[15 January 2009]
After a lifetime of playing video games, it’s interesting to note what I have come to accept as part of the natural order of things without batting an eye. I no longer wonder why well-connected terrorists and evil bosses randomly leave wooden crates filled with guns, ammunition clips or health packs in their warehouses and secret lairs. Nor do I question the logic of my character falling into a deep pit filled with spikes while being consumed by giant mutant snakes but being able to somehow magically reappear unharmed five minutes back in time by the simple act of pressing the start button.
Instead it seems to be the minor things that yank me from my suspension of disbelief—a grizzled World War II soldier who yells out an anachornism like “Dude, like watch out!” or a gun that’s just a little too accurate.
One of those jarring “No way, that’s so unrealistic!” moments came to me in Midnight Club: Los Angeles, but it wasn’t after getting in a head-on wreck with another vehicle at 120 MPH, flipping over, and then driving off with barely a dent three seconds later. As a former Angelino, I was instead outraged that the 405 and 10 Freeways were nearly clear of gridlock in the early evening. “C’mon!” I found myself shouting at the television, “You can’t possibly get from Hollywood to Beverly Hills on Wilshire in two minutes.”
Perhaps that sounds like a criticism, but part of the reason for this “uncanny valley”-like effect is that Rockstar San Diego’s take on Los Angeles is stunningly accurate. From the sun-soaked beaches of Santa Monica and the famous Hollywood landmarks on Sunset Boulevard, to the glitzy, well-manicured lawns of Beverly Hills, you can almost taste the smoggy air as you cruise the city streets. Even if you’re not actually walking around on the streets or going into buildings, the Los Angeles here feels just as fully realized as New York City does in Grand Theft Auto 4.
Of course, because this is a game about illicit street racing rather than life as an accomplished organized criminal, MC:LA feels like the movie “The Fast and the Furious” in more ways than the locale.
Your cocky East Coast character is plunked down in a Los Angeles teeming with skeezy Hollywood poseurs who will quickly annoy you with their repetitive trash talking (I sort of wanted to cry the 5,000th time I heard the same variation of “Hey, I thought you wanted to race, sucka!”). Like the infamous Vin Diesel movie, the story of a young up-and-comer trying to make a name in the street racing circuit seems mostly an excuse to watch hot cars drive extremely fast.
A lack of story is fine when the racing itself is good and this is mostly true with MC:LA. The best racing games on the market are those that infuse you with a sense of speed so great that your palms get sweaty and butterflies shake your stomach when you’re approaching the finish line in a tight race, and this is something that MC:LA gets right.
What it also does well is let you navigate the world with a snazzy, visually stimulating GPS system, which pans straight up from your car and up into the clouds for an overhead view when you hit the appropriate button. When you return to the game, it does the opposite, seamlessly dropping you right back onto the street. This also appears in place of a real loading screen, meaning you never feel like you have to stare at a boring transition.
Cruising the streets, you have the choice of competing in several different types of events. You can accept mission-based races or challenge roaming opponents to quick one-shots when you randomly encounter them at a red light or on the freeway. Friends and competitors both contact you using a not-so-subtle product placement in the form of a T-Mobile branded Sidekick to offer tips or new races.
The way the you unlock new races and equipment for your car is similar to that of levelling in a role-playing game. When you race (even when you lose), you gain “rep” points, which unlock new challenges, parts, garages, and cars. The higher you place and the more difficult your opponents, the more rep points and cash you earn. It works pretty well, except the system also shares the flaws of role-playing games that make you “grind”—doing the same tasks over and over—to accomplish things.
Many critics have complained about the game’s unadjustable difficulty level being way too hard, but I’ve actually won a decent amount of races and I’m no racing game expert. I believe the problem is one of perception—it’s frustrating to watch AI-controlled racers onscreen because they dart in and out of traffic with ease and never seem to get hit by oncoming traffic or obstacles. On the other hand, when you find yourself far back from the front, the game kicks into Super Mario Kart mode and lets you slowly catch up to the competition.
Ultimately, what you have in Midnight Club: Los Angeles is an above average racer with a weak story whose real star is the city of Los Angeles. If you’ve ever wanted the sensation of driving in the City of Angels at 150 MPH unfettered by the crippling traffic that usually clogs the streets, this is your game.