Review supplied by Games Master magazine
In the world of racing games, few titles have evolved so much yet changed so little as the Midnight Club series. While the likes of Need For Speed or Burnout have needed to constantly re-invent themselves to cater to the ever-increasing demands of gamers, it seems like Midnight Club got it right nearly a decade ago.
As developers Rockstar San Diego (who have been responsible for every title) would tell you, the concept of adrenaline-filled open-city racing is one that they have been happy with since they were called Angel Studios and developed the cheerful PC racer Midtown Madness in 1999...
However, to say Midnight Club hasn't been cultivated and honed over the years would be a fib; Los Angeles has been given, appropriately, a very Hollywood makeover. Once upon a time, you could argue that the series was stuck under the mighty shadow of Grand Theft Auto. Los Angeles, on the other hand, has been treated to the high calibre production values we now expect from a Rockstar title. Which, of course, includes entertaining cutscenes, a roster of ultra desirable licensed bikes and cars, an eclectic sound track and a glamorous visual splendour that occasionally trumps even GTA IV.
Of course, this slick new approach would mean very little if it was no fun once you got behind the wheel. Happily, the races offer such a high level of sustained intensity, that returning to the cruise mode after a gruelling checkpoint race provides a brief moment of respite to take a breather. Like previous games in the series, vehicle handling is lively and chuckable rather than sombre simulation. Wrenching the handbrake will initiate lewd and grin-inducing slides while weight-shifting the car onto two wheels is as spectacular a way to sneak through traffic as it is to cause a huge accident. That said, even with the addition of the car 'power-ups' (see Power Play box above) there's still a grip on reality and driver skill is definitely needed - a Golf GTI will dart quickly through traffic, while a Camaro will oversteer with provocation. And a Ducati motorbike, naturally, will come a cropper if side-swiped by a car...
With Midnight Club sticking closely to the formula that made previous games so popular, it might seem predictable for the series to return to Los Angeles. Even so, the use of Rockstar's Rage Engine has made LA feel more alive than ever thanks to a full day and night cycle, changeable weather conditions and a full complement of traffic and pedestrians. The roads may have been streamlined for the purpose of racing but it's definitely Los Angeles - eagle-eyed residents and tourists will spot more than one landmark on their travels.
Having this fully functioning, 24-hour city is even more impressive when the gameplay allows you to move seamlessly from the tarmac out to an overview of the map without any loading screens or pauses. Having access to such instantaneous action ensures you stay immersed in the game with the added comfort of not having to drive back to the start if you lose a race (we're looking at you, Burnout Paradise).
By the developers own admission, Midnight Club: Los Angeles has not been created to revolutionise the genre. Nor even the series. But you can just tell that every element has been developed with past experience in mind; the speed, the ability to drive fast and navigate, the skills of the AI and the opportunity to progress through the game without getting 'stuck' on one particular challenge. Where other street racing games have been re-branded, re-built or have fallen by the wayside, Midnight Club: Los Angeles has been polished up to be the pinnacle of the series, and one of the most exciting arcade racing games of 2008.
The pinnacle of the series - honest to the original concept, but faster and better looking