In Los Angeles, everybody is called Homie Dog. It must be a nightmare when arranging the seating plan for a wedding, but in videogames it gives a sense of consistency: sure, they have nicknames like Terrence and Geoffrey, but when you’re racing down Santa Monica Boulevard at 100mph listening to the inate squabble between drivers over the heavy electronica beats, well, it just works. In Midnight Club: Los Angeles everything seems to just fit, and despite LA not being the most memorable of locations (mainly the fault of whoever it is that plans American cities) the game itself is actually quite brilliant.
Yes, it’s another street racer, but then when Midnight Club revolutionised the genre of modding and tuning you can’t fault the developers for sticking to their wheelnuts with the first next-gen game in the series. And yes, it follows the exact same principles as the previous games, namely racing to checkpoints dotted around an open city, but again this is something that most other racers don’t bother with, so it gives Midnight Club its own little niche in the increasingly crowded pack. And, finally, yes, the storyline is hammy, over scripted and far too serious, but it fits perfectly with the Fast and The Furious mentality and for us that’s more than good enough.
So, starting out with either a beaten up old GTi or Scirocco, the player arrives in the City of Angels fresh from the East Coast, and gets involved with a few racer groups in order to increase his reputation. Win races, build your rep, unlock more races, win money, unlock cars. Repeat ad infinitum and you’ve got yourself the storymode. It doesn’t ever get any more complicated, except that certain races are flagged as ‘missions’ and these are the scripted, cut-scene bolstered events that progress the main story thread, although you’re free (and actively encouraged) to take your own path through the various race types as you wish. From time trials to red-light races, from Highway battles to checkpoint challenges, it’s all here, present and correct.
The thing that holds all this together is the sublime interface. No matter where you are, tap Select and up pops the main map highlighting everything you need to know, but instead of just appearing as a flat graphic, the game instantly zooms out to reveal the whole of LA, Test Drive Unlimited style. It’s incredibly slick, and requires no load times as it does this between races and garage visits; somebody should tell Criterion. The same system brings up the various menu items from the Start button too – never are you thrown into an arbitary menu that breaks the illusion of being in the game, and it’s brilliantly handled.
The same flair extends to the main game too: the in-car dashboard views are to die for, with the most convincing hand/wheel movements we’ve ever seen, and everything shakes, blurs and reacts just like a real car would if you could get away with jumping down steps with your nitrous screaming out the exhaust. Yes, it’s over stylised and the external cameras designed to look just like they do in the movies, but this is a videogame and when a game is just as exciting to watch as it is to play then you know the developers are doing something right. Traffic dodging, handbrake corners, last second wins – they’re all part of the Midnight Club experience and easily the most impressive gameplay moments in a racing game this generation.
The music and sound effects are great, too – there’s a massive selection of built-in tracks spanning numerous genres, and although the ‘techno’ and ‘electronica’ choices are a little too Americanised for our liking, there’s sure to be something suitable for most if you like heavy beats behind your turbo. The squeals of the tires, the snap of the gears, the whistle of the induction – the production of the incredible sound effects is outstanding, and although the actors in the game won’t be winning any Oscars, they’re certainly good enough.
So, with a decent selection of cars (and bikes), the most extensive modification options yet seen in a video game, real-car traffic, race editors and loads of online modes (not to mention a total of 60 hidden unlockables) this is amazing value for money. The rubberbanding spoils the game occasionally, and the difficulty level starts high and gets higher, but if you’re prepared to put the time into Midnight Club then you’ll get an awful lot out of it. As far as arcade racers go this is the new pinnacle – a truly remarkable game with plenty of content worthy of anyone’s time.