Review: Midnight Club LA Remix (Sony PSP)

Midnight Club: LA Remix
Publisher: Rockstar Games
Developer: Rockstar London
Genre: Racing
Release Date: 10/20/2008

One thing I love about writing for DHGF is that it is forcing me to go outside of my normal boundaries and try things I’ve never played before. At the very least, I’m revisiting genres I’d long ago decided weren’t for me. As it was, when Midnight Club LA Remix showed up in my mail box, I was weary. I really don’t like racing games. I don’t hate them or anything, but I’ve never gotten the point of them and rarely find a racing game I can sink my teeth into. (Not counting games like Mario Kart and Wipeout which feature combat, I only have two racing games out of nearly 250 games I own!)

Still, I’ll play anything once and Rockstar has a high pedigree on the PSP after the huge GTA games they released early on. So I strapped my seat belt tight and entered the gritty streets of LA with an open mind.

I was well rewarded.

Story/Modes

There is actually some semblance of a story to this, but it mainly serves as an excuse for the action and for the games voice acting. You’re an out of towner who’s come to LA for, (what else?) to race cars. After you buy your first car, you head to the streets and work your way up the ladder of success. You’ll buy new cars and meet tough opponents all with the goal of making a ton of money and earning the rep that goes with it until you get invited to go to Tokyo to join the Midnight Club.

You’ll start out with LA career and Arcade mode. With career mode, you’ll cruise around the streets looking for pillars of smoke that signal a race. Green is for easy. Yellow is for medium. Red is for hard. You’ll also get challenges from other racers by means of you T-Mobile Sidekick. (There’s a lot of in game advertising here, be warned.) You’ll have to hunt them down and flash your headlights before racing them to the starting point of the actual race. Getting there first nets you bonus rep.

What makes career work is the sheer number of challenges and the variety of the race types. You’ll start off with simple start to finish races, but quickly you’ll have races with multiple laps, a red light race where you can take any path you want, time trials, delivery missions, missions where you need to bang another car into submission, races with dozens of check points that you can visit in any order, and more. Thanks to the free roaming aspect of the city, any two races are almost never the same as you take several possible routes and there are short cuts everywhere.

Once, you done enough in LA, you’ll be invited to Tokyo, opening up a brand new city for you to race around in, along with new cars. This is an exclusive to the PSP release and nearly doubles the amount of single player content.

Winning races nets you rep and cash. Rep will up your rank and thus your status with the other racers. Some racers will not even look your way until they think you’re good enough and some cars and parts aren’t available until your high enough rank as well. Cash is used not only to buy new cars, but also to upgrade your cars acceleration, speed, brakes, gears, tires, etc. You can also use cash in the body shop to customize your car so that it’s your dream machine. There’s a good deal you can change, and it was exceptionally easy to use. I always plastered my cousin’s vehicle wraps in Phoenix company logo on my cars, I had some tricked out beasts in no time with #201WRAP all over them. If only he could see how proud I am of him in real life.

Arcade mode lets you chose any race type along with letting you select weather, time of day, and congestion of traffic. If you ever just want to jump in and play a race, this is where you’ll want to go, giving the game further legs after the campaign is completed.

You’ve also got some AD Hoc multiplayer if you’ve got a friend with a PSP and this game. Up to four players can participate in number of modes. Sadly, nobody near me has a PSP, so I’m SOL, but the options are there for those lucky enough to have friends who don’t’ think Nintendo is the end all be all of portable gaming.

All together, this is a pretty damn near complete package that fans and nonfans should find thoroughly enjoyable with a ton of content to play through. Rockstar didn’t go barebones with this and it shows.

Graphics

A lot of hoopla is made over the graphics in most racing games as they tend to be some of the best on any console. This is the same case here.

The city of LA is alive with an unbelievable amount of detail I’m not sure if it is a building by building perfect representation of the city, but the streets are crammed with light posts, fences, dumpsters, mailboxes, buildings, different types of terrain, and of course, other cars. There are few things as visually stunning on the PSP as racing along LA at night time with dozens of cars driving on the streets. Even if you’re two busy vying for first place, you can’t help but be impressed at what’s going on around you.

The best part about the visuals is the sense of speed you get once your hunk of metal gets going. Buildings and obstacles whiz by at great place and there is almost never any slowdown at any point, giving you a smooth and fast feel whenever you’re behind the wheel. In fact, the only time I encountered any slowdown was after having left the system on power save for a few hours and then coming back to a level that included cops for the first time. I looked for the problem in future levels, but it never showed up again.

The only scratch on the surface is that some of the car models can look a little rough around the edges. I was occasionally fooled into thinking I was racing a toy car instead of a luxury Sedan. Fortunately, this is the exception rather than the rule.

This isn’t the best looking PSP game, but it is definitely up there.

Audio

Can anyone remember the last time a Rockstar published game didn’t have a kick ass aural experience? No? Me either.

