It's a summer afternoon, and as we arrive at Rockstar's London offices, we can sense the post-GTAIV relief in the air. Having already released what is likely to be 2008's biggest selling game, Rockstar is in understandably high spirits. But video gaming doesn't stand still, and all eyes are now on the publisher's next game. Midnight Club is the company's second most successful franchise, and the development team in San Diego is currently putting on the final touches to the series' Los Angeles debut. With the game set for release later in the year, Rockstar invited us down to sample the City of Angels for an extensive two-hour hands-on session.
As you'd hope from a true next-gen racing game, Midnight Club: Los Angeles is set in a completely open-world environment. You can drive around the city as much as you want, and when you feel like racing, all you have to do is flash your lights at passing racers. LA itself has been re-created with some artistic license by the game's designers because the real-life grid structure of the city would have been detrimental to the actual racing. This means that some of your favourite landmarks might be missing, but we thankfully saw the 20th Century Fox building, which Die Hard fans will recognise as the Nakatomi plaza and was the scene of the denouement in Fight Club.
Running on Rockstar San Diego's own RAGE engine--the same one that powered GTAIV--Midnight Club looks superb. The environments are immaculately detailed, even down to the obnoxious level of advertising in the city. Such brands as American Apparel and Rustlers have made it onto billboards, while all the car parts are from real-world manufacturers. Product placement aside though, the game itself moves at a blistering pace. While Rockstar says the game is more likely to run at 30 rather than 60 frames per second, we encountered absolutely no slowdown as we cruised through the city. In fact, the game is looking very polished at this stage, and it looks like most of the major features are already in place.
When you get behind the wheel, you'll soon see that the new Midnight Club is very true to previous games in the series. Although handling changes subtly between vehicles, the cars feel light and responsive, meaning you can twitch your way through competitors, traffic, or roadside obstacles. We got to drive the Mercedes S600, as well as 1967 Mustang Boss cars, and we even got to take the latter to a garage for a series of upgrades. To say Midnight Club's customisation options are extensive is a massive understatement--we were able to customise every conceivable part of the vehicle, as well as design its appearance with paint jobs, logos, and lighting. You could conceivably spend hours in this mode alone, changing everything from the engine components to the stitching on the interiors.
We got to see three different racing styles during our time with the game. The most prominent was the standard race, where you compete against four other racers through a series of checkpoints. We also played through a couple of red light races--one-on-one point-to-point races where the idea is to find the quickest route to the finish line. The final racing style we saw was the dynamic freeway race, where you compete against one other racer at speed on the motorways surrounding LA. The traffic on the freeway means that you have to weave much more than in the city centre, but some stretches do allow you to open up the throttle and get up a decent amount of speed.
For the first time in the series, Rockstar is set to incorporate a storyline Midnight Club: Los Angeles. We didn't get to see any of it during our play, but short cutscenes will show you as a young driver who gets involved with street racing in order to win money and respect. The reward system is based on these two features, so you'll earn more money and respect for coming in first in races and driving better vehicles. There are also races where you can lay wagers, play missions to deliver packages, and take part in pink slip races where you can bet your car against someone else's car. Finally, tying in with the story are revenge missions, which will trigger cutscenes before and after each race as you take on special characters from around the city.
There are two other features to the Midnight Club package--the online mode and the bikes. We unfortunately didn't get to play either of them during our play time, but Rockstar did divulge some more information about how they'll work. There will of course be a multiplayer element to the game, and it's clear that you'll be able to go into an online version of the city to challenge other people to races, much as you can with Burnout Paradise. There's no word on player numbers or race types as of yet, but Rockstar has promised to fill us in with the details closer to the release of the game. Motorbikes will also be making a return, and while we didn't get to try them out ourselves, we did get to race against a couple of them for our final race in the city.
There's no doubt that this Midnight Club is going to be compared to Burnout Paradise--the open-world setting and racing structure are incredibly reminiscent of what you can find in Paradise City. But while Criterion's arcade racer had little time for realism, car lovers will certainly have more to sink their teeth into with Rockstar's effort. We're sure to see more of Midnight Club: Los Angeles in the run up to release, and we can't wait to see how the two games stack up once October arrives.