Calling “Midnight Club: Los Angeles” a “racing game” is doing it a disservice. It aims to capture the full experience of West Coast car culture, exaggerated and fantasized as depicted in movies like “The Fast and the Furious.” Detailed beyond most players’ interests, the game still manages to be broadly accessible thanks to simple controls, a smooth mission structure, and jaw-droppingly stunning graphics. Car fetishists are sure to drool, but “Midnight Club: L.A.” also has the potential to make neurotic auto geeks out of a broad swath of gamers who can’t even drive stick shift.
The “Midnight Club” franchise’s recurring protagonist is a smart-mouthed, if loosely-drawn East Coaster plunked down here in the middle of Los Angeles, whose grandeur is actualized just as brilliantly as the fictional Liberty City in publisher Rockstar’s “Grand Theft Auto IV.” This dazzling and only modestly altered version of the real L.A. is the stage for an introduction to the street racing scene, populated by largely forgettable trash-talking Hollywood wannabes, all of whom continue the developer’s uncanny knack for riffing on American cultural stereotypes. Mostly, though, the game’s story is unremarkable window-dressing that provides a lead-in to the racing.
Cruising the streets of L.A., players can either compete in mission-based races or challenge roaming opponents to quick one-offs when they meet them at a red light or on the freeway. Allies and challengers contact the player via an in-game T-Mobile (branded, of course) Sidekick interface to offer tips or new races, and players can pick which races to target and take on via a GPS minimap. The seamless transition from the player’s actual street location into a brightly-lit overhead GPS is truly a visual feat that real L.A. drivers can only hope they’ll see on their windshields one day.
Although the level of detail devoted to the game’s car culture is intimidating (How many people know what “swaybars” do?), the game itself is quite accessible, thanks to simple controls and a system that lets players progress through missions even if they don’t win.
The game’s multiple camera options help with accessibility, too — players dizzied by blur-fast cornering with a cinematic camera can select a static one that doesn’t lurch so much, and they can even drive in first-person view with the camera set either behind the wheel or on the bumper.
Race wins earn money that can be used to buy better cars or to improve players’ existing stable of vehicles with performance and visual enhancements. It’s easy to question the merit of spending hard-earned in-game cash on superficial upgrades like interior neon and enormous rims, but the customization options are so wide-ranging it’s fun to get hooked on ride-pimping.
The game shines as a multiplayer title, too. Friends cruising together can plan a wide variety of matches — and not just racing, either. The most party-friendly multiplayer mode is Capture the Flag, in which players split into two teams and smash opponents to steal or rescue their flag and drive it back to the base.