These days it seems that every publisher is trying to get in on the big street racing craze, or at least what once was a big craze--whether or not it's still enough of a craze to warrant much attention is debatable. Regardless, when it came time for Midway to enter the fray, the company's San Francisco Rush franchise was an obvious choice for branding purposes. Formerly a classic arcade racer, Rush has been relocated and rebranded for the current trend, taking up shop in Los Angeles and shifting to a straight-ahead street racer, complete with an open-ended city environment and plenty of traffic to duck and weave through, not to mention an appropriately glib storyline that's all about one man's journey to right the wrongs done to him by upping his rep and his paper through lots and lots of races. However, while Rush has some of these requisite components, it also lacks a lot of others, like a real car customization component, online play, or a single-player experience with a sense of purpose. Parts of L.A. Rush come across as competent and enjoyable, but those parts aren't enough to make it stand out amid stiff competition.
The bulk of your time with L.A. Rush will be spent in the story mode. Here, you play as Trikz, a renowned racer in the LA underground scene who has the mansion and car collection to back up his sizable reputation. Trikz's seemingly lavish lifestyle is put to the test, however, when a local race promoter by the name of Lidell (played with flamboyant silliness by How to Be a Player star Bill Bellamy) is set to put on a major series of races. Lidell is not particularly fond of Trikz and tries to tip the scales against him by using his connections to rob Trikz of all his rides, which sets in motion a long-winded game of "find the missing cars," with quite a bit of racing in between.
The setup for this story mode is entirely decent. You'd think that going on this lengthy quest to reacquire all your stolen rides and stick it to the man who robbed you would at least elicit some measure of satisfaction. You'd be wrong, in this case. The story itself is lent very little screen time. You get bits of phone conversations from time to time from your sidekick Ty, as well as Lidell's lady, who is sucked in by your irresistible charms, and you'll get the occasional cutscene right as you enter a new territory and series of races, but apart from this, you don't get much out of it. Things play out very predictably and unimaginatively. But hey, that's fine. Most street racers aren't known for their heart-wrenching narratives. All that matters is that the driving is good, right? Well...
The good news is that L.A. Rush's driving model, by itself, is quite enjoyable. The game's sense of speed is right up there with the most recent entry in the Midnight Club franchise, and when you get going, you really feel the traffic whiz by you. It even uses that nice, subtle motion-blur around the edges of the screen to great effect. The handling is a bit loose, but rarely so much that you can't control your car. It's effective for pulling off big drifts around corners and dodging in and out of traffic where needed, all while maintaining high speeds on busy city streets; and boy are they ever busy. The developers have managed to get an awful lot of traffic onto the streets of LA, and it's a constant nuisance. You'll have to be mindful when running red lights, as there's almost always cross traffic to avoid. If you don't, you're punished (or perhaps rewarded, if ever so slightly) with a spectacular wreck, complete with an extra-stylish camera angle and copious amounts of particle effects.
But spectacular wrecks and generally enjoyable driving can't make a game fun forever, and once the grind of the story mode's mission structure starts to catch up with you, you'll be too busy cursing L.A. Rush for its highway robbery. You start out the story mode with just one clunker of a car and a couple of base-level street races open to you. The first race is a freebie, but after that, every race requires an entry fee.
OK, that's fair, since real-life street racing is based on wagers. The problem is that the story is progressed by placing in the money in these events, which can often be a task easier said than done. Granted, the only way you can lose your fee is if you place dead last in the four-car race, but all it takes is one random piece of ancillary track flinging itself into you at the wrong time or one misjudged turn to effectively ruin what chance you have to advance. Like in any open-ended street racing game, you need to play through a lot of the races multiple times to get a feel for the tracks--but this is not something encouraged by the game's wagering system, since you can't go back and do those races again until you've earned back the money you've lost. It's entirely too easy to lose a key race, then have to go and again play through one or two races you completed forever ago just to get back and do that race over again. Later in the game, it seems like that trend might shift, since you start winning bigger chunks of change, but as always, one or two races will come along with an unpleasant finish, and then you're basically back to square one.
Part of the problem is that the opponent racer artificial intelligence is just a touch on the cheap side. Rubber banding is readily apparent in most cases, and CPU drivers have an uncanny knack for avoiding collisions, as well as causing collisions that just happen to impact you directly. They aren't impossible to beat, but bumping into and knocking around opponent drivers the way they knock you around is next to impossible. You'll also have to frequently contend with LAPD cars floating around the city. Oftentimes during races, cops will swarm in out of nowhere and try to disrupt you. They're aggressive too, but not to the point that they'll try to total your car. More often they'll just try to run you off the road. That's all well and good, except for the fact that the sheer number of police patrolling the streets of LA in this game is ludicrous. If this many cops were actually driving around Los Angeles, crime would plummet into the negative percentages. Perhaps just a tad fewer cop cars would have been preferable here.
