IGN Review of Midnight Club: Los Angeles
Rockstar's bread and butter may be a little series known to some as Grand Theft Auto, but the world of Liberty City isn't the only open world creation the company has up its sleeve. Indeed, Midnight Club has been tearing up the streets of the world for years, and the latest iteration is upon us in the form of Midnight Club: Los Angeles.
The game marks the series' first appearance on the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, and with it comes some pretty impressive visual work, very cool uses of scale and an extremely quick racing experience. The game has a whole lot going for it, and racing fans would do well to check it out. However, it's not perfect, with a few bumps in the road here and there that keep it from being the undisputed king of the streets. Contender though? Most certainly.
Let's start with the city of Los Angeles. Rockstar San Diego has done a fantastic job of bringing the city to life in the game, a version that isn't exactly like the real thing (the whole city would be boring to drive and just too big), but features all of the highlights that you would expect to see here. If you know your way around LA, you'll feel right at home here.
But accuracy isn't the key, it's how much fun there is to be had, and here the city scores huge points. With plenty of shortcuts scattered throughout the thing, lots of interconnecting freeways and even a smattering of winding back roads, the variety here is about as vast as you could hope to see in a single city. The number of simple squared blocks is kept at a minimum as well, ensuring that you won't just be driving down straight roads for more than a block or so.
Despite all of the landmarks scattered about, it'll still take you a while to learn exactly where everything is, especially with regards to being able to hit the shortcuts in the middle of a race. For the most part, the race markers (the giant blooms of smoke that act as checkpoints) on Ordered Races and the like do a good job of pointing you in the right direction, though there are times where the markers are tucked around a corner when they should have been placed at the corner to help you know you need to make the turn. While you can always refer to the overhead map in the corner of your HUD, you're driving so fast that taking your eyes off the road for a split second means certain death.
Your other alternative to navigating the world is the GPS system, which is practically stellar from top to bottom. When you hit the button to bring it up, the game's camera pans straight up from your car and up into the clouds. When you return to the game, it does the opposite, seamlessly dropping from the sky right back down to your ride again.
From the GPS view, you can zoom in and out to get a closer look at the city to help you find shortcuts. Day and night as well as the current weather conditions are reflected here as well, which gives it that extra little touch to let you know that it's live and not pre-canned. Race markers are shown here, as are events that you can join in, marked cars that you've found and can compete with, and pretty much anything else that you'd want to find.
I do have a couple small complaints for it though. While you can zoom in and out and pan the camera, you can't control its orientation. When you zoom in, the camera automatically straightens out a little bit, making it harder to see where some hidden paths are, especially if they're behind buildings (as the whole thing is 3D). Secondly, though the events on the map are color-coded as to their difficulty, the event selection screen that you can bring up while in the GPS doesn't show you where an event is located, and once you pick it the game puts you right back in the action. Sometimes you want to head to the next closest main objective, and in that case you'd have to rely on the overhead view and ignore the event selection list. Again though, these are somewhat small complaints of an otherwise fantastic menu system.
As for the racing itself, Rockstar San Diego has once again done a great job with the handling, general physics and overall feeling of the driving. Cars (and bikes, for that matter) kick and squeal when you hit the gas, and then take off in a plume of smoke. The controls are intentionally not as tight as what you'd find in Burnout, for example, making you rely more on powerslides for taking turns, and this works extremely well.
The differences between each of the cars in the game is also great. Muscle cars handle very differently from tuners, and both handle very differently than the exotics. Muscle cars are generally the hardest thing to handle in the game, but they're also incredible fun, making the tradeoff from going with a steadier ride totally worth it.
The event variation in the game is generally very good, with everything from time trials to delivery missions (essentially time trials with damage penalties), series events and much more are here. The story is quite basic, as it should be, and does a good job of staying out of the way of your progression. Speaking of staying out of the way, the game keeps you in the seat of the car at pretty much all times. Race results come up in a little pop-up window that pauses the game for just a second, and once you've OKed the results, you're back in control again. Aside from tinkering with the GPS system to plot routes, you'll never feel like you're disconnected from the race experience for more than a couple seconds, which is great. You can even race to the starting line of most every race, which once again helps get you right into the action without any waiting.
