You really have to hand it to Rockstar Games. Ever since Grand Theft Auto III
, the company has been on fire. Just about every game they make is either good or popular, and usually both. Almost out of nowhere, Rockstar Games has become one of the biggest players in the software game.
This might have played in to why there has been so much excitement surrounding Midnight Club 2
, the sequel to one of the PS2’s first racing games. But while you can spend all day comparing Grand Theft Auto to Midnight Club 2, the truth is they are vastly different games. But that doesn’t mean this game can’t steal a little of Grand Theft Auto’s thunder, after all, as a racing game, it is one of the best I’ve played in a long time and deserves to be played.
The prospect of street racing in fully realized cities is perhaps the one thing that kept the original Midnight Club so popular. In that game, racers were given a chance to show their stuff in both New York City and London, two great cities, but neither were especially interesting to play.
Thankfully Midnight Club 2 gets it right. This time around we have three huge cities, each of them with their own areas of town, landmarks, and personalities. In Los Angeles you’ll find LAX, parts of Hollywood, Staples Center (appropriately renamed, of course), and the Los Angeles Convention Center (where E3 is held). The cities aren’t modeled out, so don’t expect reality, they merely look like the land in question.
After L.A., you’ll find yourself speeding through the streets of Paris, and then finally Tokyo. These three cities are huge, and you can get lost just looking at all the sights. They are also multi-layered, so you can head to the freeway above and around the city, or take the underground tunnels. The cities also have an amazing amount of secrets, shortcuts, hidden areas, and cool jumps. The pure joy of exploration I had navigating the streets of Vice City is back, and this time there are three completely different locations.
One of the main problems I had with the original Midnight Club was how flat everything seemed. The game had very few hills or jumps, so there was never any chance of catching air or landing on top of your rival. Things are completely different this time around, as all three cities have huge jumps, hills, and more. Nothing about this sequel feels flat, and it feels like the roads were tweaked so they’d be in the perfect locations. It’s obvious a lot of time was spent making these levels.
To keep the cities large, full of life, and running fast, the graphics aren’t overly detailed. Now, don’t get me wrong, they aren’t bad, in fact, they are much, much better than those found in the original. But if you’re expecting photo-realism, you’ll just have to wait a little longer.
In all, there are over thirty vehicles to choose, from cars to bikes to police cruisers. All of these vehicles are presented with a nice amount of detail, and look good even when you’ve damaged them to the point of them getting ready to explode.
While there are no actual licensed vehicles, there’s no denying that many of the vehicles were modeled directly off of what’s hot in the sports car world. The Interna is obviously the Honda S2000, whereas the Alarde is undeniably the Lotus Elise, and so on so forth. The lack of licensed cars doesn’t really hurt the game, and the vehicles themselves have everything from generic street racers to muscle cars, so variety is never a problem.
The other cars that litter the street aren’t nearly as good-looking, though. Even though they come in all shapes and sizes, you’ll find a lot of similar looking cars stuck in traffic. It’s not that they look bad; it’s just that they were obviously not given the attention the real cars were given. But let’s face it, they aren’t exactly the most important aspect of the game, they are merely obstacles in your path.
The game itself runs amazingly fast, and there are no traces of slow downs even when you’re going over 200 miles per hour. It’s awfully hard to pick apart the graphics when they are doing so much. And really, when you’re playing the game you’ll probably never notice any of the detail issues anyway.
The good news is that Midnight Club 2 controls like a dream, with precise control, and a unique style that gives it unexpected depth. As is to be expected, in the beginning you take control of the worst car, the Cocette, a knock off of the Ford Escort. But all things considered, it’s actually a pretty good car, and manages to teach you some of the basics going into illegal street racing.
But where things get interesting is how you slowly, over time, learn about the various tricks you can do with you car. For example, early on you learn about burnouts, which give you a faster start from the gate. You’ll also learn how to take your car on two wheels (handy when you want to make it through traffic jams) and even control your car in air, so that you can preserve a good landing.
But the most unique technique, is the use of the slip stream turbo. While you are given a certain amount of nitros from the start, it is the ability to literally tail somebody building up a turbo gauge and then speeding around them is one of the best ideas I’ve seen in a racing game recently. It’s also extremely frustrating when it happens to you, but manages to even up the playing field, and is a good step away from the handicapping that other racing games have put in to assure close matches.