The music in this game is well chosen and fits well with the frantic speed of the game. You’ve got selections from all kinds of artists like Disturbed, NIN, The Chemical Brothers and quite a few rap artists whose names elude me at the moment. You have the option of selecting a particular genre you want to hear, but I’d suggest letting them all play. I’m not a fan of most of the tunes, but they add to the game tremendously .There’s nothing quite like using the agro power to pummel your way through traffic while Disturbed’s “Indestructible” blares from the speakers.

The voice acting might not be necessary for the game, but it is all top notch. The voices are realistic and feature a lot of personality. In races, you’ll often be goaded by your competitors either when your crash or get too far behind. These phrases can get repetitive, but never manage to get annoying. Quality stuff, here.

The sound effects are also top notch. From knocking over a lamp post to revving up your engine or hearing the tires squeal as you try to take a turn to fast, you’ll really get a blast out of this. The effects are crisp and sharp. I never had a complaint. The game just sounds amazing.

Controls/Gameplay

If there’s anything more important to a racing game than smooth controls, I don’t know what it is. Fortunately, the analog nub is game. The controls are responsive and allow for tight turns thanks to the handbrake on the R button. If you’ve got nitrous, then square will give you a decent boost at least until you hit something. Every car has a special move, and circle activates them. Everything works great and you won’t spend time fumbling around trying to find the brake button. The only times I had any confusion were my own failings.

The camera can be a bit problematic. It sits behind and slightly below the car. This causes a few problems when you’re going over a hill or taking a turn as the car will block some obstacles and you won’t have time to react. Still, most of the mistakes will be yours.

Races take place in the streets and as such, there are no true tracks anywhere in the game. Instead, you’ll need to hit check points highlighted by big yellow arrows that also point you in the next direction. How you get to each check point is up to you, although it is usually pretty clear which is the best route. Even still, there is a lot of freedom here and shortcuts are all over the place for those willing to look for them. In fact, these shortcuts are necessary to find as time trials will be near impossible without them and some computer opponents will exploit them as well. In fact, the game suggests that you watch the computer, as they can help you find them.

Your best friend is the GPS map on the bottom left of the screen. It will give you a detailed map of the area and let you know not only your position, but give you a chance to plan ahead for the next big turn or when to use nitrous if you’ve got a straight away coming up. You’ll be looking at this almost as much as the race itself.

This game isn’t just steering and finding routes though. There are several special moves that give the game a good unique feel as well as give each of the cars their own feel. First off, if you’re right behind and opponent, you’ll see a trail form behind them. This means you’re picking up slip stream. If you build the meter up high enough, you’ll be able to press square to get a big speed boost. If you’ve got nitrous in store, square will give you an even better speed boost. This means you’re never out of chances to catch up. If you crash and get stuck pointed in the wrong direction, holding down the hand brake and the gas will allow you to turn on the spot and get back on track. Releasing the handbrake will allow you to shoot forward. Mastery of this tactic is beyond important.

Each car type has a special ability. Your basic cars allow you to slow down time to allow you to make precise turns with deadly accuracy. Proper timing with this can make even a hairpin turn at 200 mph possible without crashing into a wall. Sadly, this doesn’t slow the clock, so using it in time trial isn’t always the best idea. This is charged by driving cleanly. Muscle cars build up their own meter when you drift. Once you’ve build it up, you can use the roar ability. This causes your engine to rev with a sound comparable to a monstrous roar (hence the name) which will send any and all vehicles ahead of you to move out of the way. Using this against opponents can get you not only the lead but a considerable one at that. Finally, luxury Sedans charge up an agro meter by bumping into other cars. This allows them to enter a rage mode that allows them to punch through traffic like a rhino through cardboard. I don’t have to tell you how satisfying this is.

Taking hits will cause you to take damage. However, a full meter’s worth of damage isn’t the end of the race. In fact, you’ll just reset as you would when you turn on your side. I ran straight into a gas pump which promptly exploded, but I was back on my wheels in a few seconds completely healed. The only time you ever lose a race other than finishing last is when get submerged in water. There’s only one section I found where this is even possible. It kind of makes the damage meter worthless, with the only addition being seeing your car get more and more wrecked. Again, this is fixed when your damage meter is reset. I didn’t notice any dip in playability when this happened.

Your biggest obstacle in any race will be the traffic. Depending on the time of the day, you’ll have more or less congested traffic in the different areas. You’ll have to weave your way through while taking sharp turns and trying to get in first. There are all kinds of cars to avoid. You’ve got trucks, SUVs, cement trucks, etc. Let me just add that running into a cement truck is no picnic. It gives the game a great arcade feel like Crazy Taxi or something. Even though running into another car that causes you to turn left and end up in fourth is undoubtedly the most annoying thing EVER, the game is better off because of it.

The gameplay is solid and fun which is all you really need for a racing game. Sure the controls could be tighter and it could do more to distinguish itself from the pack, but this is one of the few PSP games in recent memory that give you solid control over something moving in a 3D environment. That has to count for something.

