The past 12 months have seen plenty of racing games spread across multiple genres and publishers, but the street-racing scene was largely the most hyped of the bunch. The year started strong with Burnout Paradise, an early-January release that was more than sufficient to keep things afloat for the following two quarters. Then Need for Speed Undercover and Midnight Club Los Angeles appeared in close succession, both of which offering an open-ended feel a la Burnout Paradise but in a very different vein.
Midnight Club Los Angeles was probably the most hyped, at least in the early stages, because its game world was to be a reproduction of Los Angeles. The final product isn’t nearly as large, nor do all LA landmarks appear in the game, but what’s there is certainly entertaining. What’s there also has fantastic production values, from the graphics (the best in any racing game this side of Gran Turismo 5) to the voice acting to the character animations during the campaign. The gameplay, however, is a slightly different story.
One of the big aspects of Midnight Club series is tuning, and there are definitely options to customize your car in Midnight Club Los Angeles with things like spoilers, brakes, tires, intakes, hoods, etc. Yet none of these customizations has any tangible effect on the car’s performance, save for the addition of nitrous slots. Ironically, though, nitrous slots are basically rendered pointless by the newfound ability to earn a nitro-like burst of speed by drafting, which lets you power up a mini-boost. The only thing that really appears to make a difference in your handling and speed is the class of car you have, which is logical, but every other tuning aspect really just seems like a waste of in-game money.
Any stress you may initially feel about crunching into cars is also a waste, because damage doesn’t have any effect on handling. There is a meter in the bottom of the screen indicating your damage level, and once you’ve reached a certain point you’re deemed too damaged to complete the race, but unless you totally stink, you’re never going to reach that point, so feel free to bang away. There’s also the option to repair your car after every race, and it doesn’t appear to cost anything, rendering the game’s entire damage and repair system almost pointless.
The dreaded “catch up” syndrome is also in full effect in Midnight Club Los Angeles, with enemy AI suffering from a serious case of “catch up” if they’re behind and a serious case of “the stoopids” if they’re far ahead (thus letting you catch up). Worse yet, if you decide to combine the bad damage system with this bad AI, you’ll soon find that crashing your enemies into other cars or in-game obstacles is laughable, because they quite literally bounce cleanly away and never crash. If you’re the one bumping into things, of course, you’ll spin around and get totally screwed up. Tell me where the fairness is in that….
The race types themselves are the standard fare — point to point, tournaments, pink slip and delivery (get a car to a dropoff point in a set amount of time) — although there is a neat Wager Mode in which you place money on the race, and the higher the amount, the harder the race. You can also be challenged to a race by the AI, in which case you can determine which route, which difficulty and time of day. Some of the race paths are pretty obscure, though, even in the checkpoint races, while other races require a seemingly simple A-to-B navigation require absolutely intimate knowledge of the city and its dead ends. And let’s just say that with all the issues I’ve mentioned in this review, you’re not likely to want to devote the time and energy to learning the ins and outs of the not-quite-LA map.
In some respects this is a shame, because it means you won’t experience what is hands-down the most “alive” racing-genre city ever seen, if not an in-game city that feels more alive than any game in any genre, GTA IV included. You’ll also miss out on a couple of other neat power-up-like options that you can “charge” in mid-race by driving cleanly. The first is Agro, which lets you plow though traffic Burnout style. Next is Zone, which is like bullet or focus time, and EMP is an electric charge that causes your foes’ engines to shut down for a brief period, while Roar is an engine rev that scares away traffic. They’re kind of cheap, but they’re neat inclusions for an arcade-style racing game.
Still, these neat little touches can’t justify the purchase of this game by themselves, and the rest of Midnight Club Los Angeles just has too many less-than-next-gen issues to warrant choosing it over the outstanding Burnout Paradise.
Amazon is running a good deal on Midnight Club: Los Angeles for Xbox 360, as well as Midnight Club: Los Angeles for PS3, if you’re interested.
- Score: 7.8
— Jonas Allen