While there are definitely a few bumps in the road, Midnight Club II is a fine introduction to auto racing for Microsoft's Xbox Live service.
While the Xbox racing game market is becoming more and more diverse all the time, there's been one thing missing all along: online play. While THQ's MotoGP series was technically the first Xbox racing game to take the plunge, not everyone is willing to accept the hard-to-master nature of a motorcycle simulation. So, for the rest of us, Rockstar has put together its underground street racing game, Midnight Club II. Besides being a noticeable improvement on April's PlayStation 2 release, the game is a solid open-city racing game in its own right. Yet though the game has its strengths, some of its features didn't pan out quite as well as they could have. Still, Midnight Club II is good for those looking for some arcade-style racing action online.
Like the previous game, which was a PlayStation 2 launch title, Midnight Club II is about giving the player access to a gigantic citylike environment, complete with back alleys, monuments, and plenty of intricate shortcuts. The game's main mode is its career mode. At first, you're set loose in the city in search of adventure. This adventure comes in the form of hookmen, who are racers that patrol certain sections of the city. You challenge these racers by rolling up behind them and hitting your high beams. You then have to stay on their tail until you've proven yourself worthy. Once you've done so, you're thrown into one checkpoint race after another, challenging various hookmen and winning their cars as you defeat them. You start out on the streets of Los Angeles, but you'll eventually move on to Paris and Tokyo. The large cities are extremely cruise-worthy, and it's obvious that a lot of work went into putting the environments together, but you'll want to cruise in the game's arcade mode, as you're almost constantly harassed by annoying radio chatter when cruising around in the game's career mode.
Thankfully, the rest of the game's modes are a little quieter, though you can only access cars, races, and cities that you've opened up in the career mode. Arcade mode lets you cruise aimlessly, race a number of laps on a variety of predetermined circuits, replay any of the checkpoint races you've completed in the career mode, and enter four-player battle races, which let you play in either a standard sort of capture the flag game or a bomb-oriented variant called detonate, where players race to pick up a detonator and drive it to a scoring spot on the map to earn points. The game also has a race editor mode that allows you to place your own checkpoints and configure your own races. These custom races can then be saved and taken online. This is a cool addition, but it would have been cooler if you had been able to truly place your checkpoints anywhere on the map. Instead, you're limited to specific points.
The game's Xbox Live support features a good number of options, but it's a little sparse in spots. Just about anything you can do in the game's arcade mode is available here, though instead of being limited to playing against the game's AI or a second player, you can play against a total of seven other human opponents. The increased number of cars definitely makes modes like capture the flag and detonate much more meaningful. The game also has a number of power-ups that come into play here, such as the ability to inflict reverse steering, slippery handling, and other nasty effects on your opponents. In optimal conditions, the online play is just as smooth as its offline counterpart, but you have to keep an eye on the ping of the servers you're connecting to, as the game noticeably lags at lesser speeds. The front-end options that tie the online game together are a little lacking. The Xbox version adds a much-needed ranking system, which was missing from the PlayStation 2 release, but some sort of wagering system would have helped up the stakes in certain races. The game also locks your car choices once a race or series of races has begun online, which means you'll have to quit and find a new game just to change cars.
Much like in the previous game, the gameplay in Midnight Club II is fast and loose, though a handful of new tricks have been added. When you first start the career mode, you'll be driving a standard car, but eventually you'll unlock various abilities that help you race and maneuver more effectively. You'll be able to control your car in midair, burn out to gain speed off the line, earn nitrous boosts, earn extra turbo boosts by filling a drafting turbo meter, and pop up onto two wheels at will (which can come in handy for squeezing through tight spaces, but is often more trouble than its worth). The car handling in the game isn't very slippery, and at times the game's skids have an almost mechanical look to them. A quick tap of the hand brake lets you whip around corners extremely easily, and you'll never have to deal with abstract simulation concepts like oversteer or understeer. For the most part, you'll just be keeping the gas pedal mashed and braking occasionally to make some of the sharper turns. The physics in the game are pretty crazy, though. The cars never really feel like they have any weight to them. Sometimes taking a turn too fast will cause your car to roll, and launching off certain ramps will send you through the air for what seems like a mile. In the end, the game feels more like the shortcut-filled insanity of Midway's San Francisco Rush than a game about the exclusive world of underground street racing.