Right after I made the distinction between Driven and The Fast and the Furious in 2001 auto racing movies, here comes the counterpart to Driven on the GBA. The premise of Midnight Club is not too different than The Fast and the Furious. You race around urban streets looking for gangs of racers to compete against. Win and you will advance to unlock and amass more than forty cars. Both Driven and Midnight Club come from a similar pedigree. They are both converted from PS2 originals. Although they cater to different racing enthusiasts, both make the change from 3D to top down 2D graphics to facilitate for the GBA's inherent weaknesses. Midnight Club adopts a more traditional overhead view. The perspective is not unlike the original Grand Theft Auto game.
As a corpus, Midnight Club is split into two portions: arcade and career mode. The arcade mode is tri-partite, allowing you to take on free form play (where you cruise around looking for races in a traffic-filled city), head-to-head and waypoint modes. The meat of the product lies in the career mode, however. Here, you'll create a persona and compete in races to get access to more cars. Winning races increases your reputation. To do so, you are put in one of the two quintessential exempla of urban metropolises; New York and London. You cruise around the streets looking for what the developers call Hook Men. These Hook Men will lead you on to a gang of racers to whom you'll compete with. The races take you through a series of waypoints that you must flag similar to Microsoft's Midtown Madness. Like those titles, there is a complete in-city traffic system with civilian cars moving about their business. In theory, this all sounds pretty exciting but flaws begin to crop up after you start your engines.
Although Midnight Club's perspective is directly top-down and slightly more conservative than Driven, it does not help driving around town any easier. Firstly, the perspective gives too little notice of turns and corners ahead. You have an arrow that will guide you but the arrow will more likely point you to plough through five blocks of buildings than to the closest waypoints (much less the fastest way to finish the race). In Driven, this was more excusable because all you are doing is moving around a fixed enclosed circuit, but Midnight Club is set in an open-ended urban sprawl. Like Midtown Madness, you're tasked to move from point A to point B and the relatively free-form racing makes the perspective's faults less forgiving. Moreover, Midnight Club's city has very few shortcuts you can take. More often than not, deviating away from the pack of racers often results in you losing your position in the race rather than gaining any.
The problem is exasperated by the AI of your competing racers. There are many talks these days about Microsoft and unfair competition. People who talk about this certainly haven't raced in Midnight Club. Not only do all your opponents know instinctively the lay of the city, they know the best routes and the fact that all your racers will seemingly assume the same path suggests that there is really only one AI routine. As such, you'll find most of the time you are shadowing your opponents until the final stretch. That's when you try to pull moves to outsmart them. As with most racing titles like, Need for Speed or Grand Theft Auto, part of the fun is running amidst traffic while being chased by the police. Here, the police will scramble and chase down illegal street racers like you and in fact, only you. Unfair competition manages to crop up once again.
PC developers have known that if you don't have competent AI, you can masquerade these faults with a good multiplayer, human-to-human, component. Sadly, this is missing from Midnight Club as well. Thus, there is no solid gameplay to back up what is, at the onset, a graphically engaging 2D engine, complete with special effects. Moreover, the realistic city is not unlike the original incarnation of Grand Theft Auto; a significant positive plus. Yet, its potentiality is wasted on mindless 'races' where the odds are increasingly and inhumanly stacked against the player, finally making the race to unlock forty-odd passwords for secret cars a race that will encourage you to make a pass on Midnight Club altogether.