Publisher: Rockstar Games
Developer: Rockstar San Diego
Release Date: October 20, 2008
Rockstar's Midnight Club franchise has a storied history on the previous generation of consoles, although, prior to this new Los Angeles title, it has not made an appearance in the HD era. On this point, the inclusion of high-end video and audio into the series, Midnight Club: Los Angeles does not disappoint. The title's graphics engine, updated and redefined for the newer consoles, is a marvel of just-enough detail married with the horsepower to carry the urban speed thrills and steelworks carnage of over-the-top street racing.
Gameplay in Midnight Club: Los Angeles is much the same, for better or worse, as previous iterations of the franchise, so you're going to have to like Midnight Club, or at least street racers sans realism, to enjoy this title. But who doesn't love a good street race? The city of Los Angeles is nicely rendered, but it should be obvious, and I'll make clear that this is not L.A.: It's a deftly refined in-game implementation of L.A. Gamers who live in L.A., or who've driven quite a bit over her streets, will have an easier time only with the basics of driver navigation, such as knowing roughly where Sunset and Vine intersect, and when barreling to a race start knowing near-instinctively that Laurel Canyon is "thattaway."
Otherwise, beyond major landmarks and street grids positioned roughly where they belong, connecting loosely to what they should, the Midnight Club version of the infamous American West Coast city belongs entirely to Rockstar San Diego. For example, after several hours of playing, I was finally comfortable enough to look around a bit while tearing over surface roads. I noticed the noticeable, cylindrical Capitol Records building to my left, about exactly where it should be in L.A., but due to the abbreviated, compressed street layout around it, I never could get to an approach on the office tower that I recall from actually coming up on the building in real-world L.A. Still, this paring-down is a big plus in zero loading time and seamless gameplay because if you had to tool all around a life-size L.A. looking for racers and races, you'd quickly tire of the exercise. It's important to note that if you're a SoCal denizen, you'll have perhaps a toe up, but you'll not have the immediate mad skills you might think. Playing like you're driving through your real hometown might set you back more than it helps.
For everyone, locals or those who've never laid rubber to road in L.A., Rockstar provides as navigational aids the familiar "smoking" light beacons ? they look somewhat like nightclub fog/colored spotlight effects set in the middle of intersections ? the equally familiar mini-map in the left-hand corner of a wisely spare, get-of-the-way HUD, and a full 3-D, multi-perspective, zoom-enabled "GPS" map of the whole city, which has your various goals marked within the realm of fictional L.A. street racing. Finally, there's a nice fold-out map included in the game box, all streets detailed over an image that does its best to look like a real satellite photo of this unreal Los Angeles. Despite the crutches, knowing where you're going, especially during impossibly fast races, ultimately relies on spending a great deal of time with the game, learning not only how to get from A to B, but also how fast you can take each and every turn along the way from A to B.
That's a general theme in Los Angeles: Like the title's substantial selection of cars you're able to buy for lots of customization in performance and flash, the game is built to last. If you're passionate about arcade racers, the new Midnight Club is a thrifty purchase, as it could easily be your only game this holiday season, which is both good and bad. I gave PlayStation 3's Ridge Racer title that kind of attention, but I'd finish playing through Resistance a couple of times, never caught onto that shooter's online community, and the PS3 was still deep in its ramp-up period to a full library of good games. In today's PS3 market, you're unlikely to want to dedicate yourself to just one title, no matter how good, through a holiday season that promises to break your bank account by the end of February if you buy every title you want to play that's indeed worth playing. But Los Angeles demands from the average racing gamer just about this level of commitment to wring everything out of the game.
Short of playing through all of the easy races, the game is hard, too. Really hard. Throw-the-controller hard. Some will say, too hard. Others who merely dabble in racers for a quick-play thrill, they'll say, way too hard. There would be a clear issue with play-balancing in Los Angeles, were it not for Rockstar San Diego's smart decision to pass out rep for every race, rep for escaping the cops in a chase, rep for merely consenting to race an adversary to the starting line of the main race event. You'll also gain rep for writing checks to be spent on new cars and garage upgrades for finishing dead last in a two-man race, and even third place against a field of challengers.
Easy, or "green," races highlighted on your GPS are indeed quite easy, and you should take top spot by a mile within in a couple of attempts, but you'll find yourself often struggling to break the top three on medium difficulty, or "yellow," events, and taking care to drive near-perfectly for long stretches. This in a game that practically begs you to rack up once or twice every race by pushing your super-fueled, tricked-out car to, literally, new heights. Hard, or "red" races, you'll never win unless you get lucky, or as previously mentioned, devote hours and hours to learning the map, knowing the shortcuts you'll absolutely have to make to get even near a first-place position. It's not enough to drudge through lots of easy and medium races, earning rep and cash, to buy better cars and upgrade them out of this world. Your AI opponents, you'll discover, have been up to the very same thing, buying new cars and outfitting them to beat you back to the suburbs.
Graphics, are absolutely a highlight in Los Angeles. A dynamic, or configurable, day/night cycle complements excellent architectural models and lighting, from the shine of street lamps and the glow of custom neon trim jobs to glints, reflections and other effects. Compared to the city itself, the car models look a little bit weary. This matters because Midnight Club looks best from an "over-the-roof" perspective at some standout from the vehicle. At least the paint jobs and vinyls look very good. Unfortunately, in the PS3 version of the title, there's some pop-in of not only textures but objects in the environment, at what appears to be fairly close distance.
