Publisher: Rockstar Games
Developer: Rockstar San Diego
Release Date: 04/08/2003
Occasionally a game comes along that is, for one reason or another, so engrossing that things like food and bathroom breaks are sacrificed on behalf of the Zen-like psychological state that comes from unfettered focus of the on-screen action. It’s been this way since the release of Pong on the Magnavox Odyssey and remains as such even to this day. It’s a part of gaming that is accepted on a pretty large scale, and in my line of work is considered a tolerable job hazard. Honestly, I don’t think any will be counted among the immense culture of gamers that would have it any other way. But Midnight Club II is different. I can deal with a growling stomach or “holding it” but I didn’t sign up for out of body experiences. The nitro-fueled intensity that is MCII grabbed me like no other game before did, keeping me enthralled to the point that not only did I feel I needed to forego basic bodily functions but requiring even that I ignore that screaming itch on my foot. If you want to stay alive during 200+ MPH careens through unexpected turns and heavy traffic, scratching that inevitable itch is out of the question. Midnight Club II is the cure for attention deficit disorder. Now if only Rockstar could teach me trigonometry while I play the game, they just might have something.
Midnight Club II is the sequel to the PS2 launch title of the same name and as such is focused purely on the intensity of illegal street racing. Boasting 28 non-licensed racing machines, MCII allows the player to compete with a host of extremely stylized opponents through three metropolitan cities: Los Angeles, Paris, and Tokyo. Every race requires that you hit checkpoints strategically placed in different locations of said cities. If you are the one who comes out on top your reward will be the competitor’s wheels and a pant-load of bragging rights. Since the races aren’t built around enclosed courses and instead take place in realistic city environments complete with back alleyways, narrow passages, and winding roads, the process of getting from point A to point B is incredibly non-linear, allowing you to strategically plan your own routes and utilize ambiguous shortcuts that are littered throughout the cities. The three included cities are basically rough scale models of the real-life areas, though it is quite clear that Rockstar focused far more on modifying the cities for maximum speed and fun than they did making sure that every squire inch is perfectly to scale.
Speed has never been conveyed to such an extent as what is found in Midnight Club II. The passion of intensity evoked within the player is unprecedented, to the point where they might have to make an addendum to the FCC video game epilepsy warning, or something. When playing Midnight Club II you can’t help but think “This is what it must feel like to be a dog sticking his head out the window of a fast moving automobile.” Pedestrians and traffic fly past you at breakneck speeds, and sometimes into you should a slight miscalculation make its way past your brain to your hands. Though in time you’ll learn to quickly recover from crashes and sometimes even use collisions to your advantage. There are times when you are weaving in and out of traffic, cornering with the precision of a Sidewinder infrared-homing missile through expansive open-ended cities with the music amping you up when you start to feel that you are acting purely from the center of your being, separating yourself from the chaos without, and transcending the limitations of known possibility.
The career mode of the game sets you loose in the city, allowing you to roam about as you please but requiring that you pull up behind one of the racers in that particularly city, flash your high-beams, and then tail that racer until he deems you worthy to compete in a real race. The proceeding races are all checkpoint-based but do vary in terms of style. For instance, one race might involve a host of competitors driving cars and motorcycles alike, while another race might be a one-on-one head-to-head street race, and still other races will require that you get to your destination only after you’ve lost the cops. The career mode is where you’ll want to go to receive some semblance of story and to unlock new goodies for use in the rest of the available modes of play. As you progress through career mode you’ll open up new vehicles, tricks, cities, and musical tracks.
Arcade mode is the most varied in terms of game play style, allowing you to cruise around the cities without worrying about crashing, race around predetermined courses within the city, replay any of the checkpoint races you’ve completed in career mode, or compete against human opponents in a number of different game styles such as capture the flag or a bombing run-esque style of play that involves a player picking up and delivering a detonator to a certain location. It should be noted that nearly every available mode of play mentioned here can be utilized online and power-ups are even present during multiplayer races, though I was unable to test this aspect of the game since broadband is not available in my neck of the woods.
The game play is old-school in every respect, but mostly in the sense that skill is the most important tool of progression, skill meaning precision tuned hand-eye coordination. Midnight Club II has received some major enhancements over the first game in this respect, though not to the point where the result feels drastically different or anything. For starters, you can now control your car in midair by holding L1 and tilting the analog stick in the direction you want the car to land. Also, by holding the handbrake and gas at the same time then letting off the brake you’ll be able to burn out, propelling your car forward very quickly at the beginning of a race. Drafting is also a newly-added focus in MCII: By driving directly behind a racer your turbo meter will fill, once it’s full you can initiate a turbo boost, which is useful when you want to conserve your nitro boosts. But the coolest new addition has got to be the ability to turn your car so that it is riding on only two wheels. By holding L1 and then pushing left or right while you are driving, the car will pop up on two wheels, allowing you to navigate through tight areas that would otherwise be far too narrow to get through. This maneuver is often times very tempting, though just as often it can spell disaster since driving on only two wheels makes you vulnerable to losing control of your car.
