Back in the days when Rockstar Games was perfecting the unique combination of style and substance that has made the Grand Theft Auto games the sales juggernauts that they are, the company tried its hand at several approaches to its signature style. One of its stronger attempts was Midnight Club, a launch title for the PlayStation 2 in October of 2001. The racing game was developed by Angel Studios (now owned by Rockstar and known as Rockstar San Diego), and it set itself apart from most racers with its heretofore-untapped premise of illegal street racing. The game had you racing through the streets of cities throughout the world at high speeds in modified cars. Your goal was simply to beat your opponents to checkpoints located throughout the cities while avoiding local law enforcement, which wasn't very supportive of your endeavors. The game offered a distinct change of pace from the linear approach of most racers by offering you an unprecedented amount of freedom in how you traveled between checkpoints. However, while the original Midnight Club was strong in its day, games have continued to evolve, and play expectations have grown quite a bit. As a result, Rockstar is taking an ambitious approach with the game's sequel, Midnight Club II. In addition to expanding and refining the core elements of its predecessor, Midnight Club II will include online multiplayer modes that will let racers from all over the US compete against each other. We had a chance to spend some time with a previewable build of the PlayStation 2 version of the game to see how it's all coming together.
You'll find two basic modes in the game: career and arcade. Career is the single-player story-oriented mode--it has a strong narrative focus and includes cutscenes. You'll start the game with a less-than-stellar car and be inducted into the fun and exciting world of street racing by a friendly homey from LA called Moses. From what we've seen of the game, you should really savor your time with Moses in LA, because he's probably the friendliest person you'll come across in the game. Midnight Club II's cast will be made up of 22 characters, broken up into a few per city, who will race against you in various competitions when you encounter them. The perk of racing well is that you'll earn better cars, which, and trust us on this one, is a godsend, considering you start out in a serviceable, but ultimately craptastic, Cocotte that won't take you very far in the game. The arcade mode will ultimately offer five diferent game types for you to play through once you've unlocked them. Cruise is essentially a practice mode that lets you familiarize yourself with a city, the shortcuts within it, and vehicle handling. Circuit lets you race through the streets of any unlocked city in longer races that require you to hit the checkpoints more than once, as well as in traditional track races with pedestrianss and traffic thrown into the mix. Battle mode features two types of game types--capture the flag and detonate--that you can play in one of three ways: split-screen two-player, four-player i.Link, or online. Race editor lets design races by creating your own checkpoint layouts and race conditions, save them to a memory card, and play them alone or with a friend. Career racers lets you retry any of the races you unlock in career mode, with the option to tweak race settings and opponents. Finally, the online mode, which wasn't on functional in the version of the game we saw, will let you take any career, cruise, battle, circuit, and race editor races online against up to eight players on the Internet or over a LAN.
In terms of gameplay, Midnight Club II stays true to the original game's foundation and builds on it. Racing is pretty easy, thanks to the accessible controls. You'll maneuver your car with the left analog stick, accelerate with the X button, brake with the square button, and apply the handbrake with the circle button when spinouts are necessary. The R2 button will let you use nitro boosts when they're available and will let you trigger the boosts you'll get by staying behind an opponent and building up a draft meter. Our favorite thing at the moment is using the L1 button to get the car up on two wheels. In addition to just looking cool, the move actually comes in pretty handy when you're trying to squeeze through crowded spots on the road. The motorcycles handle very nicely and offer a change of pace from driving a car. Overall, the gameplay is shaping up to be fast, accessible, and forgiving enough to keep things fun.
The graphics in Midnight Club II are coming together very nicely on the PlayStation 2. Rockstar San Diego's familiarity with the hardware has allowed the developer to get an impressive amount of performance from the PlayStation 2 hardware. If you stay strictly on the city streets, you'll find the environments to be spacious and highly detailed. However, there's quite a bit more under the hood of the game, thanks to the plethora of shortcuts. You'll be able to create your own shortcuts in many situations by simply plowing through the front of one of the many destructible buildings and zipping through the interior. While you can't crash through every building, the game offers visual cues, such as flashing lights, to indicate structures you can smash through and keep you from the embarrassment of slamming into a building that won't budge. At the moment, the environments aren't terribly clogged with cars and pedestrians, although we're told that there will certainly be some action going on in the cities as you speed through them. As sharp as the environments look, the stars of the game are the vehicles. At present, Midnight Club II is set to feature 28 different cars and, for the first time in the series, three motorcycles. The various vehicles look very sharp and sport a high amount of detail because of their generous polygon budget of roughly 5,000 polygons each. You'll notice an impressive helping of eye candy such as specular highlights, a ton of lighting, and great particle effects. The particle effects are a mixed blessing, however, because if you see them in all their glory, it means you've busted up your car pretty bad. But you'll be able to appreciate the painfully thorough damage modeling on the vehicles. You'll even find weather, such as fog and rain, thrown into the mix. The visual package is tied together neatly by a high frame rate and impressive sense of speed that truly shine when you use the nitro or draft speed boosts.
The audio in Midnight Club II is shaping up to be pretty solid as well. Although the soundtrack in our build wasn't final, what we heard was good. You can expect to hear a collection of tunes that wouldn't seem out of place blaring in a club. However, we have to say that any game where you can get your car up on two tires needs to have at least one '70s-style tune with blaring horns. As far as voice goes, we heard snippets here and there, but there wasn't much in our build yet. The cast should have quite a bit to say in the final game. The vehicles, on the other hand, are a noisy bunch that use an effective assortment of engine sounds and do a fine job of pulling you into the game.
From what we've seen so far, Midnight Club II looks to be a promising second entry in the series. The enhanced graphics, gameplay tweaks, and new additions expand on the original game's appeal. The addition of an online mode will definitely add a whole new dimension to the game and ensure that gamers will have plenty of opportunities to hone their skills. You can look for the PlayStation 2 game in stores this March, with the PC and Xbox versions set to follow in April. Check back with us in the coming weeks as we bring you more on the game.