The grind of having to go through all these races over and over again might have been more acceptable if you had the perception of working toward something, but you really don't. As you complete races, occasional side races, like elimination races (where the last car on a lap is eliminated) and endurance races across the entire city, open up, but they're so expensive that it's unlikely you'll even bother with them until way later in the game. You can unlock new cars to drive by participating in seemingly free acquire missions, where you drive to a location, get your new car, and try to get it back to your home base before a gang of Lidell's thugs wreck you off the road. Unfortunately, even this has a financial downside, as you'll have to pay for any damage done to the vehicle, and wouldn't you know it, that can be real expensive too. At least there's a decent variety of licensed vehicles in the game, as well as some cool concept cars, but considering what a capital suck it can be to acquire them, they aren't quite cool enough for what they end up costing you.
You don't even get to properly customize your cars once you reacquire them. Granted, Midway went out and licensed West Coast Customs and stuck the wisecracking mechanics in the game during cutscenes. And there are a number of WCC locations on the map, where you can drive your ride to get "pimped." But you have no say in said pimpage. You drive in, and what comes out is completely out of your hands. Certainly we understand that the whole reason for the West Coast Customs crew's fame is that on the MTV show, they take beat-up cars and pimp them out for the owner, without the owner's involvement. But this isn't a Pimp My Ride game (despite the inclusion of the Pimp My Ride theme for whenever your car is finished), and you don't play as a hyperactive 18-year-old Valley girl with a beat-up Ford Focus and a heart of gold either, so this methodology doesn't make sense.
What's more, L.A. Rush doesn't have much to offer beyond its story mode. There's a quick race option and split-screen multiplayer, but that's it. No online play is available on either platform--well, the Xbox version is Xbox Live aware, and you can download new car skins when connected, but there's no head-to-head play whatsoever. These days, when even the most rudimentary and janky racing games have some measure of online play, the lack of it here is beyond puzzling.
If L.A. Rush deserves credit for anything, it's for its rendition of the city of Los Angeles. The city is massive, spanning many square miles and including all the major LA landmarks and freeways you'd expect to see. It's broken up into five territories, but traveling between areas is entirely seamless with no load times at all. And it all looks great, too. Every piece of the city is nicely detailed, even when you get up close to it, and somehow the game still manages a pretty solid draw distance as you're driving along. The car models, despite being a little overly shiny, are also well put together, and they deform quite well when you wreck. Yes, that's right, a game with licensed cars that lets you do major damage to them. Incredible, isn't it? There are a few visual blemishes here and there--the frame rate sometimes gets bogged down, and the pedestrian traffic looks and moves rather ugly--but even with that said, you can't call L.A. Rush anything but a great-looking game.
The game has its impressive sound qualities too, specifically the sound effects. It gets that sensation of air whipping past as you speed around the city down really well, and the wrecks sound brutal. Engine noises, the hiss of nitrous being let loose, tires screeching around corners--it's all there, and it all sounds excellent. It's in the other areas where the audio presentation loses out. The voice acting is mostly hammy and suffers from awful writing. When you're driving around, pedestrians will shout the same handful of phrases over and over again, as will the cops that chase you around. Also, for some reason, the guy who feeds you info during races sounds like Wink Martindale trying his best to sound street, or something. The soundtrack is broken up by genre, with hip-hop, techno, and rock categories. There are a few choice tracks here and there, but for the most part, the music blends into the background and never stands out.
And that's pretty much what L.A. Rush does as a whole. It fades into the background and never makes an attempt to stand out from the competition. It's the wallflower of street racing games, a completely innocuous and thoroughly unremarkable piece of work that doesn't have a lot to offer street racing fans beyond what they've seen and done before. The driving engine is certainly good, and the developers did a good job re-creating LA for nefarious racing purposes, but considering the unrelenting grind of the story mode and the complete lack of base-level features that every other street racing game on the market has, it's tough to recommend L.A. Rush to anyone but the most hardcore of racing fans. And if you do feel it necessary to check out L.A. Rush, just give it a rental, as a weekend's worth of play is about as much as you'll need to squeeze out what marginal enjoyment the game has to offer.