Since the environments found in Midnight Club II are so vast and intricate you’ll find that it will take some serious time to grow accustom to the various nuances of every race. Finding the perfect route is often a very time-consuming ordeal. Luckily, you won’t be flying blind, so to speak. A GTA-like radar system in the lower left-hand corner of the screen will give you the overview of the immediate vicinity, so adjusting your route on the fly is a viable, and sometimes necessary, option. Also a large overhead translucent arrow is constantly pointing you in the direction of the next checkpoint, which is helpful when you are too busy dodging traffic to look at the radar. Every racer is marked as a green arrow on your radar, which gives you a good idea of different paths that can be taken to reach your destination. But in the end, even with this streamlined navigation system and spot-on controls, it won’t take long to realize that winning races will require a large investment in time.
The AI is otherworldly, like Data’s emotion chip, that’s what this is a prototype of, but the only emotion in the Midnight Club II engine is aggression. Competing racers will knock you about, slamming you to the side a split second before a critical maneuver must be performed -- though, somehow, if you channel the energy of creativity you can always find a way to overcome the constant adversity. Nitro boosts are very tempting to use but since the AI is programmed to give the player a sense of always being just a hair ahead of or behind the competition, they aren’t always that useful. When the time comes, you won’t need to use nitro to win, you’ll just have to dodge bullets. Two-ton bullets that are whizzing by at hundreds of miles per hour, but bullets nonetheless. The game forces you to transcend that which you think is impossible, modesty is optional.
It is hard to appreciate just how good MCII looks when the scenery is blowing by you at mach speed, but take a look at some of these screenshots and you’ll start to understand just how talented the folks at Rockstar San Diego really are. Texture quality = amazing. The visuals are eerily X-box quality, the PS2 must be magic. The car and motorcycle models are breathtaking, and the fact that each vehicle has layer upon layer of dynamic depictions of destruction is definitely a plus. The frame rate is steady at 30FPS throughout, though there are instances when one can make out slight fluctuations. Tons of awesome special effects can be spotted in any given race, but the particle effects, most notably, look downright amazing. Environments are teeming with detail, right down to the shop signs of local businesses, and draw distance is never brought into question. I wouldn’t be surprised of Rockstar ends up using the Midnight Club II engine for the driving component in the next Grand Theft Auto, it would certainly get the job done, not to mention how cost effective it would be.
Every form of technological presence in Midnight Club II exists only to compliment the other, and thus is created the world’s first realization of digital interactive perfection, within the domain of the current state of technology, of course. The original music that was created for use in this game runs the gambit of rap, electronic, and even jungle and more often than not lasts the same amount of time it takes to reach the last checkpoint. So as you are speeding towards the last checkpoint you are also hearing the conclusion of the user-selected song. The music consists entirely of songs that kick major ass, so right off the bat you are wanting to play just to listen to new cool music (been neglecting your MP3 collection, have you?). There isn’t many tracks included, perhaps a long album’s worth (Project Gotham and GTA: Vice City are still the respective king and queen of that prom), but the music that is included is so focused on perfection of ambiance and originality that MCII should be recognized for it. Just looking at these words about the game’s soundtrack makes me want to put down my keyboard and mouse and play the game, “screw the review, they’ll all find out soon enough how truly neat-arrific this game is with or without my incessant blathering.”
It’s like trying to explain the beauty of a flower, or the importance of gravity, or the gravity of levity. But knowing that words alone cannot do this game justice, I’ll attempt to sum it up in three small words: speed, speed, and, wait for it .. speed. They say that large amounts of adrenaline are secreted during life or death/fight or flight situations, but I’d venture to speculate that Midnight Club II accomplishes roughly the same task. But the focus here is not physical, the elevation of intensity is largely psychological because it is not always easy to distinguish between where the intentional dynamics of the game occur and where the artificial intelligence ends. The scope of the whole game is intimidating, and more than intimidating, inherently insulting. You are constantly kicked while you’re down. And that is ultimately what forces you to succeed. Although taking a turn at 192 mph and weaving through oncoming traffic like an electron on a trace also has a lot to do with it.
Rockstar knows racing, their entire foundation is based on it in one way or another. Rockstar’s relevancy in the videogame industry is beginning to become abundantly apparent thanks largely to their advancements in and around the racing genre. To think that such a developer is based out of America carries a certain sense of patriotic significance in an industry that is largely dominated by Japanese development studios. Although, the Japanese may be saying the same thing about Konami’s Winning Eleven Soccer simulator, which we, until only recently, have not necessarily had the chance to play despite its immense Japanese popularity. Who knows. But Midnight Club II is an amazing game, and that fact is irrefutable.
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