Even though the bikes lack nitros, they manage to have their own way of picking up speed. Popping a wheelie will have your bike speeding past your opponents, but also making it extremely difficult to control. Without a doubt the bike takes the most practice to master, but when you do, it is hard to beat even with the fastest cars. The bikes can do a lot of those really cool jumps, giving you just a little more incentive to get back up off the ground and try again.
Some of these tricks may seem silly to the illegal street racing purist. The game is set up to play like an arcade game, almost as if it were a bigger version of the San Francisco Rush series. And it is definitely not a simulator in any form, which if fine by me. Of course, I’m not sure there is such thing as an illegal street racing purist, so may be safe.
The game does require a fair amount of patience and perseverance, though. You’ll find yourself racing the same levels over and over because you simply don’t know where the checkpoints are located. Your eyes will have to wrestle between looking straight ahead and watching the map on the lower left-hand corner of the screen.
This style of game playing isn’t for everybody, and some people may just not see the fun in racing through checkpoints, but I after a few races, I didn’t have a problem with the set up. Towards the end of the game, though, I did get the feeling it was being a tad unfair. But playing the game so many times only made me better when I took the game online, and played it with friends.
Midnight Club 2 is separated into a couple of different modes, each similar, but offering their own challenges. In the arcade mode, gamers will race against other cars in a lap-based, first to the finish line race. For the most part the paths are defined, and it’s easy to pay attention to where you need to be.
It’s the all-new, revamped career mode that is the real meat and potatoes of this package. It plays a little like the original Midnight Club, only with some Grand Theft Auto influence peaking through. You start out with one car, and a set of missions. Soon enough you will be hunting down cars to challenge, hoping to take their cars. You don’t have to challenge people in order, though; you will have to beat certain people to progress.
The nice thing about this mode is that it doesn’t force you to challenge people without you already knowing the city. You are able to drive around getting accustomed to the cities personality before doing anything, which can be extremely useful for seeing what your car can (and can’t) do. The challenges also show you where everything is, helping you piece together the best routes when you get into the harder levels. The game starts out simple enough, but by the final challenges it is one of the hardest racers you will ever play.
The game does a good job of keeping track of what you have and haven’t done, and you can always check your percentage to see just how close you are to that desired 100%. The game rewards you all the way through, only fueling the addiction. Chances are, by the time you’ve actually completed the game, you’ll still want to go through and play with the vehicles you didn’t try out in your first run through. Without a doubt, I found Midnight Club 2 to be one of the most compelling racing games I’ve ever played, and I didn’t take it out of the system until I hit 100%.
And if that wasn’t enough, Midnight Club 2 also comes equipped with its own course editor, allowing you to make up to fifteen races in each city. This option is nice, if limited in a few ways. For one thing, you cannot put your checkpoint anywhere, in fact, they have specific locations for you to choose from. You do
have control over what time of day, and weather conditions you want. And you can pick if you have to race the checkpoints in order, or as a mad scramble to collect them all.
Of all the problems Midnight Club 2 could have had, I was somewhat shocked that its most blatant flaw was the sound. I suppose I expected too much, since Grand Theft Auto: Vice City was equipped with 100 classic songs, or maybe I just don’t like the music here, but whatever it is, I had an extremely painful time listening to this game.
The soundtrack is cluttered with almost 40 songs, two or three of which I found to be worth a listen. The rest just seemed to be generic hip hop, gangsta rap, and techno knock offs, none of which were by artists I’ve ever heard of. It feels like the music was put in almost last minute, and lacked a real direction. As far as I was concerned, none of the songs matched the race it was accompanying, and I ended up turning it off more than a few times.
The sounds are also extremely generic, and don’t exactly put you in the middle of the high speed chase it is. There are sounds of the cities mixed in here and there, and the occasional pedestrian comment, but the game just doesn’t sound very authentic. The game does offer a nice Dolby Pro Logic II mix, using the front and back speakers very effectively, it’s just a shame the sounds weren't more realistic.
Also worth mentioning is the DTS mode … or lack thereof. Usually this would not be such a big deal; after all, most games don’t offer a DTS mix in the first place. But being as it is advertised on the back of the box, I find it a little suspect that it is missing in the game. This isn’t such a big deal, as my lack of interest in the music already had my reaching for my own tunes. I have a feeling that if Midnight Club 2 sells anywhere close to Grand Theft Auto III, the third installment of this street racing franchise will feature a host of big name bands.
