Welcome to Los Angeles, ladies and gentleman, Midnight Club style. Rockstarâ€™s latest incarnation in the Midnight Club series â€“ the first on next-gen consoles â€“ is a white-knuckle thrill ride, an adrenaline-pumping assault on even the most accomplished speed veteran. MC:LA is a hell of a lot of fun, but is indeed a harsh mistress, with painfully challenging circuits, breakneck speeds and superfast AI. This is not a game for the unskilled. You have been warned.
As reported in our hands on preview, MC:LA is set in a Los Angeles Lite, a simplified LA with all the boring parts cut out and the exciting parts left in. You wonâ€™t drive past near -deserted Dennyâ€™s restaurants in Compton (strangely my lasting memory of LA, what the hell was I doing in Compton?), but you will see the Whiskey A Go Go, Roxy Theatre and the Santa Monica Pier accurately rendered. The city looks absolutely beautiful, and detail is painted with loving brush; itâ€™s a joy to simply drive around and take in all the advertisements that perfectly capture LA pop culture. The iPod billboard is a personal favourite.
Core gameplay remains typical of the series: cruise, race at suicidal speeds, earn cash and spend it on upgrading your ride - all held together by a tenuous and predictably insignificant plot. There are no loading times in MC:LA, so the city feels like a living, breathing organism waiting for you to jump in, rotating on a constant day/night cycle with weather that ranges from bright blue California sunshine to raging downpour.
The HUD is stripped down, the control scheme easy to grasp, and the cars nicely weighty.
MC:LA is pure arcade â€“ no mandatory fiddling around with Gran Turismo style tweaking â€“ apparent in even the introductory pile-o-crap, cars are designed to go fast. Add in special abilities such as the nitrous boost (immense speed) and youâ€™ll be left breathless. As you drive, youâ€™ll flirt with the handbrake for tight corners, but most of the time your finger will be firmly, and often desperately, rooted to the accelerator. If you prefer considered, calculated driving, this is not the game for you.
Thankfully, understanding how to race in such a daunting playground has been made easy. The interface in MC:LA is wonderfully smooth and accessible. You have at your immediate disposal your sidekick - much like a mobile phone - and your GPS. Your sidekick informs you of upcoming challenges, usually delivered by one of your buddies (who sound like they all come from a very questionable scriptwriter's impression of the Projects). A click on your GPS button will rocket your camera into a startling overhead view of the city, where you can scope your current challenges, and a second click will send you back down without skipping a beat.
The result makes your heart slam - Rockstar knows how to make things look cool. It works, too, as most of the time youâ€™re driving so fast that pausing the action to look at your map would be sheer suicide. MC:LA is all about these seamless interactions, and barely stops to take a breath. You donâ€™t have to slow down to begin a race either; a flash of the headlights at a challenger is all it takes. Itâ€™s remarkable how the game succeeds in keeping you constantly moving.
There are a good variety of races in MC:LA â€“ my favourites were ordered (checkpoints), red light (race to an end-point), pink slip (win the race, win the car), freeway (self-explanatory) and series (one after the other). If youâ€™re new to the game, the ordered race is the way to go. LA is full of alleyways and shortcuts, so if you know the nuances of the streets, youâ€™ve got an edge on the competition. If you donâ€™t, it feels like youâ€™re racing blind. To familiarize yourself, you really have to spend a lot of time either racing the same circuits or cruising and making mental notes of where everything is. Despite using the same RAGE engine as Rockstar's previous project, GTA IV, you canâ€™t lay down routes on your GPS either. Nobodyâ€™s there to lead you by the hand, and the game rewards your patience.
MC:LA is also, as widely reported, hard. AI challengers, regardless of difficulty levels, are frighteningly good, and the many, many obstacles in their way never seem to phase them. You, however, will crash. Lots of times. Into lampposts, oncoming traffic, trees, and walls. There is nothing inherently wrong with such a demand on your trigger finger, and God forbid I suggest that every racer should cater to those of us who think that â€˜draftingâ€™ means drinking a lot of beer. Itâ€™s simply that twitchy, intuitive gamers will love the learning curve, and the slightly less skilled amongst us will get frustrated. I wouldâ€™ve preferred to see more variation in the skill levels of the anonymous challengers (and perhaps slightly more bendy lampposts), although I confess to kissing my television when I finally won a particularly brutal race. There's something to be said for that.
MC:LA is not entirely unforgiving, with an excellent experience system that lets you clock up rep and cash even if you lose. Reputation points will unlock more cars in the many garages throughout the city, and you can pimp said cars by spending your cash. There are over 40 cars in the game, divided into muscle, tuners, luxury, exotics and a handful of bikes, and if autophiles feel shortchanged, thereâ€™s bound to be downloadables sometime in the future. Thatâ€™s not to say MC:LA doesnâ€™t cater to the car-crazies - the levels of customization in the game are intensive, you can customize both performance in the garage (with branded parts) and appearance in the paint shop. You dedicate as much time as you want in the garage - if you prefer to just get on with the racing thereâ€™s an automatic upgrade option. Again, accessible, seamless gameplay.
Which brings us to multiplayer in MC:LA. Getting online is equally faultless: just select the option on your GPS, and bang, youâ€™re there. The game caters for 8 players in total, with race-types similar to those in single player, and a few fun traditional modes (think capture-the-flag style â€˜stockpilesâ€™). Youâ€™ve got more of an arsenal to play with this time too, in the form mischievous power-ups such as â€˜mirrorâ€™ (reflects your foes attacks back on them) and â€˜disruptorâ€™ (distorts their vision). This gives multiplayer a kinda Mario Kart vibe, but unlike Mario Kart, youâ€™ll be racing at 215 mph while youâ€™re dishing out the pain. Indeed, you will probably experience a more level playing field in multiplayer, although watch out for those obstacles â€“ even online, one mistake will result in inevitable loss.
Despite the challenging learning curve, Midnight Club: Los Angeles succeeds in exactly the way it should: taking you to heights of adrenaline that are simply unparalleled. It doesnâ€™t try to do anything revolutionary, but expands its genre beautifully with seamless gameplay, accessible interface and beautifully rendered landscapes (and itâ€™s got a killer soundtrack, too). Sure itâ€™s hard, but itâ€™s also very, very fun. And isnâ€™t that the most important thing?