Midnight Club II
I always got lost in Los Angeles. I lived there for nine miserable months just after I left college to work in the movie business. After a number of jobs (like driving stars around, delivering checks to movie studios and avoiding the unemployment line by doing boom mic on a Peter North film) I decided that LA was not the place for me. The problem wasn’t the jobs so much as it was “getting to” the jobs. LA is a nightmare of highways and wrong turns. But this isn’t a review of LA, no this is a review of something fun – Midnight Run II by Rockstar Games - San Diego (which is too close to LA for my tastes but we’ll let that go for now).
The game sets you up as a newbie on the international race course. You have to earn respect and as you do, you get more opportunities to race the vets and prove your mettle. You pick up some buddies on the way, some like you, some don’t, but they all see a sucker who drives some nice wheels that they’d love to win off of you. The cut scenes where they give you tips on what to do next are passable with a glimpse into their innermost scheming thoughts and then they open their mouths to give advice for the next level. I got the sense that the lip synching, which isn’t all bad, was too time consuming to do, so the designers opted to let us in on the characters’ thoughts so they could cut some of the workload. Pessimist? Me?
If you’re looking for a similar game experience to compare with MC2 then I have to refer you to Grand Theft Auto 3. Not the entire game, mind you. But imagine the chapters on GTA3 where you raced on the city streets through checkpoints and you have the essence of what MC2 is all about -- with bigger cities and custom details that make car racing exciting. What kind of details? Well, besides the glorious straight-aways on the highways and your fellow motorists/morons who occupy it, there are ramps, landmarks, pedestrians, shortcuts, fellow racers and cops. Those last three are worth elaborating on since they are details of the game that really shine.
What would expansive and well-designed courses be without some nifty-keen shortcuts? Taking full advantage of the fact that the levels take place in huge cityscapes, Rockstar has given you a lot of meat to bite into. If you pay attention and get hooked on the game you’ll notice that you begin to remember the streets, as if they were home. You find back yards that let you cut a dangerous corner out of the race. You find ramps that let you join the highway traffic from above. You find aqueducts that let you tear through bad neighborhoods like greased lightning. I’d recommend using the cruise feature to get to know the ins and outs of the streets. You’ll be shocked at all the shortcuts. Keep in mind, once the race begins there are a number of ways to get to the finish line so the more you know the layout, the better you’ll do. And the more fun you’ll have!
Then there’s the AI. Pretty good stuff here. Your opponents are tough and make mistakes like you and I do. Not in that scripted way, but in a real way. There’s something very satisfying about having an AI opponent try to take you out by cutting off a truck in front of you and misreading the corner. The AI works to push you off course, tailgates and sometimes uses the shortcuts (but not too much). The good AI applies to the cops, too, who are kind of easy in the beginning but eventually become huge barriers in certain races. They chase you, sure, but they also set up roadblocks and can peg you from the air with their helicopters if you get caught in their spotlight for too long. A good racing game isn’t only how fun the car is to drive – you also need great barriers to winning. MC2 has them.
Midnight Club II offers two kinds of gameplay, both of which need each other to make the game more enjoyable; career mode and cruise mode. Career mode is the “story” mode which allows you to get acquainted with the mechanics of the game and improve your racing skills. Cruise mode is where I spent most of my time learning the lay of the land. It allows you to go out and find someone to race with. There are no time constraints so you can cruise the cities and get to know them better. Since you need to master the vehicle AND discover the intricacies of the open-ended courses, both modes are crucial to try out before you sign on to the Live service to face real people.
Midnight Club II is an okay looking game. Its graphics aren’t top notch, no. But they get the job done in that Rockstar Games kind of way. Sure the poly count could be higher but the faithful representation of actual city streets is simply astonishing. The developers really went for it all on this game. The sense of place is so strong that I really can only compare it, once again, to Grand Theft Auto 3 – vast, populated and ready to be wrecked. The car damage is pretty fun and gave me a few ‘WOW” moments with dramatic jumps followed by a bumper scraping across the pavement, sparks flying (the particle effects are by far the best looking part of the game).
You get three cities to race in. Los Angeles, Tokyo and Paris. Each city’s streets seem to be custom made for the daredevil street racing that this game is meant to emulate. Quick turns, alleys, shortcuts and landmarks dot the landscape making every track feel like a real space that you need to come back and race in one more time. You get 30 vehicles to drive, including motorcycles (not customizable but with tweaks like nitro which is fun as hell). The vehicles don’t handle like the real thing but this is an arcade racer so screw it. They’re all fun to drive (you can even pop a wheelie on the bike) and they have pretty reflections. You’ll need to learn not to hit things and how to take corners nice and smooth -- but the mechanics don’t go too far beyond that. The controls are simple as can be, with brake, reverse and acceleration. In a nice touch you can steady yourself in the air with a click of the left thumbstick. I don’t like the boost being the black button on the X-box controller but otherwise the controls could not be easier to master. If I have one real complaint about the car control it’s that damage doesn’t make them behave differently. At least not that I can tell. I could have a flaming engine doing 150 on the straight-away. Flipping is only an inconvenience. It would have been cool to force the player to find those shortcuts so they can have half a chance of winning, even after dragging their engine for a mile or two. Oh and it’s worth mentioning, winning means winning in MC2 – there is no second place in illegal street racing. Be prepared to be shamed many, many times.
The music in the game is okay. Nothing to write to P. Diddy about. It kind of thumps in the background, letting you know that the game is supposed to be cool. It’s a good thing the rest of the game IS cool since the music and sound effects don’t do much for the overall experience. The surround sound is certainly functional but didn’t blow me away. You can choose which of the licensed songs you listen to on each level which is nice if you like the music. Overall, though the sound experience is not what you would expect from the same company that gave us Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. I was hoping for more on this front.
But then, of course, MC2 offers online play via the X-box Live service. As usual, finding and playing a game is flawless and smooth, as is the frame rate once you’re in. Up to 8 players can race online and new content (like cars!!) will become available over the life of the game. And finally, to top off the treats this game has in store for racing fans, you can build your own custom courses (which allows you to set your own checkpoints) and even bring them online -- a very nice feature that starts to hint at how much of a contribution Live can make to the X-box.
To Live and Get Lost in LA
In conclusion, I really enjoy playing this game. I even loved getting lost in Los Angeles as I explored its vastness and plotted my victories. It doesn’t make me miss LA, no way, but it’s nice to know I can visit by just turning on the X-box. Rockstar continues to put out entertaining, high quality games. I would certainly recommend it to any arcade racing fan. I’ve been looking to keep just one racer in my collection and, with great gameplay, cool action, huge cityscapes, good graphics and online play, MC2 is going to be it.
Deep and challenging single-player meets simple and fun online play. Fast action, smart AI and wide-open courses make for the best X-box racer yet.
Rating: 9 Excellent
* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company for review.
Ben Zackheim was born Ben Zackheim sometime before 1980 and after 1960 which characterizes him not at all. He's a writer of reviews, comics and screenplays, but aren't we all? Luxuries like food and shoes mean nothing to him. He's married to the most beautiful woman in the world, Robin, who reads all his reviews before he sends them in and says "Are you really going to write that for the public to read?" But I assure her no one reads my reviews anyway, only Charlie's, so it's kind of like a tree in the forest (without the cute little fuzzy things who smell their own poop - wait, then again there is Charlie...) She's a cross between Gillian Anderson and Hillary Clinton, which is a monster I'd love to play in Monster Rancher Advance 2. Photos are available upon request for a small fee. I'm currently writing this bio but have no plans beyond that. View Profile