The Fast and the Furious may have popularized the sub-culture itself and forever ingrained it into our psyches, but street racing (the lifestyle, the video games and even the culture) was alive and well long before Vin Diesel ever drove a Supra on the silver screen. In video game form, some of us were already addicted to Tokyo Xtreme Racer and even Rockstar's original Midnight Club on the PS2. But there is no denying the impact of The Fast and the Furious. While Gran Turismo may have given us high end sports cars to tune, it was nothing compared to taking a normal everyday car and turning it into a beast. Tuning it, tricking it out and converting it from a standard Civic into a thing of beauty that instilled pride in your ride. And contrary to the movie's title, it wasn't just about being fast. It was about showing others what you could accomplish with skill and imagination.
The video game industry, our current barometer for all things hip and trendy, embraced this new craze with open arms. EA gave us Need for Speed Underground and Rockstar gave us Midnight Club 2. Both games were phenomenal in style and speed, but no one was happy just yet. We had to make cars faster and more customizable. We had to make the culture more authentic. Namco's Street Racing Syndicate gave us just that. Real world physics with real cars, real upgradeable parts and real Street Tuner Models dancing around to cement the deal. Soon after, EA gave us NFS:Underground 2 and now, the third game out of the current crop's starting gate: Midnight Club 3: DUB Edition. How does it fare against the rest of the pack?
Rockstar San Diego has given us everything we could ever hope for and has wrapped it all up in authenticity. Unlike EA's latest effort (and every other EA game released as of late) you won't find blatant advertising shoved down your throat at every turn. You also won't find Brooke Burke trying to add credibility to the game. And unlike Namco's latest effort, you won't find models ("girlfriends") dancing around either. What you will find are authentic cities, cars, parts and manufacturers, authentic voice-overs and arcade racing goodness.
Midnight Club 3 gives us an epic single player mode which should last the average gamer well over 20 hours to complete. And this is a racing game. You will be given three complete cities to race in where you'll take on challenges, win tournaments and beat rivals. In the process you will unlock various cars and car classes, choppers, SUV and some mind-blowing exotic rides. There are also some Rockstar icons hidden throughout the cities which will greatly reward the keen gamer. And yes, there is the requisite car upgrade garage where you will be able to change everything on your car/bike to your heart's content, from the color of your nitrous flame to the width of your tires. Thankfully, Rockstar has learned from NFSU2's misstep in the simple fact that although the game may require you to upgrade your car's performance to keep on wining races, it doesn't require you to ever change the look of your car just to satisfy a "style" rating. If you don't want spinners on your ride, no problem. If you prefer a matte finish with no decals, so be it. And if you think that carbon fiber is "so 15 minutes ago", you'll never have to add it to you car. In this respect alone, this game developers understood what it was really all about to have "pride in your ride".
But what good is a nice looking ride if it doesn't drive well? Thankfully, Midnight Club 3 drives like a dream. Make no mistake about it, this game is pure arcade goodness, complete with "special moves" like the returning slipstream turbo, in-air control, working hydraulics, burnouts, weight transfer, two wheel driving and a few new tricks like agro, zone and roar which are not only a blast to use, but quite useful to boot.
The cars each drive differently and the upgrades performed on the engines really make a difference. The bikes are much easier to control than they were in Midnight Club 2 and nothing beats mowing through a line of cars with a Hummer. The controls are tight and responsive, but a few of the special moves are triggered too easily. For example, the "zone" special move is used by pressing in the left thumbstick. This is all fine and good, but everytime a tight turn is initiated, the left thiumbstick is usually pressed in by accident. Not a big deal, but it's sometimes frustrating to waste one of your special moves when you really don't need it. With all the moves that the game has however, this is a concession that was almost impossible to avoid without using "shift" keys on the controller. If Midnight Club 4 adds any new features however, Rockstar may just have to design its own controller to go with the game.
For the most part, Midnight Club 3 is about checkpoint racing. From experience, I know that this usually alienates many gamers, even hardcore racing fans. The problem has always been that developers want to give the gamer as much freedom as possible, but at the same time, make the next checkpoint as easily identifiable as can be. This is a very tricky balance, but Midnight Club 3 succeeds in doing the impossible. In each and every race, it is always easy to identify where the next checkpoint is and although there is usually a direct route to it, the game always allows you multiple paths in reaching it. A race that may seem impossible to win generally boils down to finding the shortest distance between two points. This may frustrate a few, but the fact that the races are never overly long is a blessing. The fact that restarting a race doesn't involve any load times is another great asset.
