Midnight Club: Los Angeles Preview

Cybershack does burnouts around LA in Rockstar’s newest addition to the Midnight Club franchise.

When I headed over to Rockstar to play the newest sibling to the Midnight Club franchise, I was wondering if I’d be treated to something special. It’s been eight years since the original Midnight Club hit stores and the game has sold over fifteen million copies. It’s Rockstar’s second biggest franchise second only to GTA and their most criticially acclaimed (apart from GTA).

From the one hour I got to drive, smash and flip my Aston Martin around Los Angeles, it was fairly clear that Rockstar are sticking with the tried and true. Everything I saw was exactly what you’d expect from a typical street racer. There’s no radical departures from the series, odd design choices or mysterious additions to scare fans of the previous games. It’s the ideal addition for fans of the series.

Midnight Club games have always had a great sense of freedom. Rockstar have continued this tradition by making sure that the whole city is unlocked from the first instance of gameplay. You won’t find any invisible walls here. On top of that, you’ll be roaming for hours. There’s only one city to explore now, instead of the three in the previous game, so Rockstar expanded LA to the same size as all three cities combined in Midnight Club 3: DUB Edition. And while I’ve never been to LA, Rockstar have assured me that the city has been recreated as faithfully as possible.

Anything involving cars needs to be authentic, and MC:LA have made sure that everything is true to life. Not only is anything on four wheels realistic (bikes and the other vehicles are still being kept under wraps), it’s also customizable. Rockstar didn’t forget their more hardcore fans, and have added bundles of accessories to mess around with. In particular, the ability to tinker around with the interior will be a big hit, especially when you bring up the in-car camera to see all your parts working while you race.

So is there anything to scare the punters? Well, let’s start with the little things. Being part of the Rockstar family has some advantages, one of them being access to the RAGE engine behind GTA IV. Midnight Club: LA has been built off the GTA backbone – and it looks absolutely fantastic – so the cars handle like GTA, making most of the cars heavier than what you’d expect for a street racer. Unfortuantely I didn’t get to have a go with the bikes – one of the features kept under wraps for now – but none of the cars I tried were difficult to handle.

Something that might aggravate people looking to try out a Midnight Club game for the first time is the difficulty. Rockstar seem to have adopted the philosophy that says challenges are a detriment to gameplay. There are some design choices where Rockstar have gone out of their way to make Midnight Club: LA easier than it should be, and it’s completely unnecessary.

Every half-decent racing game has cars to unlock, and you do that in Midnight Club: LA by earning reputation points and cash through races. You’ll also get rep points and cash if you don’t win. Even losers are partially rewarded for their absymal performance. You can’t finish the game by coming last all the time – that would be absurd – but you can progress a long way simply by stacking up rep points for losing. If there’s no incentive to challenge yourself unless absolutely necessary, why bother?

Of course you’ll never have time to answer that question, thanks to the amount of racing you’ll be doing. Rockstar set out to make the game strictly about racing, and they figured the best way to do that was to keep you racing constantly. Whenever you finish a race, you’ll be presented with a menu that takes up around a quarter of the screen. Two buttons gets rid of it and puts you back in the hot seat, driving around exactly where you finished racing. Anything that could potentially distract you from racing has been removed or modified so that it becomes a mild hinderance. Even the time between races has been minimised to ensure you’re not just driving, but racing.

Whenever you choose an opponent to race against on the street, a mini-race to the start point begins with rep points and cash whether you win or lose on top of any rewards you get for the main race itself. Some races will even let you race back to the start after you’re done, which is more rep points and cash in the bank. But what if you crashed a few times during the race? Surely you’ll have to stop to get that fixed right? Nope. Just one option in the post-race menu, Auto Repair, will replace your crumpled goods with stock parts so you can get back into the thick of it. You are racing all the time.

Mind you, you never actually need to repair your car, just in the same way you don’t need to win the majority of races. In endeavouring to remove as many obstacles to the player having fun, Rockstar went a little bit further and removed any kind of damage from the vehicles altogether. Instead of affecting your handling, acceleration or anything that might hinder your car’s performance, all crashes simply fill up a little meter that goes around your speedo. Crash too many times and you’ll be disqualified from a race, but anything less than that and your car will still be in perfect condition. Not even several head-on collisions will have an effect – trust me, I tried.

When you do cruise around the city for a breather – perhaps enjoying the sunset, thanks to the new 24-hour in-game world – you’ll run into other racers, who are added automatically to your in-game map. After playing two missions, I had several races to choose from, seperated into Easy, Medium and Hard and I’d barely left the area where I started. Likewise, while cruising around you’ll also run into the buzzkill of any racing game, the police. Every now and again you’ll hear this irritating whine droning out of your speakers to signify the nearby blue and whites. Anyone playing Midnight Club: LA should get used to it a lot, because the cops will chase you until you lose sight of them. They’ll even chase you during a race, and they’ll chase you after the race is finished as well. Getting caught reduces your rep and earns you a fine, while evading them by hiding in a nearby shopping mall (pedestrians are too scared to call 911 apparently) will earn you some rep points to unlock the next upgrade.

Midnight Club: Los Angeles is definitely worthy of the Midnight Club name. In a lot of respects, I feel like it’s a game designed to pay homage to the fans, providing them everything that they’d expect in a sequel. It’s definitely shaping up to be the street racer of 2008, so get set for plenty of burnouts next month. Until then, you can check out a trailer of Midnight Club on the Cybershack website.

What: Midnight Club:Los Angeles

When: October

Website: Rockstar Games – Midnight Club: Los Angeles

Previewed by Alex Walker