NO PRIZES FOR GUESSING where the fourth installment in the Midnight Club series is set. From Beverly Hills to the Santa Monica beaches and all the way to dirty downtown, developer Rockstar Games has meticulously recreated the sprawling city of Los Angeles. The gaming environment is huge, richly detailed and dripping with texture; look close enough and you can almost see the chewing gum on the sidewalk. The fact that Midnight Club Los Angeles has avoided annoying loading screens makes its remarkable attention to detail even more impressive.
Unfortunately the storyline is a complete contrast in quality. The plot is as flimsy and clichéd as you’ll ever encounter. It follows a nameless east coast ‘playa’ (you) trying to establish a foothold in the insanely competitive but highly lucrative west coast street-racing scene. Along the way you’ll meet and race all the various stereotyped characters you’ve come to expect in this kind of game, including spoilt brat Valley Girls, Russian immigrants and Latino hard men.
So, great graphics, weak story; now what about the gameplay? Well, the latest Midnight Club sequel offers a completely free roaming experience, with every inch of the map available to you from the outset. And, although you are irritatingly directed to various races via a pager, you can choose to ignore these and simply cruise the city looking for other like-minded individuals. When you finally locate another vehicle that looks ready for some high-speed thrills, a simple flash of your headlights starts the action. Racing accumulates both ‘Cash’ and ‘Respect’ and you receive more or less depending on where you place in a race. ‘Cash’ buys new cars and a plethora of motoring mods and ‘Respect’ unlocks new challenges and, eventually, power-ups.
The races themselves range from quickies to some truly epic cross-borough endurance tests that are particularly unforgiving. Indeed, one of Midnight Club LA’s shortcomings is a difficulty level which is wildly inconsistent and sometimes downright cruel. This punishing and often-demoralising gameplay experience is due to the game at times feeling less like a racing game and more like a round of Russian roulette. You can be in pole position for 99% of the race and suddenly find yourself dead last because an unexpected lamp post has sent you ricocheting around the street like an out-of-control pinball.
Another gripe I have is regarding Midnight Club LA’s map system, which has a kind of Google Earth feel about it. It looks great from a distance, but serious problems occur when you want to zoom in for a closer look at the terrain. Instead of retaining the appropriate bird's-eye view angle, the camera suddenly assumes a skewed angle that makes it difficult to clearly make out streets, intersections and other important landmarks. Add to this the problem of your intended racing route not being highlighted in any way, and you’re left with a perfect example of style triumphing over substance.
Thankfully the online multiplayer mode brings relief from some of the more frustrating aspects of the game. Racing against up to 16 actual people online is where Midnight Club LA is at its strongest, and the experience feels robust and well thought out. Several new game modes have also been introduced. One of the best is ‘Rate My Ride’ where you can view vehicles that other players have created or just show off your own for the sheer ego-inflating buzz of having the sweetest ride on the block.
Aesthetically speaking, Midnight Club Los Angeles is an impressive achievement with visually arresting, free-flowing environments. However, it is let down by gameplay that can often feel more influenced by dumb luck than player skill.