisation options are available from the DUB editions of the earlier games, but just like the rest of the game they've been expanded and enhanced.
Since Need For Speed: Underground started the trend, visual mods are standard fare for street racers these days, but in Midnight Club: Los Angeles you can not only change pretty much everything about the exterior of the car, even down to the license plates, but the interior is fully modeled and can be modified too. Don't like that steering wheel? No problem, change it for another. Ditto the racing seats or the colour of the dash and carpets. While this is somewhat pointless, it's fair to say that there will be hours of entertainment available just from tweaking the options to create your perfect ride.
Of course, commenting on any driving title without including a list of the vehicles you'll get to hoon around in is like reading a Kiwi Party political broadcast; hardly inspiring. But while Rockstar's official site currently lists the following cars, it is nowhere near the entire list - we were strictly advised not to mention any of the other models we saw in the game. Sorry.
- 1983 VW Golf GTI
- 2006 Pontiac Solstice
- 2008 Chrysler 300C SRT-8
- 2008 Audi RS4
- 2004 Ford Shelby Cobra
- Lamborghini Gallardo Spyder
- Dodge Challenger Concept
- Saleen S302 Extreme
- Chevrolet Corvette Z06
- Ford GT
Rockstar will reveal more of the car list on their site closer to the launch in early October. It won't be Gran Turismo sized, but take it from us, there are a lot.
It's difficult to put into words just how quickly things are occurring around you when you get to the upper limits of the velocity your chosen vehicle is capable of. In order to reach these speeds, you can rely on your driving skills, or simply wait for a straight enough stretch of road and hit the nitrous.
The cars we drove had only one nitrous hit per race, but we understand this is upgradable as a performance mod for your car. However you can get free nitrous hits by either blasting through a petrol station (you don't have to stop) or by drafting in an opponent's slipstream for a few seconds (and your opponents can do the same to you). When using the nitrous, the road blurs and the camera pulls alongside your car in a wheel-side camera mode, which can be a bit disconcerting at first, but eventually you learn to save it and only hit the nitro when you have enough clear road ahead of you to avoid any obstacles.
At the very heart of this game is an arcade experience second to none, so those expecting sweeping corners and well timed gear changes can forget it; you'd be going slower if you relied on a Saturn V rocket for propulsion. Personally I'd suggest you avoid caffeine prior to any gameplay, as the slightest twitch in the wrong place will result in a spectacular loss of talent followed by some furious driving to make up the time.
Midnight Club: Los Angeles is due out early October for PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, but in the meantime, you can grab the latest trailer from GP downloads here (42MB).