It should be pointed out here, before we move on to other modes and multiplayer, that Midnight Club 3, much like its predecessor, is a challenging game that can madden, frustrate and just plain infuriate at the same time. While the A.I. is very good and also adaptive to your skills, it's sometimes the last 10 seconds of a race that can make all the difference between wining and losing. It is not uncommon to race a perfect race only to hit a trolley in the last 3 seconds before the finish line (and lose the race). This happens a lot, and it will drive you crazy, but rest assured that no race is impossible. The trick is usually to restart or to just move on to a different type of race and come back with a more powerful car (or a bike in some cases).
When not playing the story mode, you can play the arcade mode alone or with a friend (split-screen) or test your luck against Xbox Live players. In any case, you will be able to customize your races (or cruising modes) as you see fit. There are autocross modes (track racing with barriers), ordered and unordered checkpoint races. You'll also have access to a few other racing modes that are much less conventional like capture the flag, paint and tag. In split screen you'll be able to play frenzy, Midnight Club 3's coolest mode (which can't be played on Live unfortunately). In this mode, you and a friend will pick cars and a track and then your only job will be to dodge traffic and make it to the next checkpoint before the clock runs out while the game accelerates for you and gives you a shot of nitrous every 15 seconds. The catch is that you can only steer and use your hand-brake and you have no recourse to your brakes at all. This mode is pretty intense and can rob you of many precious hours.
And what would an arcade racer be without power ups? While completely optional in multiplayer games, the various power ups (disruptors, reverse steering, stealth, etc) and their careful and timely use can sometimes make the difference between wining a close race and completely blowing your opponents away. Many choose to turn them off to preserve the authenticity of street racing, but in some modes, a few power ups are just plain fun. The point is that, as with all things in Midnight Club 3, Rockstar has given you the option to do things your way. And for this, we are thankful.
If you ever do manage to play through the single player mode and become bored with the tracks that Midnight Club 3 has to offer you in arcade mode, there's also a very capable race editor that allows you to edit the checkpoint locations in any city you've unlocked in career mode. Sometimes just changing the altitude of a particular checkpoint can change the flavor of a race completely. And trust me, rooftop racing is a fun little mode in and of itself.
Midnight Club 3 looks amazing, there is absolutely no denying this. The game feels alive. The streets are littered with cars and people, posts, on and off ramps, cop cars, back alleys, short-cuts, destructible glass and so many places to visit. The game looks slick and fast. Yes; Burnout 3 fast. While many will argue that Burnout 3 is "faster", you also have to factor in that you can race "the rails" in Burnout 3 and that most traffic either flows with you or against you. Midnight Club 3 doesn't give you these luxuries. When you are strapped into a class A racer with the engine fully upgraded and you engage your nitrous, trust me, this game is fast. You have to race through traffic, fighting the traffic going with you, against you and across from you all the while maintaining your speed, taking all corners without swiping buildings and always being on the lookout for short cuts. Yes, Burnout 3 had pillars in a few races, but nothing in EA's racer can match the sheer adrenaline rush you can garner when the planets align and you are literally thrown forward into a complete haze of speed and madness. Midnight Club 3 does achieve the impossible. It matches Burnout 3 pulse for pulse and beat for beat. While you are not encouraged to "takedown" your opponents to win, there's no reason not to, once in a while.
In the sound department, Midnight Club 3 is more than impressive. The engine noises are distinct and each upgrade changes you car's acoustics as well. Better yet, Midnight Club 3 just plain sounds "fast". You can almost feel the sense of speed just from its sound. The quality soundtrack is massive, and while you can listen to your own custom soundtracks stored on your hard drive, the audio's crowning achievement is that you may simply not want to. The songs fit the mood perfectly and the soundtrack is so large, you won't be hearing the same song over and over again (Snoop Dogg's Riders on the Storm ring any bells?).
In the end, it's hard to find any real faults with Rockstar's latest opus. Midnight Club 3 may have been last out of the gate, but it has learned very well from others' mistakes. The game takes as long as an RPG to finish, the multiplayer modes are incredibly fun and deep, the customization aspect is handled perfectly and the game is just a pure rush. Yes, there are a few framerate slowdown issues when racing in the rain, yes the game is mostly about checkpoint racing and yes the thumbsticks are a little sensitive to the touch, but I defy anyone to find a better arcade racer on the market at this moment. We may very well have to wait for Rockstar's next installment before this one gets trumped. Adrenaline junkies take note; you have found your next racer.