Replayability

I’ve never seen a racing game give you this much content for your money. The careers are huge and contain hundreds of races of all types. It was a rare sight indeed for me to traverse that map with less than three available races at any time. For the most part, there was upwards of five. The game does a great job of giving you choices and you’ll never have to be stuck playing one race type over and over.

The ability to jump into arcade mode and pick any race type that you want is something you would expect, but it still can’t be said enough how great it is that a developer actually included something like this. The menu system is easy to navigate and finding my favorite race type (red light) isn’t a chore at all.

Multiplayer adds to the replay value if you’ve got friends, as up to four people can play a few multiplayer exclusive modes like a capture the flag game.

All told, I’ve already pored more hours then I can count into this game and I feel as if I’ve barely scratched the surface. PSP owners looking for a game they can leave in their system for a few weeks will not be disappointed.

Balance

This is perhaps the worst part of the game, and yet the balance isn’t that bad.

For one, the game does suffer from a mild case of rubber band AI. On one hand, you’ll be able to catch up to an opponent even after a major crash, but you’ll also see an opponent race up to you out of nowhere and steal your victory on several occasions. For instance, I had a ten second lead in one race and I grazed a wall. This caused my car to spin wildly out of control and veer to the right instead of going straight I quickly turned around and used nitrous to get back up to speed, but still had to watch the AI win the race even though he shouldn’t have had time to get that far ahead. I’m also slightly convinced the game pushed me into the wall as I was going straight and it wasn’t even on a turn.

Also, the traffic can sometimes seem to do its best to block your way. You might think I’m being paranoid, but there are clearly scripted events that will place a cement truck in the middle of the road. The rest of the traffic will still be moving, but the truck will stay there. If he had kept going instead of pulling over on an INTERSECTION, I would have missed him completely. As it was, I took a major hit and ended up dropping two places in the pack.

The markers aren’t always in an advantageous position. You often can’t tell what direction you need to go until you’ve already blown past your exit. If there were a few more check points this wouldn’t be a problem, but as it is, the game could stand to throw a few more in each race.

All of this means you’ll be restarting missions a lot. There is some challenge here, but not all of it is because of smart AI. Still, you’ll find that these obstacles make winning that much sweeter.

Originality

As new as it was to me, I couldn’t find much in this game that hasn’t been in other street racing games. (Including the other Midnight Club game on the PSP.) These kinds of games have always been more about refinement rather than innovation and this game is no exception. The lack of wireless play is a bit saddening.

Addictiveness

I have to admit that while I was initially turned off by this game as it was a racing game and those are as far out of my niche as I can possibly go, I grew to really get into this game. I made it my mission to unlock Tokyo as I wanted to see the best the game could bring and see if maybe I had finally gotten good enough at one of these games to make it to the end.

The game does a good job of enticing you to continue with new race types, cars, car parts, body parts, and of course a new city to unlock and conquer. Racing fans are most assuredly going to spend hours upon hours playing this game and mastering every turn.

If you’re looking for a portable racing title to suck you in, you’ve found it.

Appeal Factor

Once again, the fact that this is a PSP game hurts it in this department. The system is selling fine, but why is no one buying the games?

One problem I have is this is a forty dollar game. Sure, you get a ton of content for that price, but what is to keep someone form buying either the Xbox 360 or PS3 versions instead since they feature both online play and far superior graphics? They’re only twenty dollars more expensive and that is going to cost the PSP some buys I’m sure.

Racing games are a dime a dozen on the system, but I think the Rockstar name could help elevate Midnight Club‘s status in the consumer’s eyes. It should do ok…for a PSP game.

Miscellaneous

What’s the one thing that kills most PSP games?

If you guessed loading times, than you guessed correctly. Midnight Club‘s loading times are absolutely horrendous. You’ll spend anywhere from forty seconds to a minute between EACH RACE and when you go to the over world looking at loading screens. I had to have spent at least one third of my time with the game staring at these because the races aren’t much longer than a few minutes tops. Most are much shorter.

I have to give the game credit for taking a non believer like me and getting me to actually enjoy a racing game. It’s a game that extremely accessible to newcomers yet has the depth to keep racing veterans happy. That’s a rare thing indeed.

The Scores

Modes: Very Good
Graphics: Very Good
Audio: Classic
Gameplay: Good
Replayability: Great
Balance: Below Average
Originality: Poor
Addictiveness: Good
Appeal Factor: Above Average
Miscellaneous: Mediocre
Final Score: Above Average Game!

Short Attention Span Summary
Midnight Club is a fun and lengthy racing game whose only sins are some balancing issues and some god awful loading times. Still, this is one of the better racing games you can get on the go and those who play it will find a game well worth their money. I urge racing fans who own a PSP to pick it up right away and even PSP owners who aren’t usually racing fans might want to give it a shot.

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