Rockstar has finally rolled out the company's next big title following the release Grand Theft Auto IV earlier this year. Midnight Club: Los Angeles is the fourth original game of the Midnight Club series, and the first to appear on the current generation of consoles. With it, Rockstar San Diego, the studio behind Rockstar's Table Tennis, has produced something that street racing fans and amateur cartographers alike can enjoy with one of the most detailed maps to ever grace the video game universe.
At the outset of the game, Midnight Club: Los Angeles thrusts the player right into the action, with nothing but the illusion of a plot. In some ways it's refreshing and enjoyable to get started so quickly and either sink or swim, but it's a bit of a disappointment. The game could be a must-have for the genre had a bit of character development and intrigue from its GTA cousin rubbed off on it.
Anyway, the player takes the role of a new guy in the City of Angels. He's a driver and, coincidently, he is instantly introduced to some locals who can set him up with a cheap car, a garage and some races to get his feet wet. It's generic, for sure, but it keeps the focus on the races, which will earn you reputation points and cash to buy and customize new vehicles.
There aren't as many things to drive in Midnight Club: Los Angeles as in earlier games in the series or other games in the genre, with just more than 40 vehicles available. That said, the extra cars aren't really missed. The streamlined collection of muscle cars, tuners, imports, super cars and motorcycles provides enough variety to keep things fresh, without all of the overlapping. An intricate customization system in the garage allows players to modify the look of their vehicles, with everything from new headlights and body panels to fresh paint and decals. The seats, steering wheel and interior colors are even customizable (albeit relatively useless to do so). Upgrading the performance of a car also leaves a bit more to be desired. For example, while players can purchase an upgraded suspension system, they are unable to tweak the settings for optimum efficiency during races.
The controls are responsive and the vehicles handle pretty well, with each type of car having a different feel. They're all a bit loose around the corners, but that's right up the alley of a street racer. One small problem is the shaking camera effects, which definitely add to the frenzied nature of the races-right up until your car goes careening into oncoming traffic. (However, this effect can easily be turned off in the Options menu).
There is a seemingly endless number of races, as well. With red-light races, highway races, checkpoint races, delivery missions, pink-slip races and more, there is always something to do. It used to be, before a patch designed to tone down the difficulty in December 2008, that the races were also exceedingly difficult. The in-game racers would drive flawlessly and could bounce back from any distance to steal a race if the player made one mistake.. The only way to stave off an opponent's advance was by drifting or using special upgrades, like the EMP. But that's mostly in the past now, and Midnight Club: Los Angeles has become a bit easier, and way more accessible to the novice racer.
That said, you'll still make mistakes fairly often. In checkpoint races, pillars of yellow smoke attempt to keep the racer on course, but can often obscure what is behind them, sending the car Days-of-Thunder-style right into hapless commuters-or right past an important turn. And in races without the smoke, players are left to navigate themselves, often having pause to look at the map and stay on course. It really detracts from the excitement of the longer races.
There is also a police presence in LA that can prove to be frustrating. Although the driver is equipped with a radar detector, slowing down to a safe and manageable speed isn't enough for these guys. They're trying to catch someone riding dirty. The police aren't really connected to the plot, and they seem to come around at the most inconvenient times. Players are allowed to either pull over and take a small fine, or start a chase in which they must escape the long arm of the law.
The gameplay has its flaws, but it's the realistic sights and sounds that make Midnight Club: Los Angeles sparkle. The map, once again, is amazingly detailed and the way the city changes from day to night is wonderful. The map is considerably larger than the ones found in earlier games of the series, and it includes many of LA's famous landmarks. Traffic comes and goes with rush hour, pedestrians stroll the sidewalks and the town is full of stores like 7-11 and Pizza Hut. It's blatant product placement, but it works.
The realism carries over to the audio, as well. In a refreshing change, a beefed-up old muscle car no longer sounds about the same as a brand new tuner. The standard squeaks and squeals are all there, but now they're backed by an excellent soundtrack with close to 70 songs from a wide range of genres. The only thing missing is the ability to create a personal set list to listen to while you cruise around town.
Midnight Club: Los Angeles does allow players to take their experience-and their customized vehicles-online to burn up the streets with up to 16 racers. Players can also join in on a couple of new modes, such as Keep-Away and Stockpile, in which players attempt to capture and hold the most flags. Upgrades and content packs are going to be made available online, too. The first that has been announced is a South Central pack, scheduled for release early next year. The pack will provide a new section to the currently huge map and the ability to download some extra music and vehicles.
Midnight Club: Los Angeles offers up a lot to be enjoyed. The sights and sounds are stellar, it's easy to progress through the game even without being very good at it, and with all of the races, customization and online options, there is plenty to do. The gameplay could use a tune-up, and more of a plot would've been appreciated, but fans of the Midnight Club series, and street racing in general, will not be disappointed.