Publisher: Rockstar Games
Developer: Rockstar London
Release Date: October 20, 2008
You know, I wish for a minute that Rockstar had taken the driving mechanics from the Midnight Club series and put them in GTA IV because then I might have made fewer trips through my car's windshield and been able to whip around the city like the true baller I am. While that wasn't meant to be, Rockstar did deem the PSP worthy for inclusion in its most recent round of street racing games, launching Midnight Club: L.A. Remix for Sony's struggling handheld. Thankfully, rather than rushing together a sloppy port job, you can tell that Rockstar took its time with this one, and the result is yet another terrific racing game on the PSP.
Remix is not a port of the console versions of Midnight Club Los Angeles, but rather an entirely different entity with its own story line and a few new characters. True, the two games obviously take place in the same city, and the cast list is largely shared across both iterations, but the similarities end there, as Remix is truly an experience all its own. The basic premise is that you play as an East Coast transplant trying to make it big in the L.A. street-racing scene. As you take on challenges, victory earns you money and rep, which are the keys to advancement. Money is used for the obvious things — tricking out your car, buying accessories and even unlocking brand new rides — while rep basically acts like your experience meter. As you win more races, you advance in rank and are then offered tougher challenges. The upside to this is that you can control how quickly or slowly you advance through the ranks by picking your challenges, but the downside is that with what is essentially an experience bar comes a bit of old-fashioned RPG level-grinding.
The game is completely free-roaming, dropping you in the middle of the city and pointing out challenges via markers on your mini-map and colored smoke flares in the road. You simply cruise the city until you find the challenge you want to tackle, and then flash your headlights when you're in range and get ready to rock. There are three different levels of challenges, denoted by green, yellow and red smoke, and you almost always have a choice when it comes to deciding where to go next. Even though certain races are required in order to advance, Remix keeps the map stocked with plenty of simple checkpoint races in case you want to juice up your car before taking on the big boys or would simply rather ride around and take things at your own pace.
Gamers would be well-served to take some time to learn the streets before getting too caught up in the racing, both for practical and entertainment reasons. First off, L.A. is a big place even on the tiny PSP, so racers will need to learn all of the shortcuts and special tricks that will be necessary for keeping AI players off their back. Also, while the game is in no way totally accurate when it comes to portraying the City of Angels, several landmarks are included, and it's much easier to check them out when you aren't zooming by at 150mph. The Hollywood sign, LAX and the Staples Center are all depicted in the title, as well as many other L.A. tourist traps. Later on in the game, players are transported from L.A. to Tokyo, and while I can't speak to the actual authenticity of the streets and locales, it sure feels like you're racing through Japan's most bustling city.
When you're ready to stop sightseeing and start racing, then you'll find that this isn't the same old boring racer we've all seen a million times over. The challenges are nice and varied, though early on you will likely be overwhelmed by simple one-off checkpoint races. As you advance, though, you'll unlock circuits, time trials, delivery (frantic affairs where you have to get a car to a certain location in a certain amount of time and with minimal damage) and many others. Granted, the game does lull from time to time, forcing you through a series of checkpoint races in order to get to anything good, but the wait is worth it because when you do finally see a different style of challenge unlock, you'll likely go racing straight for it so you can get a dose of variety, which is much-needed for games in this genre.
Unfortunately, some challenges can be exceptionally frustrating, as the combination of traffic and super-aggressive AI opponents will make your life miserable for a long stretch of time. I remember one occasion where I was lined up for one of the green (easy) races, but due to the combination of weather (it was raining), my car (I was in a stripped-down luxury car with awful handling), and the course design (lots of sharp turns, very few long straightaways), I had to restart roughly a dozen times before I found the route, speed and lucky breaks I needed in order to triumph. Frustrations like these are rare at first, but as you climb your way through the ranks, you may find your patience wearing thin as a few tiny mistakes add up into either an outright loss or a race so tight that you'll wonder if your opponents ever so much as slightly oversteer, let alone crash outright.
