After a three-year hiatus, the Midnight Club series makes its current-gen debut with the best-looking entry yet that continues the series‘ trends of offering up fast-paced, open-ended racing action. Unfortunately, it does so while also causing a great deal of frustration due to its unbalanced AI and slow-moving upgrade system that results in it taking much longer than it should to either upgrade your ride or buy a new one. While Midnight Club: LA is a highly-polished game with a lot to like about it, the frustrating parts of the experience are so grating that I could easily see them turning most players off within a few hours of play.
I found the overwhelming difficulty and balance problems to be the most pressing issues throughout the game. You’ll frequently deal with AI-controlled foes who are given faster and far more durable vehicles than you and who never seem to run into the same problems that you easily can due to the game’s fast speed - things like oncoming traffic, parked vehicles (which are harder to see during night races than moving ones because their lights are off), and track-related hazards like trees and lamp posts never seem to faze them. Rubberband AI, which ensures that you can count on always having a rival on your tail, only adds to the frustration since a single mistake, no matter how small, can send you from first to the end of the pack even in the easiest races.
Should this cruel fate befall you (and it most certainly will), you’ll receive a paltry amount of “rep” points to upgrade or replace your vehicle. While I do appreciate getting something no matter my finishing position, this aspect of the game design results in it taking far more time than it really should to get a better vehicle. This comes off as something done to not completely alienate players while also forcing them to play the game more, thus increasing playtime, even if it’s not for a good reason.
While I’ve enjoyed past Midnight Club games in spite of their difficulty, I was really hoping it would be turned down a notch here, and instead, the developers just continued the trend of stack the deck against players. Sure, it makes a first place finish seem like an accomplishment, but it wouldn’t hurt to have a less-frustrating setup available for most players, while still making the harder option available so players who enjoy the high difficulty level to have their fun as well.
Looking past the absurd difficulty, Midnight Club: LA does succeed in some key areas - it controls like a dream, looks fantastic, features an excellent soundtrack, and has some surprisingly good voice acting. Despite the differing performances of the tuners, muscle cars, motorcycles, etc. offered up, all of the different vehicle types control very well and do exactly what you want them to do when you want to do it. Of course, each kind of vehicle has its own learning curve to it, but that’s fairly minor compared to how difficult other aspects of the game are, and is more time-consuming than it is difficult. While I’m mostly content with vehicle control, I do wish there were more to choose from. MC: LA’s vehicle selection is pretty paltry - especially compared to Midnight Club 3, which featured a far more impressive fleet of vehicles.
Fortunately, the vehicles customization element has been taken to a new level, and allows for more layers to be added to your ride than in past MC games. While that’s certainly a step up, I found that it still wasn’t as robust as Forza 2 as far as allowing you to really go nuts with exterior car designs, although MC: LA does allow you to customize interiors, which you can’t do in Forza 2.
Past MC games enabled you to play in numerous cities, while MC: L.A., as you might’ve guessed from the title, just lets you play in one. While that may seem like a step down, the series’ previous cities just seemed like visually passable incarnations of the real deal - this is the first time that the series succeeds at really making you feel like you’re in a living, breathing world, and does such a good job that I never minded just having one playable city…that is bigger than every series in the previous games put together. The latest virtual incarnation of L.A is teeming with vehicular and pedestrian traffic and while you can’t quite go to GTA/Shenmue-level lengths and follow/stalk a single person as they go about their day, it’s still impressive to see the streets littered with people - especially when races get a little too raucous and they’re sent scurrying for safety.
This heightened sense of reality is furthered by real-world locales being featured in billboards and MC: LA’s mostly menu-less presentation, which doesn’t work as well as it should. While it does result in essentially hiding things like secondary and online mode listings since they aren’t brought up in-game and you have to go searching for them on your own to find them. Fortunately, the few menus that are here are easy to navigate, while the in-game GPS makes getting around the virtual L.A. a reasonably painless process. The biggest problem I had with it is that it doesn’t show you the fastest route to get to a destination. However, over time, I came to enjoy that, as it forced me to explore the world more, which came in handy for the more open-ended races that require you to know the lay of the land to avoid getting smoked.
Visually, MC: LA is mostly a stunner, with its meticulously-detailed vehicles and environments, which truly shine in either the cockpit or first-person view, but look fantastic in either of the two third-person viewpoints. Of course, during a race, you won’t have much time to enjoy the environment due to the blistering pace of the game, which works at making this the most intense racing experience I’ve had this gen, but sometimes feels a bit too overwhelming since so much is going on at any one time.
MC: LA’s audio is also fairly impressive, with its diverse rap and rock soundtrack fitting not only the fast-paced racing action, but also the slower-paced, pressure-free cruising between races. After featuring some of the most laughable voice acting of the past decade, MC: LA marks an impressive turnaround, as the script actually features some humor that works, and the cast does a good job of making their limited characters at least seem realistic - even though they continue to lack depth.
All in all, I found that Midnight Club: L.A. is an incredibly enjoyable, but flawed racing game that succeeds at offering an excellent virtual L.A. and a great deal of fun racing action, but also requires you to jump through far too many hoops to fully enjoy the game. Hardcore Midnight Club fans who revel in the series’ excessive challenge and simply can’t get enough of the series are the only ones I can really recommend a purchase for, as casual fans will likely be satisfied by either buying an older entry in the series or renting of MC: L.A, as this one doesn’t do enough new to justify a full-price buy.