Alright, I admit it. I was pretty sceptical about the way in which a lot of racing franchises were embracing the whole street/modding scene. Around these parts, a stock VW Golf sporting gaudy overlays or a 50cc scooter with neon lighting is more likely to roll eyes than turn heads. But we've warmed to the idea, and the latest racing series to embrace it happens to be one of our favourites.
If you already own Midnight Club 2, then there's little that will come as a surprise in Midnight Club 3: Dub Edition, but this isn't necessarily a bad thing. Despite possessing a slightly more serious tone than its predecessor - the amusing racer videos have gone while a zillion brand names, a credible soundtrack (this is Rockstar, after all) and even mag sponsorship are in - there is no mistaking the ridiculously forgiving arcade gameplay, the lineage of which is easily traceable to its Midtown Madness origins.
The contrast is a little weird - like a funeral director wearing clown shoes. Lightweight sports cars will demolish street lights and other obstructions with the force of a freight train, and effectively that's what you are. Traffic can be shunted aside with few repercussions. Hit a wall at 200mph and you'll come to nothing worse than a brief stop. The racing isn't just forgiving though, it's fair. Other racers are hilariously just as prone to being involved in pile ups or being sent down the wrong passage at high speed. Which is not to say the game is easy; there's a method to its madness.
The main challenge is simply staying on course. At high speeds against rush hour traffic it can be easier said than done. Unlike a certain other street racing game we can mention, there are no 20ft glowing guide rails to keep you on course, and freeways are often lane-to-lane with cars. For the majority of races checkpoints are set up at various junctions and you simply have to make sure that whatever route you take hits those junctions on the way, but you'll also have to pay close attention if you want to stay on the optimal route.
Often the approach is straightforward, but sometimes it is not. Shortcuts come in many forms, including a generous helping of jumps. Sometimes a slightly longer route might be optimal if it bypasses traffic, but the often split-second decision is up to you. It's basically controlled chaos, but somehow it all gels together resulting in gameplay that is neither as messy nor unbalanced as logic says it should be.
It's true that Midnight Club 3 is not as beautiful to look at as Need for Speed Underground 2, but it has a lot more going on. Car detail is sacrificed in order to have more cars on the road, and the same goes for buildings and obstacles. It runs pretty smoothly too, only really slowing down more than it should when there's heavy rain.
Disappointingly MC3 does not have the same exotic selection of cities that its predecessor did. There are still three, and they are both generous in size, but I couldn't help but feel that the representations of San Diego, Atlanta and Detroit weren't really different enough - especially after the excellent interpretation of Paris in the last game.
One welcome difference between versions is that Midnight Club 3 seems a lot faster, and it starts off much faster, too. In fact, slipstream turbo, boosted starts, air control and even the ability to drive on two wheels is available from the beginning. MC3 also introduces a few new single player only tricks, which will depend on the vehicle you're driving.
For instance in the tuner and sports cars, if you realise too late that you're about to miss a turn, you can quickly tap the zone button which will zoom in on your car, slow time right down and allow you to make generous course corrections to put you on the right track or avoid an obstacle. It's a really great addition to the game and alleviates some of the frustration caused by the heavy traffic and open-ended checkpoint system.
All of this and we haven't even mentioned car customisation. In keeping with the game's arcade nature, earning cash is a piece of cake and many basic customisations are free. The system is pretty similar to NFSUG2's, but while offering some nice additional options such as custom number plates (including the choice of state) and a few chassis adjustments, it isn't quite as involved when it comes to performance upgrades. But then again, in the game it is treated more as a bonus feature than a main attraction.
In any case, earning cash, cars and customisation is pretty easy and shouldn't disappoint. MC3 also has a lot more races to offer than the previous game, which is probably thanks to the jettisoning of the racer videos - don't expect car-to-car communicator taunting either. There are few real characters for you to get to know, but they get plenty of screen time and are again well presented through CGI.
Surprisingly the still excellent multiplayer hasn't changed a great deal, benefiting only from the new cities and customisation options. Despite new modes and variations, Cruise, Capture the Flag and straight races are still by far the most played. The ability to form player clubs is an interesting addition, and is put to good use.
Although we've yet to see it widely used in multiplayer, one feature that has come on in leaps and bounds since Midnight Club 2 is the course editor. The reason is simple, but important - you can now place your own checkpoints absolutely anywhere on the map. True, it's a good bit more work, but you really can build just about any course you can imagine now - previously you could only chose from a limited selection of pre-placed checkpoints.
By sticking to a formula that it knows well, Rockstar San Diego has pulled of yet another excellent racing title. While still similar in many ways to Midnight Club 2, the two remain sufficiently different that neither negates the other. The new customisation options are also put to good use without ever being shoved down your throat. If you enjoy a very fast, forgiving racer that makes good use of open-ended environments both offline and on, we heartily recommend Midnight Club 3.