Developer Rockstar San Diego returns to the gritty urban streets for their sequel to the PlayStation 2 launch title Midnight Club: Street Racing. Players once again assume the role of an underground street racer as they embark on a potentially profitable career spanning the world, with events held in Paris, Los Angeles, and Tokyo. Rather than confine racers to a specific route on a closed-off track, Midnight Club II offers open-ended courses within each city that feature shortcuts, tunnels, bridges, jumps, overpasses, and more as players do whatever they can to stay ahead of the competition.
Each city is also filled with animated pedestrians and traffic, essentially serving as moving obstacles that can interfere with a player's high-stakes race. New high-performance vehicles are available to drive, unlock, and store in the player's garage, including the debut of motorcycles. Motorcycles are fast but also more difficult to control, requiring new skills to master as players weave across traffic and zip through narrow alleys. Over 28 hot rods, muscle cars, and rally cars round out the vehicle lineup, and players can perform stunts such as wheelies, tipping cars on two wheels, 360° spins, burnouts, and more to help navigate the course or to impress the competition.
The AI has been enhanced from the previous title to allow for more "on-the-fly" decisions in regards to the routes computer opponents take, making each race a different experience since rivals no longer follow a set path to the finish line. Since the basic premise of the game is illegal, players should expect the police to engage in high-speed pursuits and attempt to stop them from completing the race. As in games like Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit 2, law enforcement can call for roadblocks and rely on helicopter patrols to put an end to the competition. Also adding to the challenge is variable weather, including rain, fog, and lightning storms that can hurt visibility.
It's been a while since I've enjoyed a PC racing game as much as Midnight Club II. It's arcade action all the way, with a challenging campaign of midnight street races and a multiplayer component that's hard to put down. Having played a bit of the PS2 and Xbox versions released earlier this year, I was happy to see that PC version looks every bit as good as its console cousins, making Midnight Club II the best arcade racer to hit the PC in years. If high-speed, death-defying, turbo-boosted jumps and split-second finishes sound like your kind of thing, then this is the game for you.
Set across three sprawling cities, you begin Midnight Club II as a newbie to Los Angeles' illegal street-racing scene, entering races of increasing difficultly against characters easily mistaken for extras from The Fast and the Furious. As you defeat each character (which usually takes a few races), you'll win a new ride and move a step up the ladder. Once you've beaten the L.A. champion, the game shifts to Paris, and then Tokyo.
Most of the races are group checkpoint-based affairs, although there's a sprinkling of one-on-one races and solo timed missions. Some races allow you to go through checkpoints in any order (allowing you to exploit shortcuts in each city), and there are other types of missions, such as motorcycle races or police evasion. Cops are a constant threat in Midnight Club II, often knocking you off course and blocking your path, and every second counts. If nothing else, there's plenty of variety to keep things interesting.
Handling for the cars (and motorcycles) in Midnight Club II is excellent -- provided you're using a gamepad with an analog stick. Keyboard control isn't very precise, and although I've always preferred the keyboard for racing games, I stuck with my Logitech Wingman gamepad once I saw how much more sensitive the analog steering was. As you progress through the game, you'll gain access to new moves, such as a turbo boost, air control, and the ability to hop up on two wheels to maneuver through tight spaces. Despite the over-the-top physics, the cars feel solid and handle like they have actual mass and weight.
Although the single-player missions are a lot of fun, they become extremely tough about halfway through Paris. The computer-controlled drivers possess superhuman abilities to avoid traffic and instantly recover from mishaps, so winning races in Paris and Tokyo often becomes an exercise in trial and error. First, you have to learn each route, and then you need put together a near-flawless run of two to five minutes -- no mean feat on the crowded streets of Midnight Club II. Some of the final races took me well over an hour to finish (20-30 complete runs, not counting restarts), and I'll admit I was tempted to throw down my controller in frustration more than a few times after having a great run spoiled at the last second by a sideswiping police car or some other random obstacle. It takes a good deal of skill to beat Midnight Club II, but a bit of luck doesn't hurt.
All of these issues go away once you load up the multiplayer and start racing online. Like the PS2 and Xbox versions, Midnight Club II supports up to eight players via LAN or Internet, and you can play all the checkpoint races from the single-player game, setup your own races, drive around in cruise mode, or take place in battle modes such as capture the flag and detonator.
The cities really take on a life of their own in the battle modes, as players scramble in every direction in a race for the booty, or attempt to cut each other off to prevent escape in a game of virtual chicken. Power-ups allow players to stock up on turbo and gain other powers (such as the ability to cloak or screw with other players' controls). In fact, it took all my effort to drag myself away and finish the single-player campaign -- if it weren't for two nagging issues, I might suggest downloading MCII for the multiplayer alone.
The first issue is the interface, which is about as convoluted as we've seen in any PC game to date. It's clear the menus were designed for a gamepad with mouse and keyboard support shoehorned in later, and the online interface is especially clunky. Finding a server could be much friendlier, setting up options for a game is a downright pain, and even the chat interface chugs a bit. The second issue is that there simply hasn't been much in the way of races to join. It doesn't seem it's for lack of players, but servers -- every time I host a game, it usually fills up almost immediately. Overall, it's worth the effort to get into a game, however, as I haven't had this much fun with a racing game since the days we played Midtown Madness (also created by Rockstar San Diego, when they were known as Angel Studios). Fast and furious, indeed.
In the graphics department, MCII looks sharp, with the PC version supporting resolutions way beyond 1600x1200 and high-res textures that help bring each city to life. My only complaint is that there's no brightness control, as several of the levels are pretty dark, and it's often hard to see that upcoming turn when you're doing over 150 MPH. Midnight Club II also sports an extensive soundtrack of techno, hip-hop, and trance music, as well as the option to add your own MP3s and create your own custom radio station. The voice acting for all the characters is decent, although you'll probably want to turn them off after hearing the same sound bites repeatedly when running a race for the 30th time.
As a fan of the Midtown Madness games, I was disappointed when I learned the third installment of that series would be an Xbox exclusive. Midnight Club II makes everything O.K. again -- with an analog gamepad, the single-player races are a ton of fun (albeit occasionally frustrating), and the multiplayer racing is completely addictive. Whether you're competing against the computer in checkpoint races or running loose throughout each city in the online battle modes, it's hard to think of any recent PC racing games as complete or thrilling as Midnight Club II. If you're into racing games at all, you need to download this game.
People who downloaded Midnight Club 2 have also downloaded:
Need for Speed: Underground, Need for Speed Underground 2, Need for Speed 5: Porsche Unleashed, Microsoft Train Simulator, Microsoft Flight Simulator 2004: A Century of Flight, Midtown Madness 2, Need for Speed: High Stakes, Microsoft Flight Simulator X
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