Free roaming driving games were once a massive step forward in the driving genre. Nowadays they are simply the norm for a lot of different games. While the Need for Speed series has been possibly the most successful free roaming racing series, there is another, often overlooked contender out there in the form of Rockstar’s Midnight Club series. Well, the club is back, and this time it’s shaking things up in the city of angels. That’s right folks, Midnight Club LA is here, and it’s quite the ride.
For those of you who are not familiar with the concept of free-roaming racing games, it basically consists of you having a car, a city to race in, and other drivers to race against. In order to progress you win races to unlock upgrades, and earn money to buy those upgrades. Midnight Club LA follows this formula to a tee and doesn’t really add anything new to the mixture. When you first get into the game you arrive in LA with no car, but with an urge to make a name for yourself in the street racing scene. After meeting up with one of the racers you get hooked up with a fairly shabby car, a little bit of cash, and some people to race. There are police chases that occur if you get caught speeding outside a race, but again, it’s all been done before. From here on the game is all about winning to upgrade your car, and progress further in the game. Winning however, is far from easy due to some killer AI and some vicious rubber banding. What this means is that you have to really be on your A game in order to get any sort of lead on the competition, and then when you do get the lead, the rubber banding kicks in and the opposition is right back with you. While I can understand that this can keep the races frantic at all times, it is rather frustrating to drive perfectly and get a great lead, only for you to be caught up through no fault of your own. This does mean however that there is a great sense of achievement when you finally do win the race and unlock that next upgrade.
Speaking of upgrading your car, there are of course loads of different ways to customise your ride, ranging from spoilers, bumpers, neons and the like, all the way to paint jobs, vinyls, and even the interior of the car. Whilst it isn’t the largest set of customisation available in a racing game, it is a solid offering. After you have pimped out the looks of your car, you can then start upgrading the performance by upgrading tyres, turbos, nitrous and a whole host of other parts. There are multiple different vehicles to fiddle with as well, such as tuners, exotics, muscle cars and even motorbikes. When you get enough rep on the street by racing, you can even unlock some special abilities for the various vehicles. You can use the zone to bump everything into slow motion to help you make that killer turn. Roar causes the cars around you to swerve out of your way. You can also just plough through any cars that may be in your way using the rage ability, or disable those cars with an EMP blast. These abilities aren’t new to the series, but they do a great job of mixing up the action.
As you can probably tell from these crazy abilities, this is not a simulation racer, it’s arcade racing at its finest. Cars slide around corners with ease and you can pull of handbrake turns without breaking a sweat. Further adding to the arcade feel is the action camera. With this camera mode enabled, everything feels so much more frantic. The camera shakes as you accelerate away from the start line. Using a slipstream boost causes the car to fly to the back of the camera, leaving only the bonnet in sight. Use a nitrous boost and the camera swings to the side of the car to really show off your sense of speed. My personal favourite is how the camera swings out round your car as you slide round corners. It really does a fantastic job of giving you an amazing sense of speed and action, and is something I hope more racing games use in future.
When you are through with the single player (which will take quite some time) there are a smattering of various multiplayer modes, ranging from the various race types to some interesting capture the flag modes. Again, it is a solid mode, but it doesn’t really bring anything particularly new to the table. Sure you can use the race editor to design your own courses to take online, but it’s all been done before, just not quite as well.
Midnight Club LA does generally shine in the graphics department however. The city looks beautiful for the most part, which is quite impressive given the sheer size and scope of it. There are a few areas which don't look quite up to scratch, but thankfully there aren't too many of these. The cars look sleek and have some great light reflections coming off them, and things look really great when you start tearing round the city during the rain. What is really great however is the fact that the framerate was pretty solid throughout, which is quite an achievement considering how fast everything is moving. There are slight pop-in issues, but nothing that can mark the overall look of the game. It's not the prettiest racer out there, but it is up with the best of them.
With regards to audio, Rockstar are famous for their in-game soundtracks (particularly with regards to the GTA series), and they have pulled out another fantastic soundtrack this time around. Even better than the quality selection of music are the spectacular sound effects. The car engines sound meaty and powerful, and there are definite distinctions between the various car classes. This is definitely a game worthy of a high end speaker system.
Ultimately however, Midnight Club LA falls short of being a ‘must purchase’ game. Despite everything it nails (which is a lot), it simply feels too familiar. Most of the gameplay mechanics have been used numerous times before. Maybe not used as well as they are here, but used before nonetheless. It’s definitely worth playing, but I can’t help but be a little bit disappointed that Midnight Club LA doesn’t really bring anything new to the table.