Remix also features some pretty creative multiplayer modes, moving beyond traditional races into more kooky fare. Paint mode sees you and an opponent trying to hit as many checkpoints as possible before the time limit expires, thereby "painting" them your color. Of course you can steal from one another, so things quickly come down to playing both offense and defense as you try and pick off his gates while making sure your own don't end up surrendered. Tag is also entertaining, forcing all of the racers to stay within a certain proximity of the "It" car without getting touched. This mode is a lesson in close-quarters mayhem, with smashing and dashing appearing front and center. There's plenty more where that came from, so those who prefer to race against friends don't have to worry at all about Remix being a lonely affair.
Obviously, every good racing game needs a solid complement of cars, and Remix comes through in that department by delivering dozens of vehicles in several different varieties. All cars are broken down first by class (A-D) and then by type (exotics/tuners, muscle cars and luxury vehicles). The main differences between the classes are defined by top-end stats and the number of available nitro boosts, while the type of car you drive will provide players with the most notable differences. For example, tuners are quick and nimble, but can't take much damage before they total out, costing you time and usually race position. They also have a special ability called "zone," where if you drive a clean race for a little while, you'll be able to tap Circle and bring the world around you into slow motion. This is obviously meant for precision driving, allowing players to squeeze through gaps in traffic or whip around tight turns with minimal lost momentum. Luxury cars, on the other hand, are big, brutish and don't mind dishing out the pain. These cars tend to be slower and handle more sloppily, but you can bang them off pretty much anything in the environment, and they'll keep right on rolling. The special ability for these cars is "aggro," charged by grinding and smashing into other cars until the meter fills. Once engaged, aggro allows players to crash and smash through any car in their way without losing a bit of speed or causing any more damage. The game also features muscle cars and even a few motorcycles, both of which have their own unique advantages and disadvantages.
Even though every gamer will likely have a preference for what vehicle he drives, Remix will put you through the paces with all of them, forcing racers to constantly adapt their driving styles in order to play to each car's strength. It's a testament to Rockstar that every time you switch from one vehicle type to another, there's a definite adjustment period as you once again come to terms with steering sensitivity, acceleration capabilities and braking capacity. You aren't just racing the same basic model with different skins; every car and bike feel different, and it's completely awesome.
Remix is also one of the best-looking PSP games, complete with slick car models and level construction that really convey a sense of speed. There are still some faults, and it's mainly the visual department that keeps Remix from reaching a higher plane of gaming existence. First off, nearly all of the races go down at night, meaning that you have to keep an eye out for traffic when you can't really see the cars. This is an issue even for console games meant to be played on the big screen, so imagine how it goes on a handheld when the visual space is so much more constricted. Cars are sometimes near impossible to see, as are certain streets or shortcuts. The problem isn't helped by the vague checkpoint markers, which just give you a general sense of where the next gate is and then leave you to go on your way. I can't count how many times I missed a turn or ended up on the completely wrong street because I was forced to try and guess my route based on a vague arrow and a mini-map that really lives up to its name. It isn't a huge, huge deal, but there will be several times when you slam into something you didn't even know was there or end up way behind because you had to guess which way to go at one intersection and chose poorly.
The bigger problem comes with loading and frame rate drops, both of which are a bane throughout. Every time you enter or leave a race, head to the garage or do anything else other than simply drive around, you are forced to sit through a very long load screen. Now, I'm not saying this is the sort of issue that could be completely removed from a handheld game on a UMD disc, but the wait does border on ridiculous a few times. I'd look the other way if the game featured buttery smooth frame rates, but sadly, it does not. The start of nearly every race is plagued by tremendous slowdown, as is just about any other point in the game when all of the racers are bunched in the same area. If you can get far enough ahead of (or behind) the pack, the problem is alleviated, but it really hurts when you miss a turn because you accurately anticipated the angle and speed but didn't account for the fact that the game as a whole was about to come to a screeching halt. At least you have something to think about in your final moments of life before kissing the concrete wall face-first at subsonic speeds.
While the PSP has struggled to find massive success like the DS, the system has built up a rather impressive collection of racing titles, and Midnight Club: L.A. Remix should be proud to earn a spot alongside them. The game is occasionally frustrating and is prone to a few bugs, but it's also easily one of the deepest, most immersive titles to come out on the system for quite some time. We've come to expect a lot from the Rockstar pedigree, no matter what the game is, and I'm happy to say that they've come through even on what is arguably the least popular mainstream device of this generation. If you've got a PSP and a need for speed, then go ahead and pop in Remix; just promise that you aren't going to try this at home afterwards.