"If you can get past the pain of losing the same race for the umpteenth time, Midnight Club: Los Angeles is a very good racing game. "
It's funny that I should be reviewing Midnight Club: Los Angeles, as not but a day before the game arrived upon my front stoop, I had been in the city of angels. For those who have never been there, it's a far more wonderful place than I would have gathered... though if there's one downside to LA, it's the traffic. It's truly abysmal. Riding the 210 in the late afternoon is a bumper-to-bumper logistical nightmare. This makes its setting for the most recent Midnight Club a curious choice. Thankfully, Rockstar has decided not to recreate the real Los Angeles, but rather the Los Angeles we all want to visit. A place where you can drive like a maniac through the streets midday without a care in the world. A place where pedestrians are all able-bodied and quick to react to the onslaught of street racers tearing down the highway. A place where you can magically restore your vehicle free of charge after flipping it over several times without the slightest scratch to your person. Oh yeah! This is my kind of town!
Much of the charm of MCLA comes from its titular setting. It's got to be a heavy burden being an artist for Rockstar. Month after painstaking month, these people slave away, lavishly reconstructing LA landmarks, muscle cars, tuners, bikes, and a full-fledged day and night cycle with a full range of weather effects. Too bad we're all too busy racing to pay much mind to these things as they whip past our peripheral vision toward the edges of the screen. Thank god the game's opening cinematic exists so we can see just how much work was put into this. For what it's worth, the LA portrayed in MCLA does look fantastic. Even if you won't have much time to admire it. Though there is a cruise mode where you can take your time going from race to race admiring the scenery, so not all is lost.
There is a story here, but not much of one. Little is known about the protagonist other than that he's from the east coast and he came to LA to race. That's really all the back story that we need. The past doesn't matter. It's all about getting to the finish line.
This is easier said than done. Let me say this straight: Midnight Club: Los Angeles is a very hard game. You will crash and wipe out A LOT. One simple collision will usually see you going from first place to last just like that. Much of your ability to enjoy the game relates directly to how capable you are of laughing at yourself for making a mistake. If you're the type who frequently gets frustrated with a game and has been known to throw a controller, you'd best avoid MCLA. But if you're able to sustain an all-out, head-on collision at 110 mph with a guffaw and a good chip on your shoulder, you'll do just fine.
That's the great thing about MCLA. It's a difficult game to master, but even when you lose, you'll gain experience and often money. This can be used to upgrade your vehicle in a number of ways from cosmetic to functional, or just buying a new vehicle altogether. Thus, you could continually lose a race for a solid two hours, but still feel like it was time well spent as you'll now have the means to upgrade your gear. In this respect, MCLA creates a far more well-rounded, addictive experience than your usual racer (where you could take a spill just before the finish line and the whole race would be for naught).
Realistically, your car will take a good long while to accelerate after a crash. Though, if you go a long time without crashing, you can hurdle down the streets at unbelievable speed. This is especially frightening when you’re driving against traffic. I‘d go so far as to say that MCLA is probably the scariest racing game I've ever played. Getting a speed boost is both exhilarating and terrifying as one wrong move will send you careening towards last place for a good long while. It’s wonderfully tense stuff!
The greatest thing about MCLA is also its biggest flaw: the free-roaming structure. On the plus side, it allows for a level of navigational depth uncommon to the genre. It also gives you far more course variety than you get in your average racer. You can even create your own courses anytime you see fit and race them in multi-player. All this comes at a cost, however. While there are markers indicating which way you should go, it can be easy to miss them and take a wrong turn. You can pause at any time to look at the map, but that hurts the flow drastically. You can also check out the mini-map in the lower left corner of the screen, though you'll likely have more than enough to pay attention to already as you speed through traffic. Much like most anything in MCLA, the free-roaming structure makes the game less accessible but ultimately more rewarding once you come to grips with it.
While it may just be my imagination, I believe that the AI compensates for how well you're doing at any given time. It seemed like whenever I took a big spill and thought I'd botched the race for good, I'd be able to build up enough speed to whip past all of my opponents within the next minute or so. But in other instances where I'd do really well and felt like I should have had a big lead, there'd be an opponent right on my tail. This is sort of a mixed blessing. On one hand, if you mess up, the race won't be completely over. But on the other hand, it can almost feel like the game is punishing you for being good as a collision late in a race will spell your doom, while the same collision early on won't matter much at all. The trick, of course, is to simply never crash.
The vehicles all handle well, or poorly, depending on your perspective. Compared to something like the Burnout or Wipeout series, they may seem sluggish and hard to handle. But compared to something like GTA IV they're rather agile (or at least they feel that way as minor obstructions like trees and lamp posts won't impede your progress most of the time). The vehicles are not balanced, but that's sort of the point--to keep racing until you can afford the good stuff and then take on harder races to compensate.
This works wonderfully in single-player, but not so well in multiplayer where whoever has played the longest will have an unfair advantage in the form of a better rig. If you're lucky, you may find people willing to cater to you by limiting themselves to class-1 cars, for example, but most players are going to want to stick to higher-end vehicles. By and large, multiplayer won't be much fun until you've invested at least a couple dozen hours into the game, which is disappointing. However, I find I get bored of most racing games' single-player campaigns after 10 or so hours, whereas I've put close to double that into MCLA and don't see myself stopping anytime soon.
If you can get past the pain of losing the same race for the umpteenth time, Midnight Club: Los Angeles is a very good racing game. The beautifully detailed setting and open-world environment give it a sense of identity so often lacking in the genre, and the huge amount of customization gives it more depth than we're used to seeing. Sometimes the races drag on too long and it can feel almost unfair when there's so much information to pay attention to on-screen. Besides that, the multiplayer is generally unbalanced. Still, these are a small price to pay for arguably the best single-player racing experience on the PS3. Now if only the real Los Angeles were as fun to drive.
Freelance review by Jeffrey Matulef (November 12, 2008)
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