Review by td2985

"A frustratingly enjoyable racing game!"

The illegal street racing scene is a challenging scene to break into. Not only are you forced to deal with every personality stereotype that currently exists, but you also have to race through incomplete, graphically uninspired locales where even the locals are anxious to take you out! Thankfully you are assisted with several generic import tuner cars, and a bland soundtrack filled with obnoxious techno beats that are a staple of the underground racing culture.

On paper, the game environment that Midnight Club II creates is not a very attractive one, but when executed alongside three engaging “free roaming” cities in an open-ended inspired gamplay fashion, everything blends together very well and is astonishingly enjoyable. Even the innumerable annoying personalities that litter the experience, the mediocre visuals, and the atrocious (though somewhat catchy) techno soundtrack can't stop the game from being entertaining.

Your inauspicious journey begins in the City of Angels, Los Angeles, and, as should be expected from any self-respecting racing game, you begin with a car that, to put it nicely, would be unlikely to out perform a go cart. It doesn't take long for that to change, however. Within a few races you should have a car that can, at the very least, compete against the other cars available in LA. You may not be able to win against the more capable vehicles, but you won't feel as if you don't have a chance. As you gain more respect (and faster cars!) in the LA street racing scene you will advance on to greener pastures: Paris, and eventually Tokyo.

Races are checkpoint based affairs that have you exploring every street corner, tunnel, aqueduct, and construction site that exists in the three partially realized metropolises. If you are familiar with the racing missions in Grand Theft Auto you know what to expect from MC2. You are presented with a huge, sprawling urban area filled with pedestrians and motorists, all of which serve as obstacles for you and your opponents to traverse on your path to the finish. First you must locate a racer by flashing your high beams to signal you want to race, follow them on an excessively epic trek through the city to the starting point that gives a preview of what to expect in the eventual race, and finally race at dangerously high speeds through the check points, endangering everyone's life around you. It's a great concept for a game, and will probably never get stale despite how unoriginal of a concept it is. The downside to this is you must, in the majority of races, memorize the order of the checkpoints before you can win. Most races will require several attempts to learn the racing line, and then several more before you can perfect that line to beat your opponents.

Unfortunately the fun begins to be tainted as the realization of the difficulty begins the set in. Quickly it becomes apparent that the game wasn't originally designed to be as difficult as it ultimately turned out to be. Opponents are programmed to follow a precise line, and only deviate from this line if they encounter traffic or yourself. If the latter happens they will viciously attempt to knock you off your line, tap your back end to force you to spin out, slam you into a wall, etc. The problem isn't so much that these things happen, but that they don't react in a similar fashion to their fellow AI, they simply drive cleanly and avoid as much contact as possible.

The police also have a very alarming trend of distinctly looking for and following you exclusively. Unless specifically scripted to follow the first car that passes their position, they rarely react to the other racers that are breaking just as many laws as you. Perhaps they know that you are to be the eventual street racing champion of the world and want the claim of being the one to bust you, or perhaps the developers were just lazy and needed a way to artificially make the game more difficult. Either way, it's ridiculous and does nothing more than frustrate.

Amazingly, the motorist that are almost non-existent during the non racing sections litter the roadways in perhaps the least opportune locations during the actual races. Too often a vehicle will be conveniently be placed in a blind spot at the exit of a turn, leaving you no time to adjust accordingly, and usually resulting in a collision that not only costs you a position or two, but also completely throws off any rhythm you previously had. It's another design decision that only cheapens the experience.

Since pure speed and driving skills are never enough for the racing genre, several entertaining upgrades are sprinkled throughout the first city to help you along the way. An obvious addition (especially after the success of the movie, The Fast and the Furious) is the inclusion of nitrous to give you a much needed, although temporary, speed boost to propel you past your opponents. The benefits are obvious, a simple tab of the R2 button and you are speeding out of control toward whatever is directly in front of you, but when you are forced to use it while barreling toward oncoming traffic in the wrong lane on the highway you begin to see things a bit differently.

Another extremely helpful upgrade is the Slipstream Turbo. What is essentially an overly dramatic label for drafting, it is particularly useful in races that keep your limited NO2 supply at a premium. Simply move in behind an opposing racer, wait till the gauge on the right of the screen is full, tab R2, and overtake him.

