It's a lovely evening for racing, with the horizon a vivid orange as a dark blue overtakes the clear Los Angeles sky. I'm driving flat-out amidst dense traffic in a highway race, holding a slight lead against an opponent who’ll leave me miles behind at the slightest mistake. Highway races tend to be short though, so I've got a good chance of keeping my lead just long enough to earn first place, including the reputation and cash that go with it. Twenty seconds later, I've turned the console off in disgust once more, not because I suck (although that multi-car pileup I caused probably would have helped avoid an embarrassing loss), but because the idiot police saw the race and decided that the appropriate punishment was to suck all the fun out of Midnight Club: Los Angeles.
Anyone who's played a street racing game will be instantly familiar with the setup of Midnight Club LA. The new rookie has come to town, ready to show everyone who the real king of the racing heap is, and he's got a car that's only slightly more powerful than something gotten from a gumball machine to prove it. One race leads to another, and pretty soon the map is covered with a variety of icons indicating different types of events, odd jobs, and home-base garages. What sets Midnight Club apart from the also-rans is the way it strikes a perfect balance between arcade and realism, with a challenge that tends toward brutal, but remains mostly fair.
The problem with street racing is the rest of the traffic think they have their own right to the road while you’re busy racing. LA traffic has been tamed for gaming purposes, but there are still a good number of cars on the road, not to mention the obstacles such as signs, trees, lamp posts, and exploding gas station pumps. Driving fast is only half the challenge, and a pleasantly forgiving cornering model doesn't do much to help maintain a lead if you spend the rest of the time bouncing off traffic. Keeping a clean line requires fast reflexes, a good understanding of the current car's handling, and a bit of luck when sliding around a blind corner. Victory isn't easy, and almost every one feels earned.
Helping tame the challenge a bit are the skills you've got and your opponents lack. The weight-transfer skill returns unchanged from previous games, allowing the car to balance on two wheels to both squeeze through tight spots and prevent opponents from drifting long enough to earn a bonus turbo boost. Each car can also choose one of four special abilities, changeable at will like any other accessory in the garage. Roar sends all cars in front of you scurrying from your path, Aggro turns the car into an unstoppable destructive force, Focus slows down time and allows even the sharpest corners to be taken with no loss of speed, and EMP sends out a 360-degree blast of lightning to temporarily fry the electronic systems of everyone within range. These abilities have to be earned by clean driving, however, so there's no spamming the track with electric zaps. Only those who race well get to play with the fun toys.
fun, and nearly game-breaking, are the police. For some reason, every street racing game feels that exciting police chases are an indispensable punishment that no player should be able to escape. The streets aren't exactly crawling with cops but they're still common enough that you need to be careful, especially when cruising the city poking around off the beaten track. Spend too long exploring, mapping out shortcuts or finding the collectibles scattered around the world, and the police come sniffing about. They're marked on the mini-map and the scanner makes a beeping sound as they get closer, so avoiding them isn't too difficult, but if they spot you then it's time for the tedious chore of running away. Once the chase starts all races disappear from the map and the garages close down, leaving no choice but to either escape or turn the console off. Escape isn't made any easier by the police's magical ability to see through buildings, so hiding and doing something useful with the time is out. It's not that the chases can't be fun, especially when they happen mid-race, but being locked into an event that's worn out its welcome is a crap thing to do to a gamer who just wants to get in a few rounds of good racing.
The racing is good, however, and that's what saves Midnight Club LA from a mid-game crash & burn. Adding to the fun are the customization options, including both performance and visual upgrades. New performance parts add to the three stats of handling, speed, and acceleration, while the visual upgrades give you car that you can really call your own. Hoods, wheels, tailpipes, front and back bumpers, running boards, headlights, and much more have a wide variety of styles available, and there's a near-endless number of vinyls to cover the body with afterwards. Even the car's interior has multiple parts to swap out, and that's not even visible except from the garage. It's very easy to lose large chunks of time getting the car to look just right, although eventually there's that nagging feeling you're playing with a four-wheeled Barbie.
Rounding out the package is a 24-hour day to night cycle, fluctuating traffic levels depending on time of day, weather effects, pedestrians that dive out of the way no matter how hard you try to smush them, and a huge soundtrack. Los Angeles geography is nicely accurate. I was able to look up Pink's on Google Maps and drive there, although for some reason the in-game model had a drive-through attached. The city is huge, races range from little hops to marathons and come in a variety of styles, and there's no end of challenges to be had either single-player or online. The only major issue is the police, which is enough to keep the game from greatness, but not to sink it entirely. Midnight Club: Los Angeles is a huge, rewarding racer, and no matter how many times I walked away it kept dragging me back for more.