After raking in the millions with Grand Theft Auto IV in April, Rockstar is back with another hot title for 2008, this time with much less controversy, but a similar level of anticipation.
The Midnight Club series has a substantial fan-base of its own and Midnight Club: Los Angeles has been on many peoples' radars for months now. In true Rockstar style however, they have gone for bigger and better, faster and shinier than before.
On starting up Midnight Club: Los Angeles, you'll be thrown directly into the game without the need for any pesky menus - this seems to be a growing trend these days. Immediately you are made familiar with your character, the nameless, neutral protagonist who has come to Los Angeles to pursue a career as an illegal street racer. Like its predecessors, Midnight Club: Los Angeles is all about illegal street racing in hotted-up cars.
Your character is given a low end car by a contact you have in the city, who is your window into underground racing. The story is all too familiar from the likes of Need for Speed, but it doesn’t seem to get old. The cut scenes are very cinematic and look fantastic, but it is clear that the story is by no means the emphasis of this game. For a racer, this is probably a good thing.
Los Angeles has been chosen as the scene for this iteration, and it is truly epic. As far as we can tell every main and side street in Los Angeles has been put into the game, along with street names and a considerable number of branded stores to boot. The Hollywood Hills, Santa Monica, Beverley Hills, Downtown, it's all there in the game for you to race around, or explore at your leisure. Midnight Club: Los Angeles has to be one of the best-looking titles of the year, the graphics are simply mind blowing. Everything looks very crisp, from the cars to the pedestrians wandering the streets. The cars have roughly 100,000 polygons each, which explains why they look so spectacular. Rubbish whips past your windows as you race down the freeway, kicked up by cars ahead, and despite being an open, streaming world there is no noticeable pop-up at all.
The streaming engine is quite impressive, and the whole world and experience is seamless - though this should come as no surprise as it is based on the same Rockstar Advanced Game Engine (RAGE) used in Grand Theft Auto IV. The longest you’ll be waiting is when you change cars in the garage, but other than that you’ll be in the world virtually non-stop. The open world means you can drive anywhere, any time, and the dynamic weather and day and night cycle make it feel as though you could really be cruising the streets of Los Angeles.
Watch out though, driving too fast past the cops will soon have LA’s finest on your tail. The longer you run, the higher the ticket price - if (or when) they catch you. Evade them for long enough (and get out of their line of sight) to avoid them. This is another element which makes you feel simply immersed in a real hustle-and-bustle city. Coupled with the massive, Pacific coast-themed soundtrack included which amps you up for driving, it's a real pleasure to cruise the streets and check out the sights.
As you start out, the game is outlined to you by messages received on your communication device, which is a sort of cross between a pager and a phone. This prevents you from being overwhelmed by the number of different aspects to the game. There are the nitro boosts, the GPS, power ups, gas stations and more, and it takes a short while to get a handle on it. But once you're sitting pretty behind the wheel of your car, you can admire the beautiful in-car cockpit view that Rockstar has created.
Each car is accurately recreated and looks magnificent, with fully ‘functioning’ hands on the wheel that will even hit the horn. Although strangely they don't move when using the handbrake. In any case, the first thing we noticed was the fabulous handling that all the cars seem to have, including the motorbikes. They have a solid centred feel to them, without feeling as though they could turn on a dime. While this is definitely an arcade racer not a simulation, the cars are precise to control, and you will soon be whipping between traffic with relative ease. The inclusion of a slip-streaming option that gives you a nitrous boost is also nice, although we have definitely seen it all before.
You can also redistribute the weight on your car or bike, which helps with cornering on bikes and allows you to ride up on two wheels in your car. The advantage of this is it reduces your slipstream profile meaning that competitors behind you can’t use your slipstream. Not to mention that it makes you feel a bit like Knight Rider.
The emphasis on visual damage instead of performance damage is a plus in an environment that is so chock full of traffic, trees, lamp posts and the like. Needless to say, you would be hard pressed to finish a race without hitting a few things, therefore the damage is mainly visual. Although with each crash a damage meter incrementally fills, and if during the race it fills up entirely you will be out and forced to replace the vehicle. At the end of each race you are given the option of repairing your vehicle for free, but to fully remove all the scratches and scuffs and get the shine back on your paint job you will need to pull into a service station.
With over forty gorgeous vehicles, and three bikes in the game, from a 1969 Ford Mustang Boss 302 to a 1999 Nissan Skyline GT-R V-Spec, or even the 2008 Audi RS4, you’ll be wanting to keep them looking nice. To achieve this, you can access the garage along with a wealth of tuning options for your car, including a range of performance tuning and body modifications. You can then access a livery editor in which you can create your own logos much like in Forza 2. If you create a true masterpiece you can list the car for sale on Xbox Live, which will sell a copy of the car earning you cash, but retain the original for you. Or you can enter it into the Rate My Ride competition and have people vote on their favourite rides, all from within the game's menu system.