Behind the wheel of Midnight Club: Los Angeles

Recently, I headed out to Los Angeles to get some hands-on time with Rockstar’s upcoming racer, Midnight Club: Los Angeles. Well actually, that’s not technically true — the event itself was held at Willow Springs Raceway, which is located in the California desert in Rosamond, an hour and a half north of the City of Angels.

There, I played the single-player and multiplayer portions of MC: LA — and I also took a stomach-churning ride in an Audi R8. Hit the jump for my impressions of the first two experiences.

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It’s been quite a while since my last experience with the Midnight Club series — the last one I remember playing was Midnight Club II on the PS2 back in 2003 (I have fond memories of jumping off of the Louvre Pyramid). So I was very excited to get my paws on the newest entry into the franchise, Midnight Club: Los Angeles, which is the first effort on current-gen consoles. My initial impressions of the game were the following: it’s essentially Burnout Paradise, but set in a real city (Los Angeles) instead of a fictional one (Paradise City). Really, though, that’s an unfair characterization — it’s selling the game short.

I had a chance to talk to Rockstar’s Jeronimo Barrera, and as he told it, Rockstar feels that no other racing title offers the variety and depth of gameplay experiences that MC: LA does:

For me … the racing genre has been splintered a bit. It’s like, you can get open world, but it’s based on crashing a car. You can get a really cool game like GRID, that looks awesome, but it’s a track-based game. … I feel that we bring all the elements that people are looking for to a highly polished level.

MC: LA offers fully customizable controls and cars, so if you want to put purple pearlescent paint on your ’Vette and map the gas pedal to the left trigger, you can do it. Gameplay-wise, MC: LA is quite similar to Burnout Paradise. The open-world game features a digital version of Los Angeles that isn’t quite a 1:1 recreation, but unless you know the city’s roads, you’d be hard-pressed to notice that. The city’s main arteries and recognizable freeways are there (Wilshire Boulevard, I-10), as are its landmarks (Hollywood sign, Capitol Records Building). You can navigate all of this through the in-game GPS, which is fully 3D if you zoom in all the way (although unfortunately, you can’t rotate the map).

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Barrera stressed the “seamless” nature of the experience. There are no loading times when you’re driving around, and to enter online play, you simply press a few buttons and you’re in — you don’t have to exit to any menus or hop in any lobbies. MC: LA features 16-player online play that’s fast, furious, and fun. Most of the single-player race modes are available online, but you can also just do your own thing if you want. The really cool thing is that you’re all in the same game world, so you could be cruising down Santa Monica Boulevard and see five or six cars whiz by you on Wilshire.

A neat mode that can be played on- or offline is the Race Editor. In it, you can drive around L.A., literally placing checkpoints as you go, to create your own high-speed car chase. When online, you can load a race that you’ve created and then face off against your friends in that race. Again, all of this takes place without ever having to leave L.A., and playing the game in a room with a bunch of other journalists was a ton of fun.

As for the story mode, it’s relatively simple, but Rockstar did something with the progression that I thought was interesting. Let’s say you’re not all that good at the game, and you rarely win your races. You’ll still earn “rep points,” the main currency of the story, so even people who don’t come in first all the time can get through the game and complete the story mode.

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Midnight Club: Los Angeles looks like it may be the best entry yet in the top-selling racing franchise. If you want more details, hit up Nick’s preview or the game’s official Web site. Look for Midnight Club: Los Angeles on store shelves for the PS3 and 360 on October 21st. Check out the gallery below for some screenshots, and the video above for the game’s third trailer.

Samit Sarkar