Game review: Midnight Club II

15 January 2004

Rockstar Games:

Fortunately there are only two gas stations in LA. The checkpoints are infinitely high. There's a reason for this. The SLF450X: Street Legal?

This game has history.

In 1999, under the aegis of Microsoft, Angel Studios released Midtown Madness. It wasn't the first game to offer a full city map (Chicago) rather than just circuits, and racing through traffic while being chased by the cops, but it took off, at least with the gamers I played with; we spent many hours racing articulated trucks across the bridges and through the tunnels.

Then in 2000 came Midtown Madness II. This was a bit of a disappointment, and looked like a rushed release; the gameplay wasn't much different from the original Midtown Madness, although the maps were now of San Francisco and London. But there were a lot of addons for MM2, especially new and strange vehicles, and that too was good. (In the same year it also released the original Midnight Club, on the PS2.)

In November 2003 Angel Studios was bought by Rockstar Games and renamed Rockstar San Diego. At this point it released Midnight Club II, on XBox, PS2 and Windows, while Microsoft brought out the "real" Midtown Madness III (only on the XBox).

Now, I haven't seen MM3. I don't have an XBox. But Midnight Club II feels like a true sequel to the Midtown Madness games, even if it doesn't have the trucks and buses that made the MM games such fun.

There are two styles of racing game: the realistic physics and the insane gameplay. This game is firmly in the latter camp. You can (indeed, often must) do screaming drift turns, bounce your car off walls, and ram the opposition, and while you'll eventually run out of vehicle it takes a pretty long time... This is what truly makes the game shine, since in spite of the lack of realism it is basically fun. It's the sight of watching your opponent's car jumping off a ramp across a river while you think "he can't do that"...

There are three maps: Los Angeles, Paris, and Tokyo. As with the Midtown Madness games, these are more "inspired by" than accurate representations; while most of the famous landmarks are there, there's been a certain amount of editing to make it smaller and more interesting. Each of the maps is decently large, though, and has plenty of short cuts, hidden areas, and hazards to get through.

Pedestrians are back, and unlike the Microsoft-filtered MM games, you can finally hit them, rather than having them jump out of the way at the last moment. This isn't a goal of the game as it is in some other driving games, but it's a welcome touch.

Unlike most of the racing-game competition, Angel/Rockstar didn't have any money for licencing cars, so the vehicles are generic - the "Citi" resembles a Honda Civic, the "Victory" is an Aston Martin Vanquish, and so on. They're reasonably distinct from each other in performance and handling, though, and this has an unexpected benefit: unlike games with "real" cars, there are no manufacturers to prevent the car from being shown on-screen as damaged, and the progressive damage modelling (while not always realistic) is quite pretty.

There are two main modes, career and circuit races. The career is the only (non-cheating) way to unlock cars, and is also a good way to pick up driving skills; it consists of a series of races (with one or two special events) against a sequence of opponents of gradually increasing skill, each with a stylised render and a brief trash-talking sequence. (Personally I didn't feel these added anything to the game, but opinions differ.) The circuit races are playable solo or on-line (no bot vehicles on-line, though, not even traffic); and there are also multiplayer games, basically variants on "capture the flag", though there are no teams involved. There's also a race editor, to allow the player to construct custom races on the three existing maps. Races can be configured for time of day and weather conditions, once you've beaten them and are running them for other people.

The music deserves a special mention: some people like it. I found it a complete waste of time and disc space. Fortunately, though, the game includes an MP3 player: putting MP3 files or playlists in an appropriate directory will allow them to be played during the races.

Control is a concern: keyboard control is very hard to use, and mouse or joystick nearly impossible. This seems to be a game for the gamepad or steering-wheel user.

Multiplayer is where the game shines, though alas it's only possible to play on-line via GameSpy. On a LAN, though, it all works very well - though slower computers, even though they're able to play, may get dropped from the game when they don't load up the race and vehicles fast enough.

Overall, the game is excellent fun, and highly recommended.