By on January 15, 2009

Now that the Need For Speed franchise has definitively and conclusively jumped the shark, Rockstar’s Midnight Club has emerged as the standard-bearer for street racing games. Enter the newest edition: Midnight Club: LA. The recipe for this one was deceptively simple: take the GTA IV driving engine, enhance it to reflect different (i.e. real) cars, stick the driver in yet another trendy city-– this time LA– and let him get into as much trouble as possible. On the whole, Midnight Club picks up right where NFS Carbon left off (let’s pretend ProStreet and Undercover never happened). It’s a fun, arcade-style game, but it’s not without its flaws.

As always, the game’s story mode is its main selling point. You start out as an aspiring racer who moves to LA to take on the big guns. From there, it’s all very familiar. You start out with a barely capable sport-compact (I picked the 240SX), competing to earn money and reputation points, unlock other events and upgrade your car’s parts or your car itself. Along the way, you’ll have to put up with contrived cut scenes rife with bad acting. As a casual racer, then, Midnight Club: LA fits the bill perfectly.

The cornerstone of the racing in the game is checkpoint racing. You’ll race in the streets of LA, from checkpoint to checkpoint. Checkpoints will appear in front of you as billowing towers of smoke in the distance, providing targets to drive towards. It’s up to you to navigate the streets to find the shortest distance between those checkpoints. You can’t miss a checkpoint on the way to the finish line, and first across the line wins. Repeat ad nauseam.

There are other types of racing to interrupt the monotony. Police pursuits can occur anywhere. You can also deliver your vehicle to someone for someone for some reason, or opt for series racing. The latter consists of consecutive checkpoint races for GP-style points until someone (hopefully you) hits a certain number of points, or your beer buzz wears off.

Playing MC:LA has its other frustrations. Chief among them: the pure insanity of the AI drivers. No matter how well you race or how much cash you pump into your car, the computer’s whip or whips will be one to seven seconds behind you. The AI will be riding your bumper Nascar-style. Then, one wipe-out and it’s over.

The police pursuits are ridiculously difficult. Cops randomly appear on the map– even as you drive towards their location. Les flics are also way faster than you are, and have a knack for pulling 180s without hitting anything or anyone. Yes, they can dodge cars you can’t. And they’re shit hot at immobilizing you against guardrails– or anything else you can’t drive through. If you can’t beat a pursuit within two minutes, pull over and pay the fine. As a pursuit gets longer, cops get more numerous and nastier, making them nearly impossible to escape.

Given that MC:LA is set in the streets, obstacles are abound, from gateways you somehow can’t crash through, to cars that veer into an intersection and wipe you out right as you hit your nitrous. Going from top speed to zero is a frequent occurrence. It happens so much that it ruins MC:LA’s long-term playability.

After winning a few series and grinding out highway races to earn reputation points, I found myself tired of having to manage all of the following simultaneously: watching for the smoke checkpoints, watching for cops not to create a pursuit mid-race, checking the in-game GPS to make sure I had the optimal route, watching the other cars in front of me, watching racers and dealing with the “track” in general.

While the AI manages all these tasks with gusto, running flawlessly race after race, twelve minutes of wetwork can be negated by one unfortunate entanglement. This game could hugely benefit from a mulligan system like the one seen in GRID. If you could re-take one turn, instead of having to restart an entire series, MC:LA may be playable beyond the point of initial novelty.

It’s a shame, because there’s a ton that MC:LA does right. Driving is intuitive. The customization options are vast, but easy to use. Graphics are great, and the city of LA is faithfully, stunningly represented. Even the music ain’t bad. But unlike GTA, in which the driving was only a means to an end, in MC:LA, driving is the end. And to that end, after I’d unlocked enough of LA and seen enough cars, I had no desire to come back to the frustration of elastic AI, multitasking demands and the tedium of grinding out easy highway races to earn scant reputation points.

Rating: 3.5/5
Platform used: Xbox360

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10 Comments on “Videogame Review: Midnight Club LA...”

  • avatar

    This game is in my GameFly queue currently. Should be fun for a few days and then go back… like so many other “racing” games. Hard to compete with Gran Turismo for realism especially with a wheel/pedal setup. For fun I play BurnOut Paradise, its a real blast and the online mode is near perfection.

  • avatar

    Need for Speed games jumped the shark right after Hot Pursuit 2.

    #1 They tried to copy the style of Fast & Furious, and failed.

    #2 They have never had physics models good enough for sim driving.

    #3 They’ve cost too much – not worth their price.

  • avatar

    Biggest turn off in a racing game is when you see the ai driver go into a wall or off a cliff, then seconds later somehow they are back in the race on your bumper.

  • avatar

    I understand your opinion. All the things you said are true, however, all I have to say in response is, keep playing. Eventually you will get good enough to win races on a regular basis. You also have to experiment with all the cars to find out what works for you. If you get good on the motorcycles you will be unbeatable even vs. the computer. Also, to get away from the cops, it’s not about going fast. You have to make a lot of sharp turns, double back, etc. That’s how you lose them. I can get away from them almost every time now.

    The best part of the game however, is racing online. Usually people turn the traffic off (an option in the online game) and even when on, it’s minimal, so you don’t have that to worry about (including cops). Racing against up to 16 real people is way more fun than racing the computer. You can also choose a variety of games like capture-the-flag, basewar, or just cruise around a look at other people’s cars and chit chat. I pretty much stick to the ordered races myself.

    I got this game when it came out and have been playing it non-stop. If you see FLYDADDY54 online, say hi.

  • avatar

    I agree with Flashpoint – this style of game is all too common. Are there any huge departures from Need for Speed Most Wanted, for example? With a new Need for Speed game due this year, I’m prepared for more of the same.

    Games that have introduced new features (Test Drive’s new online mode was pretty innovative) seem to wither on the vine, so to speak. Might be an indication that this genre (and its talent) is spread too thin?

  • avatar

    So this game doesn’t have the “zone/agro/roar” powers that Midnight Club 3 had?

  • avatar

    Big ups to you for the shot of the 2G Eclipse!

    Is that in GS-T or GSX trim?

  • avatar

    @ ajila yea it does, plus they added EMP which kills all the cars nearby briefly. Also the online game has all kinds of powerups, but most people don’t like to race with them on. I like them ok though.

    And this is not Need for Speed. Totally different game.

  • avatar

    The South Central expansion should be up tomorrow.

  • avatar

    I reviewed this game a while back, and found basically the same things you did. I like the game overall, and after they released the update for the dynamic difficulty it became much better.

    Here’s our Midnight Club: LA review if you’re interested in reading it.

    My main problem with it, other than the one mess-up costing you the whole race or (more annoyingly) the series, was that it takes so long get through and get more cars. It’s good that it’s not super-short, but it gets very monotonous after a while having not even received many of the cars available.

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