Slightly less notable, but just as effective, is the burnout upgrade. As you progress past LA into Paris and Tokyo, the acceleration advantage of your opponents becomes apparent. To counteract this advantage a burnout feature grants you quicker acceleration at the start; however, your opponents also have the same luxury.

The final upgrade is an unexpected one in a game that presents three realistic (in appearance, not layout) cities: weight transfer. While soaring through the air after hitting a jump you can maneuver your car so that you have a clean landing. If your car begins to tilt off axis, you can use weight transfer to level out the car, assuring the car of a landing that doesn't result in spinning out, flipping over, or massive speed loss. A little later the weight transfer is upgraded to allow you to also tilt your car and drive on two wheels. Easily the least useful upgrade, it does allow you to fit through tight crevices, though too often results in you losing control and ultimately flipping your car. Introduced purely for aesthetic purposes, quickly it is evident that any tight squeeze can be traversed without driving on two wheels.

The three cities, while not exact replications of their real life counterparts, are nicely designed and include many familiar locations. LA, for instance, has you racing through LAX, Rodeo Drive, past the Hollywood sign, and the Staples Center, and has a dirtier, more urban feel to it than Paris and Tokyo. Residential areas are numerous, and the sidewalks are overflowing with electrical poles (the bane of many race attempts!).

Paris, with its rightfully European feel, has you speeding through the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre Museum, the Notre Dame Cathedral, the Arc de Triomphe, and several other recognizable landmarks. One glance at the Paris map and it's most obvious characteristic becomes apparent: a complicated alleyway and side street network, and the races here use this to their advantage. Often you will find yourself navigating through the tight alleys and back streets at high speeds. Technical doesn't even begin to describe the challenge of a few of these races. Unfortunately, this leads to a type of “trial and error” gameplay that can become tedious after 15 minutes of being unable to get past the 7th checkpoint.

Tokyo is presented as a very bright city, with almost seizure inducing amounts of neon lights in the more commercial areas of the town. Along with those neon lights comes a few of Tokyo's more famous landmarks: the Tokyo Tower, Ueno Park, the Imperial Palace, and the Rainbow Bridge. Tokyo has an exceptionally flat natural landscape, and that coupled with the seemingly endless streets caters greatly to high speed drag racing. Sadly, many of the Tokyo races focus on the few, but intricate residential areas that tend to magnify every minor mistake made.

While the city designs and layouts are extremely well done, that same care and polish cannot be said about their graphical presentation. All three cities are ripe with washed out textures, lack of detail, and just a genuinely bland look. LA in particular, suffers from the bland textures and horrid detail. Aside from the vibrant Rodeo Drive, recycled building models and a boring, saturated grey color permeates throughout the city. Unnoticeable from a distance, buildings and environments in all three cities have a certain plastic quality about them, and when combined with the bland, saturated textures that are used far too often, this creates an overall generic feel in what would otherwise be a very convincing city.

The car models all suffer from the same lack of detail that the environments do. While every single vehicle is noticeably different from another, nothing in particular stands out about any given car. In a racing game, the car models are generally very well down with a decent amount of attention to detail paid to each model, but I'm left disappointed, thinking of what should have been instead of what is. The sheer mediocrity of the visuals as a whole is indefensible

Continuing with the uninspired theme the game designers took with this game is the music. While original, the annoying techno beats do very little in adding to the experience, and the rather small number of tracks quickly wears thin before you even leave Los Angeles. Unless you are a hardcore techno fan (Do those people actually exist?) you won't find much to like here, though somehow the tracks are catchy and you may have a hard time keeping them out of your head simply because of how often you will hear each one.

Perhaps even more obnoxious than the music is the dialogue. The voice acting is actually quite good, with the actors delivering their lines in a convincing manner, full of emotion and enthusiasm, but the excessively cliched dialogue makes it tough to take seriously, no matter how well acted it may be. Fortunately the story is only an excuse for the racing as it is rather ridiculous to begin with, but it is disappointing to see quality voice acting (something that is still uncommon in gaming) brought down by idiotic dialogue.

Final Thoughts

Despite everything that is wrong with the game, it is a very enjoyable experience, and remains so even on a 3rd or 4th play through. This is a tribute to how well executed the racing is that is still manages to outweigh everything else to create a fun game. If you need evidence of gameplay being more important than every other aspect look no further than Midnight Club II.

7/10


Reviewer's Score: 7/10 | Originally Posted: 02/19/05


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