Rockstar's other franchise is back and ready to burn rubber through LA in Midnight Club: Los Angeles. The game uses the same Rage engine as Grand Theft Auto IV and Rockstar Presents: Table Tennis, and as you'd expect, it's a visual feast for the eyes. LA hasn't been re-created inch for inch, which will come as a big relief to anyone who has experienced its rush-hour traffic jams. The developers have instead created a virtual city that has the heart and soul of the city of angels, complete with iconic landmarks and real streets--the 101 freeway, Santa Monica Boulevard, Mulholland Drive, and Pacific Coast Highway, among others. The Hollywood sign, Santa Monica Pier, and Walt Disney Concert Hall are all included, and even our favourite haunt, the LA Convention Center--home to the one and only E3 Media & Business Summit--makes an appearance.
The environments in Midnight Club looks great, even in this prefinal release, and fans of GTAIV's visual style will appreciate its overall look. The game has a truncated 24-hour cycle, and despite its name, races will take place during both day and night. Weather effects appear to be dynamic; for example, we got drenched by a sudden downpour during a race, which made driving more of a challenge. The weather seems to be persistent across races--though the rain had stopped by our next event, the asphalt was still wet.
We played the multiplayer side of Midnight Club for a few hours, and we're pleased to report that it's just as much fun as single-player. The version we played was for the Xbox 360, but Rockstar has told us that the PlayStation 3 version will be identical. We started off by familiarising ourselves with Los Angeles and the game's controls before jumping into a match. The control system is very similar to those used by arcade-style racing games.
Our first ride was a red 2008 Kawasaki Ninja ZX14--one of the fastest vehicles in the game. At first we found the controls a bit sensitive, but after zooming around the streets for a bit we soon got accustomed to them. Bikes can pop wheelies, and you can also lean your weight to one side to help you corner more sharply. Cars, on the other hand, are able to perform two-wheel stunts. Besides giving you the chance to show off, these tricks stop others from getting a speed boost from your slipstream and can help you get through tight gaps.
We began our multiplayer journey by jumping into a quick match on Xbox Live, using a 2008 Volkswagen Golf R32. Despite being one of the smallest vehicles we've seen in the game, the pocket rocket still has a surprising amount of grunt. You're presented with a view of the entire city before and after each map, which lets you see all the checkpoints for each race, and you can change options and zoom in or out. You'll even see jets flying over the city and hear general ambient noises, which make the surroundings feel all the more like a living, breathing, metropolis.
Like Burnout Paradise and Need for Speed Undercover, Midnight Club is based on an open-world structure, and although each race course is different from the next, you'll often use the same streets to get from start to finish. While we didn't become overly familiar with the layout of this quasi-LA, we began to recognise sections, such as the Pacific Coast Highway and Mulholland Drive, in a short time. One of the races we tried, Laurel Canyon Run, took us through the weaving streets of the Hollywood Hills in a classic 1970 Dodge Challenger R/T. The roads still had water residue from a previous race, and the combination of a muscle car and a slippery surface made things interesting when we tried to weave around traffic at breakneck speeds. We followed this up with the aptly named Downtown Tour and saw the heart of LA, including what looked to be the iconic Walt Disney Concert Hall, from behind the wheel of a 2008 Lamborghini Gallardo. The Lamborghini handled very differently from the Challenger, which was a reflection of the effects of modern traction control and steering assists.
While we didn't see much of the game's new story mode, we did get a brief communique from one of the characters who popped up on our player's T-Mobile Sidekick, referring to us as "Booke." Midnight Club appears to have adopted a simliar concept to the Whiz candy-bar phone from GTAIV, and it looks like messages from real and AI players will pop up on the phone from time to time. You won't use it to access everything; for instance, we joined multiplayer games via a regular menu.
A gauge at the bottom of the screen shows vital information, including speed, damage, and boost. If you have too many crashes during a race, your vehicle will reset, and though you'll lose some time, you'll get a shiny new ride and a topped-up boost as a consolation prize. You'll get only a few boosts at the start of each race, but you'll be able to get bonus boosts by driving through garages during a race (visible by a gas-pump icon on the map) or by staying in another player's slipstream for several seconds. A special gauge will flash for a brief moment, and if you tap the boost button at the right time, you'll get a quick surge of speed. Much like in GTAIV, you have a map of the city on the bottom-left of the screen that will show your current location as well as other important information, such as checkpoints and the finish line.
According to Rockstar, Midnight Club will have circuit races as well as the point-to-point street races we played. In addition to races, we got to try the game's battle mode, which we're pleased to report is a blast. The two battle games we tried were Capture the Flag and Keep Away.
Capture the Flag requires you to collect a flag and dump it at a point shown on your map while avoiding other racers. At your disposal are a number of power-ups, and some of the ones we saw could briefly freeze our vehicle into a solid block of ice, make it invisible or invincible, hit it with a magnetic pulse, or send it flying in the wrong direction. The flag holder is visible on the map, as well as in an onscreen list of players, but we found it hard to see who had it when we were focused on the action.
Keep Away is a variation on Capture the Flag, with the winner being the person tagged "it" for the longest period of time in the round without being rammed by other competitors. You won't have to reach a finish line in this mode, but rather you'll race the streets at breakneck speed while avoiding other players. We played Keep Away using bikes, and because of their exceptional handling and speed, we found it a real task to catch some of the better players--although we imagine you will be able to choose vehicle classes before each race, which may even up the playing field.
The soundtrack featured plenty of appropriately fast electronic numbers, although we didn't recognise any licensed tracks in the mix. Vehicle effects sounded accurate, with throaty muscle cars, purring exotic imports, and the high-pitched whines of bikes. Interestingly, we heard pedestrians shouting out to us on occasion when we came close to hitting them (it doesn't seem like you'll be able to hit them), and while we doubt they'll have the same vocabulary range as those in GTAIV, it seemed like an amusing addition to the game.
Midnight Club: Los Angeles looks like it will be a solid entry in the series, combining sharp visuals with a real-world location, a decent range of licensed vehicles, and, perhaps most importantly, fun, addictive gameplay. We'll bring you more coverage as the game moves closer to launch.