"One mistake shouldn’t decide the outcome of a race (unless you were inches from the finish line, of course). Likewise, the opposite shouldn’t happen either, but it occasionally does in LA Remix. If you manage to drive perfectly for the first half to 75% of the race, there’s a good chance you’ll be so far ahead of your opponents that there’s no way they can ever catch up."
Speed is a wonderful sensation. It's the driving force behind those ultra-powerful engines offered with today's automobiles, most of which are overpriced and completely unnecessary. But we want the power because, no matter what the posted limit says, we've got an undying need for speed.
In the video game world, Midnight Club has been very good at recreating that beloved sensation, turning pixels and polygons into a virtual thrill ride. That trend continues with Midnight Club: LA, the first sequel built specifically for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. Not wanting to leave the handheld market out of the picture, Rockstar has released Midnight Club: LA Remix exclusively for PSP. This pocket-sized version tries its best to present most of what makes the console versions great: exciting race events, solid controls, lots of cars, and a reduced (but fun to explore) version of LA. However, it doesn't quite live up to the standard set by Burnout Legends. You will have a blast playing this game, no doubt, but only if you can ignore the fact that the "remix" in the title could be replaced with "repetition."
Similar to the console versions, LA Remix uses a detailed map system (accessible at any time by tapping the ‘Select’ button) to help the player steer through the city. This map isn’t as high-tech as you’ll see on Xbox 360 or PS3; the 3D intricacies are replaced with a simple 2D layout. But it’s still very helpful with color-coded race events (shown as bubbles on the map) and the ability to target any event for easy navigation.
Even without the primary map, it’s not that hard to get around as there are landmarks (one building is a close match for the Staples Center), notable billboards (Godiva chocolate? Really?), and a solid city structure that will slowly imprint itself on players’ minds.
Incredibly, the sensation of speed is very intense – more so than you’d expect from a PlayStation 2 game, let alone a PSP release (Burnout series excluded). Players will be in awe – maybe even feel their jaws drop a few inches – by the insane amount detail that has been crammed into this city and every vehicle (of which the 2008 Audi R8 and 2007 Ducati Monster S4RS are some of the most beautiful). There are motion blur techniques that appear to be used to cover up any rough edges or some other graphical blemish. And players will notice a bit of slowdown from time to time – possibly because the PSP can’t load fast enough but likely because the hardware doesn’t have enough power. That only marginally diminishes the overall experience. The “wow” factor cannot be denied.
Despite having to use the PSP’s flat thumbstick to steer, the controls are extremely well refined. Just the right amount of sensitivity has been applied, allowing players to steer in and out of traffic with stellar accuracy. Due to the technical limitations of the PSP, there aren’t as many simultaneous cars to avoid (or run into, if that’s your thing) as there are in the console versions. But it’s still amazing what the developers have accomplished. You won’t get far without hitting – or hopefully near-missing – another vehicle. Freeways are congested (again, not to the extent of the console versions), main streets are packed, and you never know when cross traffic could turn a game-winning race into one giant loser.
Strangely – yet almost positively – vehicles are not easily destroyed, and when they are, repairs are taken care of automatically. As an arcade-style racing game, the last thing players want is to lose a vehicle because of a bad maneuver. That’s not something you’ll have to worry about in this game.
Still, you can’t ram into others without penalty. But it’s not the hard-hitting cinematic crash (complete with slow-motion) that will be the deciding factor in who wins each race. Assuming the race is longer than 40 seconds – there are a few short competitions that end that quickly – you’ll have enough time to catch up.
Given the sturdiness of each vehicle, the developers must have thought that the best way to penalize a bad move is to make the vehicle spin out. Spin-outs are a frequent occurrence in LA Remix whether you choose to drift (hold the ‘R’ button) or not. Outside of slowing down the vehicle without having to fully brake, the drifting mechanics aren’t very helpful. Provided you know how to use them, however (any prior drifting experience with a game will do), they won’t be the reason you’ll spin out. That will be taken care of every time a near-miss ends up being a collision, and every time a sharp turn fails to clear the nearest wall. By the time you’ve turned the vehicle around, it may be too late to bother finishing the race. Only first place is counted as a win – the rest do not award more than reputation points (used to calculate your progress as a racer) and small cash prizes.
These are the kinds of things that annoy most gamers. One mistake shouldn’t decide the outcome of a race (unless you were inches from the finish line, of course). Likewise, the opposite shouldn’t happen either, but it occasionally does in LA Remix. If you manage to drive perfectly for the first half to 75% of the race, there’s a good chance you’ll be so far ahead of your opponents that there’s no way they can ever catch up. This is possible with almost any vehicle in the game, including the three starting models (a 1998 Nissan 240 SX, 1988 Volkswagen Scrocco and 1983 Volkswagen Golf GTI). It is also possible without the use of any power-up, such as a time-slower that allows players to maneuver out of a tricky situation or a nitrous boost that makes passing opponents a breeze, since LA Remix does not rely on them. That is actually a plus – when a racing game gives power-ups too much weight, it becomes a battle of who-has-what, not of who can perform the best.
With all its ups and downs, LA Remix is still a great, hard-to-resist racing package. But there is one problem that persists throughout the game that will likely disappoint the series’ diehard fans: repetition. As you’re well aware, this is an open-ended racing franchise. Events take place right in the city, with goals and checkpoints dispersed in key locations to form various tracks within LA. But they’re not really tracks – just a series of directions that’ll have you cruising through the city over and over. That’s great, and is exactly what we anticipated.
But no one is going to be happy when they see that most of the checkpoint patterns are used more than once. As cool as this virtual version of LA may be, there’s no escaping the boredom that comes from repetitive scenery. The same thing happens to real drivers, prompting some of us to take different routes when driving to or from work. But a game isn’t real life. It’s supposed to be better than our everyday lives.
If you can overlook these issues, Midnight Club: LA Remix will provide you with hours of exhilaration. Strap in, hang on tight and don’t let the big trucks bite – they could hurt your chances of winning.
Freelance review by Louis Bedigian (November 14, 2008)
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