Among the bevy of Xbox 360 games I picked up shortly after landing here in Thailand is Midnight Club L.A., the latest entry in Rockstar Games’ action driving franchise. You might think of the Midnight Club series as analogous to EA’s Need For Speed series, because they have a lot in common: Arcade-style racing packed with visual realism; action driving with a “gangsta” street racing element; police chases; plenty of destruction; and a host of cars from the import tuner, American muscle and exotic categories.
“Ugh…gangsta street racing again?” I hear you moaning. “It probably has a thuggish rap soundtrack too, right?” (Yeah, but it’s also got genres like rock, electronica, techno and death metal, and you can turn off the crap you don’t want to hear.) Despite how this sort of game seems to have been done to death, particularly under the Need For Speed moniker, Rockstar manages to pull off something just a little different, whose flavor is just new enough that it entertains you in new ways. And if you’re like me, and can never get enough of a good action-oriented racer with some cool cars and lots of property destruction, Midnight Club L.A. becomes that much easier to love.
While I’ve kept up with the aforementioned Need For Speed series, it’s been a long time since I played a Midnight Club game. The last time, in fact, was Midnight Club 2 on the PC, probably back in 2003. That game was fun — I even blogged about it at the time, but the article was on my old domain so I don’t have it handy. However, it did seem more frustrating than Need For Speed, in the sense that you’d always find yourself dodging around a ridiculous amount of traffic while you’re racing, and the game even seemed to deliberately lead you into calamitous crashes that you could never possibly have avoided.
In Need For Speed, if you got into a crash like that, you could pretty much go ahead and restart the event. But Midnight Club is deceiving, because the AI is programmed to let you recover fairly easily from these kinds of mistakes, even making it possible to come back and win if you’ve beat your car to hell. For this reason, Midnight Club always starts off maddeningly frustrating on the surface, but once you realize that it’s okay to screw up, it takes a lot of the edge off and the game becomes more enjoyable. Because after all, who doesn’t like crashing and bashing their video game car all over the screen? The destruction effects may not be as good as other games in this genre, but high-speed wrecks are still plenty satisfying.
In Midnight Club L.A., Rockstar has followed this same formula, which is so recognizable that I was immediately reminded of my vintage adventures in Midnight Club 2. But it adds in a modern style “story” with cutscenes and the like, and unlike the pretentious, self-aggrandizing cutscenes in the Need For Speed games, Midnight Club’s unfolding story seems to almost lampoon itself. At one point, the Japanese girl you’re about to race taunts you by saying, “Good luck! …Actually, no. No luck for you!” To which your character responds in disbelief, “Um…wow, yeah, great trash talking, there.” There’s this current of self-deprecating humor about the whole thing that I found deliciously amusing.
When the game begins, you find yourself dropped into the virtual shoes of your player character: An un-named, vaguely ethnic dude with a buzz cut who’s just arrived in Los Angeles from somewhere out east. You want to get into L.A.’s street racing scene, and your first contact is an egomaniac named Booke who hooks you up with your first car. Hilariously, the cars you can choose from at the start are all beaters, with mismatched body panels and lousy paint. Booke talks all gangsta, and what’s funny is that your character reacts to him like he’s got to be some kind of clown, which is great because that’s the reaction I always have in real-life to these overblown racing game characters. It seems Rockstar is having a giggle at Need For Speed’s over-the-top “balla” personalities. It’s a giggle that’s richly deserved.
As the so-called “career mode” of the game rolls on, you run street races against the local L.A. hotshots, upgrade your car, buy new cars, and do it all over again. There’s a few different race types: ordered races, which are checkpoint-based sprints from one location to another along an ordered path; circuit races, which have you following a series of checkpoints for multiple laps; and landmark races, where the game gives you a start point and an end point, and you have to make your own way there. The sandbox-style game world is like that of Grand Theft Auto, in that you’re dropped into a living, breathing virtual city and are allowed to explore at will. The game world isn’t as vibrant or as humorous as GTA’s, but it’s still plenty real.
Perhaps my favorite part about Midnight Club L.A., as opposed to all the other modern day racers in this genre, is the inclusion of the cockpit view. This is one of my biggest “gotta haves” in racing games, and so far, Test Drive Unlimited is the only other console game I’ve played that features it. With cockpit view, you can drive your car from the traditional seat behind the wheel, with full view of the wheel itself as well as your entire dashboard, A-pillars and the cowl beyond the windshield. It’s ultra-immersive and really sucks you into the action, making you feel like you’re really driving the car. From Midnight Club’s realistically modeled vehicle interiors, to the blur of the landscape as you fly into a turn and the way you can actually see your character’s arms as he works the steering wheel hand-over-hand in tight corners, the cockpit view just makes the entire game. Seriously.
Midnight Club’s vehicle selection isn’t that generous, but there’s a good variety of import tuners (mostly Japanese, but there’s some European hot hatches too), both old and new American muscle cars, Euro exotics, and even some sport bikes. In particular, there’s one car that actually was the reason why I picked up the game in the first place: the 1979 Firebird. And it’s only called “Firebird” since GM doesn’t license the name “Trans Am” anymore, because this thing is definitely a Trans Am. It even has the gold arrowhead on the prow, gold Firebird badges on the inside of the doors and gold machine-turned instrument panel of a Special Edition.
Since there’s been an actual 1979 Trans Am Special Edition in my family since the day I was born, you can imagine what I did. I ran every race with the singular purpose of getting enough money and enough cred to afford this car. (it starts off unavailable, and you have to move up a little ways in the game before you can buy it). At last, I beat some hotshot with a ’69 Camaro, won his car, and promptly traded it in for the Trans Am. Then I painted it black, crafted up some “Trans Am” decals, a little Special Edition pinstriping and painted the snowflake wheels Y84 gold. Finally, I hit the street and went to town.
Oh — this might be a good time to mention that Midnight Club L.A. has a Photo Mode. You can pause the action at any time and snap some pictures of your ride, then upload them to your personal gallery at the Rockstar Social Club website. This is similar to how Forza Motorsport 2’s photo mode works, but Rockstar lets you store as many as 16 photos at a time, which is an improvement.
So, naturally, I went on a cruise around L.A. and played shutterbug for a while:
After this photographic orgy I think it’s fair to say that I’ve died and gone to video game car heaven.
To wrap all this up: Although I haven’t gotten too far into Midnight Club L.A. just yet, I already like it. It takes the immersion and sandbox gameplay of Test Drive Unlimited, combines it with with the polished, story-driven world of Need For Speed…and for the glue, it adds a dose of Rockstar’s sense of humor, which keeps the whole thing from getting too full of itself. The end product is a well-made arcade racer that’s fun to play and worth a few laughs — and that’s good enough for a recommendation, in my book.
See you on the 101.