This isn't significant, a blink-and-you'll-miss-it proposition, with cliffside foliage and the crowns of distant skyscrapers, but you may be stunned to discover, as I was during a night race, a high-speed, tire-squealing right turn into a well-lit intersection uncovers a Sunday driver's VW Rabbit popping in two feet in front of you. No brakes upgrade will handle that; the phantom Rabbit all but ended the race for me. I did, however, only see this issue once in all the time I spent with the game. It's only a serious issue if you're rabid to win every race and a wreck puts you too far behind the leader, or causes you to damage-out in the middle of a race (you can follow the health of your ride in the right hand corner of the HUD with the damage indicator). I'd further say, it's only a serious issue if it happens with consistency, and it didn't during my experience with Los Angeles, but it is the sort of thing to put you off the game were it to happen when you're about to clinch the "red"-level race that you've tried so many times.
Audio effects in this Midnight Club are very good, but the voice acting and musical soundtrack are lackluster. Actually we'd all recognize the voice acting as stale, but there's little of it that you're required to listen to when you're not driving around, racing, doing something important and often thrilling. The music simply may be a matter of taste, but there are only a couple of memorable tracks, though you may have heard half of the playlist somewhere at some time. Rockstar seems to have itself in a bind of its own making regarding in-game soundtracks. The various big-R studios pioneered the use of good, even great, licensed recorded music in games. All talent agents and label reps could see for a while were giant electric signs flashing "Vast Untapped Market." Now it's practically expected for top-tier titles lacking an original score to have a raft of licensed tracks. Whether it's artists or labels holding out their best tracks for exclusive deals in a Guitar Hero or Rock Band game, or just because labels and artists can now command high fees and thus do, it's getting harder and harder to find a game with a solid, large track list besmirched by only three or four throwaway tunes. Midnight Club: Los Angeles is no exception, but you can always turn off the music, or cull or skip what you don't like.
Los Angeles has a robust, quick-access competitive online game built into it. It's chockfull of stuff for anybody with a broadband Internet connection, which, of course is just about everyone really interested in this game. This is as good as it gets, but I'm beginning to suspect that there's something intrinsically non-addictive to the online competitive facet of otherwise wholly addicting racers. As I've come to expect, the casual aspects of the online Los Angeles experience are typically more fun, and more interesting, than the competitive modes ? think SingStar and Rock Band for the casual gaming design model.
"Rate My Ride", a standout feature, allows you to post your vehicle profile ? paint, vinyls, the works ? and receive gamer feedback on your trick-out talents. You can also sell your vehicle profiles to anyone wanting it via "Rate My Ride," but keep in mind that this only pays in Midnight Club tender. If you are enamored of online racing competition, Los Angeles is about tied with Burnout Paradise for immersion and accessibility, and that's high praise indeed. Numerous race types are available: a solo capture the flag; a team-based capture the flag called "Basewar; a second team-based flag capture called "Splitbase"; "Keepaway", which plays exactly as you'd imagine; unordered races, just like in the career mode with but with real, live gamers; and then two more flag-capture modes, both solo and team versions of a really mad dash called "Stockpile."
There's no shortage of diversity in online competition, but I'd applaud Rockstar more for including those aforementioned casual features in the online experience. Without those features as accessible to casual gamers as die-hards, you'd either have to be particularly gifted at arcade racers or fully devoted to Los Angeles to have much of a shot at online stardom. You can spend all of your time muddling along, earning rep and money for your mostly pitiful offline career, and yet still be an online star, earning accolades and big bucks for your hard-won vehicle profiles. This, of course, gives you more in-game money to do even bigger and better things with those cars. On the road of life, there are drivers ? but there are also customizers, tuners and mechanics. In online Los Angeles, you can be any one or combination of talents.
There are no doubt similarities between Midnight Club: Los Angeles and Burnout Paradise, but more in the design of things they both do well, less an issue with "copycat syndrome." Burnout Paradise will always have bragging rights for getting there first, especially with their fully realized drop-in access to online driving, but as Burnout is beginning to influence online games outside its genre, you can't but expect it to leave a mark on games right square in its genre. These are distinctly different games, as Rockstar addresses by allowing gamers to establish online races outside the now-familiar, drop-in cruise mode. Midnight Club races are not Burnout races, and this is nicely accommodated in the online modes without being forced to ditch justly popular cruise modes altogether.
Mind-numbing difficulty is used too much, typically in shooters, to stretch a seven-hour campaign game with little or no online support to perhaps 12 hours. You can blast through on the easiest setting, but you do this of your own accord, abbreviating the time the game will last you. Not only is there no way to "dumb down" Los Angeles across the board, but the game is so expansive in game world, online play and single-player career mode that there's no reason at all to make so many of the races so damn hard. This is where Burnout Paradise clearly trumps Los Angeles, in play-balancing. The EA title was far more immediately satisfying, allowing a dedicated player to earn his or her Burnout license merely by putting in the hours and improving a bit. I had my Burnout license very quickly, but the game disc was apparently stuck in the PlayStation 3 for a couple of months, as I played offline a lot, online some, and continued chipping away at those Burnout Elite prerequisites. Los Angeles could have staked out that same territory without shorting the gamer at all. In fact, the game would have been an overall better experience for it.
Midnight Club: Los Angeles is still a great racer and a great game, but unless your luck tends toward winning big lotteries back-to-back or you have supernatural ability at arcade racers, the price of entry into the current-gen Midnight Club title is giving up your meticulous win-every-race attitude, if you have one. If you do give up those lofty goals, in this context perhaps impossible goals, and Los Angeles will be your favorite racer - for many of you, on- and offline - for some time to come.
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