It’s in the multiplayer modes where Midnight Club 2 really shines. Not only does it offer a standard two-player mode offline mode, but you can also connect it to the PlayStation 2 Network Adaptor and play your friends online, or even hook it up to a network, and have a multi-television LAN party at your house. Each of these modes feature the essentially the same games and features, and they are all a lot of fun.
When the online mode works, it is without a doubt the best feature going for Midnight Club 2. While it’s not difficult to get online, the game has a few problems that can make connecting with your friends (or anybody, for that matter) an almost worthless endeavor. For some strange reason the game won’t let you play with everybody, every time, so sometimes it is essential for you to boot people to start the race. This doesn’t happen that often, though, and the rest of the bugs aren’t all that tragic.
Like I said, when the mode works, it’s exactly what you’ve been waiting for. You are able to race just about every mission you’ve completed in the one-player mode, and a whole host of team games, like Capture the Flag. These games are generally lag-free, and feel exactly like they do offline. It’s evident that Rockstar spent a lot time getting the online mode right.
Everything that is accessible to you offline, is playable with up to eight people online. This is great when you are playing the arcade levels, since these races have laps, and often have clear cut paths to follow. The career mode isn’t nearly as accessible online, mostly due to the fact that most of the missions are pretty short (usually only one lap long). Thankfully, you can switch through the races between levels, making it pretty easy to navigate.
The best thing about taking Midnight Club 2 is showing off the tracks you have pieced together in the Race Editor. Depending on your mood, you can make some truly sinister levels, and it’s quite a lot of fun watching friends and strangers get hung up navigating through your checkpoints. The only downside to this is that you are limited to only fifteen edited tracks per city. But that’s more than any of the arcade modes, and your best bet for having a good time online.
It would have been nice if you could add friends to a buddy list of some short, or maybe even just have rankings, or clans, or something. The game does allow for some customization, especially when it comes to what kind of vehicles you allow in the game. But it also allows you to choose the time of day, weather conditions, and more. You can also search the program to see if a friend is hosting a room.
Perhaps the most glaring fault of the online feature is the little control you have when you are actually in the race. You can take your room to the next race or replay that one, but you cannot select from a list of levels, you cannot change the city, you cannot boot a player, and so on so forth. This should have been fixed before release, but is a minor gripe in the full scheme of things.
Unlike the upcoming Xbox version, this PlayStation 2 release does not have any voice functions. Of course, this didn’t bother me all that much, as I was keeping most of my concentration on not falling out of my chair (and making sure I won, of course). But all things being equal, it would have been a nice thing to have. The game does allow you to type during every moment of your online experience, though. You can chat in the main lobby, before a race, after the race, and even while you’re speeding through the cities at close to 200 miles per hour!
It’s also worth noting that Midnight Club 2 does not edit your foul words in any way. So if you’ve been baffled by how words are censored in other games (like “Berlin Wall” and “Regardless”, both of which are bad words in SOCOM), you won’t have to worry about that here. Whether or not this is a good thing is really you’re call, it all comes down to how much you appreciate the four-letter words that populate the games lobbies.
One of the most puzzling aspects of the multi-player modes is the use of power ups. Though they are not used in the career mode, you have the choice to add them to your online and arcade experiences. These items do an assortment of things, including making you invisible, giving you more nitros, and even throwing ice. You can even mess up your opponents view and reverse their steering, making it extremely difficult to play.
I personally didn’t have much fun with the items on, and found myself playing the game mostly without them. Even cruising through the online games, most of the hosts had the power ups turned off, keeping it all about your driving skills. I’m sure these power ups have their place, but quite honestly, they looked a little silly to me.
The game itself isn’t all that long, lasting a good 15 - 20 hours, depending on your skill level. The missions are all pretty straight forward and simply in theory. What makes them hard, though, is how persistent the computer-controlled characters are. By the end of the game you’ll be sick and tired of the other racers knowing all the shortcuts, and never falling down. The game isn’t impossible, even though it seems like it at times, and it only makes you a harder challenger when you end up taking the game online (or playing with your buddies).
Even with horrible sound and an extreme difficulty, Midnight Club 2 is easily the best racing game of the year so far. This would have been a great game by itself, but with the online features and the bevy of extra options, Midnight Club 2 becomes one of those must-own titles. Simply put, there is enough here to keep you and your friends busy until Rockstar Games gives us Midnight Club 3.
Rarely do racing games come around that are as much fun as Midnight Club 2. With an online mode, customizable levels, a sizable career mode, and fun multi-player games, this is one racing game you shouldnâ€™t pass up. Just make sure you bring your own music.