You will, however, have to deal with the cops, and they can slow down your experience a bit. If they catch you speeding, you can just pull over and pay a small fine (or choose to drive away as the cop approaches your window and enter a full-on chase), but anything more than this will result in a chase. Getting away can be a challenge, and while it's certainly fun, you'll find yourself in chases more often than you'd like. If you stop and just let them catch you, you'll have to pay a fine (which may not impact your bottom line much), but you'll also then be set at the police station, which may be far away from where you were going to head to next. Then on your way back again, if you're not careful, you may wind up in another chase, spend a while escaping, and then one way or another probably be far from where you were going once again. While the menu system does its best to stay out of the way and let you race, the cops will impede on your fun if you're trying to compete mission after mission.
This, however, brings me to my biggest complaint, which is a very simple one: the game is just too damn hard. After the first few tutorial events, you'll find yourself having a hard time finishing first in most any event. Even if you do, most events are Series races, which means you have to win more than once to actually win, so you can't just get lucky once and then move on.
The problem here is two-fold: firstly, the AI scales to your vehicle, but pretty much no matter what, they're faster than you off the line. Starting with your beat-up car, you'll get burned, but it may just seem like you need a couple upgrades to catch an edge. Drop some cash on some new parts, and you'll find that the AI has done so as well and will burn you again. Upgrading cars won't help -- even the guys in the opening races will wind up having Lamborghinis and Corvettes if you go out and earn enough cash to have something similar. Even vehicles that shouldn't be able to keep up can -- hopping on a Ducati with lightning-quick acceleration will still get beat by a 'Vette off the line.
While the scaling would normally be fine, it's the rubber-banding that makes the races as hard as they are. The AI will take off and stay a good 500 feet in front of you for the bulk of the race. If you can manage to catch up to them, you'll likely just see them hit the boost and fly right past you again. Even if that doesn't happen, racing anything less than perfect on the second half of the race will result in a loss. While the game may let you catch back up with a crash early on, you'll never get far enough ahead to be safe, and it takes long enough to catch up that you're doomed if there's only a couple minutes left and you bite it.
While that may make it sound like you'll never be able to advance, that's not true. Everything you do, be it escape the cops or even finish last in an event, will earn you reputation points. Rep goes towards earning you new driving titles (like Rookie, Racer or Elite), and also earns you the ability to buy new upgrades and cars. A lot of the content is locked at the start, and will only be available for purchasing once you reach certain Rep levels, even if you have the cash for it. I personally feel like I should be able to buy a new engine any time I'm willing to hand over the cash, especially since the AI compensates for it, but that's how it is.
One way to sort of cheat the system is by way of highway races. To start these, you simply find someone willing to race on a highway, flash your lights and you're off to whatever the goal happens to be, weaving in and out of traffic on your way. You can beat even red (the hardest) opponents in these events by flying up behind them and flashing your lights just before you pass by, and then using one of your abilities to slow them down, like an EMP. It's not incredibly exciting to grind cash and Rep like this, but it does work.
While the single-player difficulty level certainly could have been set lower, your true test of skill is real people, and, fortunately, Midnight Club: Los Angeles has a number of great online options. Getting online is a breeze -- hit Start, select Online and then your preferences from the little pop-up menu and you're off and running. People who invite you to their game or start events will show up on your phone, and you just hit one button to accept their invites and you're all set.
The mode options are as varied as you could hope for, with everything from straight-up races to Capture the Flag to Keep Away and much, much more at your disposal. By and large, the online play is very smooth, but in maxed games with 16 players I did notice a time or two where cars popped off of the screen (with a flag in hand, no less). This doesn't happen incredibly often and seemed to only happen with full 16 player game, but smaller games have worked flawlessly for me.
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