Developer: Rockstar San Diego
Release Date: June 4, 2003
Admittedly, the game first appeared on the Playstation 2, but it can't be denied that the Xbox version is at least a little better than it, in more than one respect. For one thing, the framerate has been upped and holds steady at a solid 60 FPS - and smoothness is an important factor in racing games, for sure. The graphics have also been sharpened, giving it - for the most part - a very pretty look. And perhaps most importantly, gamers will now be able to hop on Xbox Live and play in a number of fun games. Many people have found this online racing to be extremely addictive, and some even tout it as "the best gaming experience I've had this year." (Unfortunately, having no broadband, I was not able to test the service. However, I have heard from a number of people that the game is not only great fun, but also quite lag-free.)
There are a number of modes available, and there's bound to be one that strikes your fancy. There's an Arcade Mode with a number of options. You can simply cruise around any of the unlocked cities, take part in pre-set races, or play some multiplayer games with your buddy. The main mode of play is of course the Career Mode, where you cruise around the city in the darkest hours of the day until you find a fellow racer of the aptly named 'Midnight Club'. With a quick blink of your high-beams, you signal that you're up for a race. Then you need to follow him as he weaves through traffic and tricky streets until he deems you good enough to race. This is where five or six other guys join in and the race begins.
The races themselves are made up entirely of checkpoints. The cities are absolutely gigantic, and filled with tons of shortcuts and alternative routes to any one destination. While the majority of races you'll see make you go from checkpoint-to-checkpoint, until you reach the last one, there are also some that allow you to go through the city and pass through all of the checkpoints in any order you please. Either way, there's a lot of thinking involved because sometimes a little shortcut or a different path is all you'll need to pull ahead of the pack. The onscreen map is a gigantic help. It's a circle in the lower-left-hand of the screen that rotates according to your direction. It shows major routes, the positions of other racers, and most importantly, where the next checkpoint is.
It should be known that this game is hard. Really, really hard. It's only a couple of races in before you'll be working that Retry button over and over. This game is for the dedicated, not for those with a lack of patience. You must come in first place to win - second place means jack in this game. And the enemy AI - while reasonably good - is at times noticeably rubber-band. This means that the race is very competitive, and usually ends with very close results. When enemies are in front of you, they'll slow down so you can keep up with them. When you're in front of them - even if you do extremely good throughout the race - they'll always be right on your tail. While this can be a good thing, making for exciting races, it has some annoying points. For one, it means that practically everyone rides in a pack throughout the whole race and you'll rarely see other cars taking many different routes. But the really bad part is that even if you drive extremely well throughout the whole race, avoiding collisions and taking the best paths, one slight mess-up near towards the end of the race will send the entire pack screaming past you. And since it's either first-place or nothin', there's no point in continuing once one person has finished...yes, you'll definitely be using that retry option a lot.
The control is fairly sharp, for the most part. The game certainly has an arcadey feel, and doesn't try to be too realistic. Sometimes it seems as if your car is super-light and gets shoved around far too easily, but for the most part, the physics are okay. There are also a number of neat little moves you can pull off. You have your standard nitrous boost - each car can only carry so many - but you can also gain some gnarly (I couldn't help myself) speed by taking advantage of Slip-Stream-Turbo. When you get right behind another car, a small meter will fill up on the side of the screen. When it's full, you can gain a quick spurt of speed and blast ahead. Sure, you'd never see it happen in real life, but it is a lot of fun to do. You can also perform a burnout by simply holding in your handbrake and accelerating - handy when you need a quick spurt of speed from a neutral position. Another nifty ability is what the game calls Weight Transfer - when holding in a button and moving the left stick in any given direction, you can influence the car (or motorcycle) to lean that way. It's especially handy when you need to even yourself out from coming off a big jump, or making sharp turns on a bike. You can even tilt your car so it drives on two wheels for a distance, enabling you to fit in very narrow places or glide between cars.
There are a ton of cars. It should be said that none of them are officially licensed cars, but it's not hard to see that many of the cars in the game were modeled after popular real-life cars. There are also some motorcycles that you can ride, and while they are certainly not as plentiful as the cars, they're still a lot of fun to drive around. The cities themselves are awesome. There are only three locations - Los Angeles, Paris, and Tokyo - but each is gigantic, and filled with tons of unique buildings (some of which you can drive through), cool scenery (how about driving through a pleasant little park?), tons of hidden routes (Paris has a gigantic underground system), and lots of traffic, of course. I'm tempted to say that this is some of the best level design I've seen since the classic Beetle Adventure Racing, and best of all, you can drive through it in an entirely non-linear fashion.
The graphics are pretty good, throughout. Each of the buildings has their own look to them, and one street is certainly recognizable from another - just because the cities are huge doesn't mean they have to look boring. The night sky is complemented nicely with lots of bright street-lights and such... many of which, of course, are breakable. And while they're not much real-time damage compared to other games (Pro Race Driver, anyone?) it isn't entirely missing; you'll notice some scrapes and dents, and if you're banging your car up a lot, some smoke hissing from the front. Pedestrians are fun to hit, but they are graphically the worst part of the game: each is animated fairly badly and always dissappear a second after they're knocked over. A little disappointing, having played games like GTA, for sure, but overall it's a tiny dent in a graphically strong game.
The sound is, to me, one of the most disappointing aspects. While I understand that Midnight Club II is shooting for a certain feel with its music, and games like Jet Set Radio Future have certainly lulled me in with their trippy sounds, I can't help but feel extremely annoyed after listening to a couple minutes of the junk in this game. It's either a generic techno or an utterly boring rap song, and I'm not just saying that because I don't like either of those genres - I do, in fact, but this stuff is just pretty bad. I'll admit that a few of the techno tracks had me interested, but that's all the merit I'm giving this soundtrack. It would have been so much better - and a lot more logical - to include custom soundtrack support. At least the engines are done rather nicely, so it's not all bad. The voice acting is also outstanding. Some of the people you'll meet in the game are incredibly annoying, but if you stop and think about it, Rockstar probably meant for them to be that way - and they succeeded. There are a number of nice, pleasant folk, too, that will be glad to help you out - a good touch.
Overall, Midnight Club II is a pretty darn good game. I can't deny that the races are extremely fun at times, and I love the gigantic levels. The control is good, and while the physics are not perfect, they are more than adequate. Admittedly, the music is pretty cruddy, and no custom soundtrack support is disappointing. But the graphics are good, and the voice-acting helps make up for the weak tunes. Overall, the only thing Midnight Club II has to bother people with is it's difficulty level - it certainly isn't entirely fair, and even then, you're going to have to plan your routes as best as possible and drive just as well. There IS a cheat code to lower the difficulty level, and it wouldn't surprise me if many of you resorted to using it - I can't say the game is great for those who get frustrated easily. But for anyone looking for a challenge - or just a damn fine racing title - this is definitely worth checking out. Plus, there's online play, for all of you broadband-bearing folk out there. Midnight Club II is an original, refreshing title that probably shouldn't be missed.
Score : 8.8/10
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