Like most red-blooded American men, I have a serious need for speed. Maybe it’s because I’m an adrenaline junkie, but the faster, the better. So it’s no surprise that I was heavily into street racing as soon as I got my license, and I learned a ton of useful information in my quarter mile days, much of which has stuck with me to this day. 1) What matters is who crosses the finish line first, not how good your jump is off the start line. 2) Always have an escape route planned when the cops come to break up the party. 3) Looking good at a race is important, but it’s not how you stand by your car, it’s how you race your car... Okay, so that last one was blatantly stolen (and paraphrased) from The Fast And The Furious, but the idea is still solid: In the turbo-charged world of racing, a win is a win. Rockstar Games set PS2s on fire at its launch with Midnight Club. Now, three years later, they’re seeking to improve their street cred with its hydraulically lifted sequel, Midnight Club II.
Similar to its predecessor, MCII disposes of major plot development; actually, the plot that exists in Career mode is left intentionally minimal to allow for more fast-paced action. Players are cast as nameless, faceless drivers looking to establish a name in the underground realm of street racing. This starts with an introduction to Moses, a veteran of the L.A. street circuit who quickly becomes your mentor. Passing on much more than connections, Moses tutors you on the numerous driving skills you’ll use throughout the game, such as weight transfer, burnouts, and NOS. Paying attention during these lessons are important, because you’ll need to apply these instructions when you go up against the other racers waiting to burn you on the blacktop in L.A., Paris and Tokyo.
Burn you after you track them down, that is. Each racer has to be found and challenged as they cruise the streets by flashing your lights. Once you’ve thrown down the gauntlet, the chase is on to your opponent’s turf. It won’t be easy, because you’ll have to follow them through alleyways, oncoming traffic and even buildings on your way to a race. Typically you’ll follow checkpoints on your way to the finish, although there are a few time trials, open ended tracks and duels that you’ll wind up speeding through. Don’t expect to remain trapped on a static track; numerous shortcuts scattered throughout each city can give even the slowest starter a chance at victory. Of course, each contest has high stakes, the greatest of which is racing for pink slips. With numerous vehicles to compete for (and hidden ones to unlock), MCII has plenty of machines for street kings or queens.
Once you’ve dominated the streets, you’ll get to use your newly won toys in additional modes. You may want to simply drive around your domain in Cruise mode, checking out the scenes in the three bustling cities. Cruise mode is actually a great way to plan strategies, find shortcuts, and get a larger sense of the surrounding game world. Spending a little time driving around these streets will help you if you decide to take on computer-driven opponents or friends in the other modes. Circuit is the typical checkpoint race with featuring multiple laps, emphasizing solid steering and use of shortcuts along with the right car. If the current races seem a little stale, design your own with the Race Editor, which you can save and export online for other competitors. For players who want a little more action, Battle mode provides it with Capture the Flag (basically the same as regular CTF, just with cars), and a new variant called Detonator. Basically, instead of charging for a flag, you’ll pick up a detonator and try to deliver it to a goal to blow up all of your opponents. Finally, once you’ve beaten the computer, take on the world with the online connectivity through either your PS2 Broadband adapter or Xbox Live.
Graphically, Midnight Club II is a full leap above and beyond the previous title. Cars feel larger and more detailed than the original, thanks to smoother in-game models. Compared to its predecessor that seemed to display an abundance of somewhat boxy vehicles with very little flash to them, MCII places a high premium on style and flair, with sports cars, motorcycles, and other pimped out rides present in the game. While there’s no specific corporate endorsement of cars, discerning car fans can spy the direct influence that BMWs, Civics or Skylines had in the construction of MCII’s vehicles. What’s better, the reflection of light off the paint of each car implies the amount of care that each driver has for their machine, something that goes a long way towards pulling gamers into the onscreen action. This is also nicely shown by the in-between race cutscenes, showing off your opponent’s frustration and disappointment as you best them. In particular, the facial emotion and lip-syncing really add to their performances.
Further adding to the game’s atmosphere is the increased attention to each city, primarily to buildings to make them appear more realistic and appropriate to actual locations. For example, LAX, Santa Monica’s Promenade, and sections of Downtown, including the Staples Center can be observed on the multiple passes through the Los Angeles stage. Draw-in distance has been substantially increased, providing a greater sense of scale for the landscape as you fly through the streets. MCII also shows a great attention to particles, primarily on hard landings or collisions, sending sparks skittering and bouncing off the undersides of cars or knocked down light poles. At a consistent rate of 60 frames per second, there’s a palpable breakneck pace, especially when nitrous is used to boost a car’s speed. Doing so engages a motion blurring effect, a la The Fast and The Furious.
There are so many impressive graphical touches to MCII that it’s a little tricky to find graphical flaws. However, one that stands out is the random mass than can sometimes be associated with obstacles. Inevitably, there will be a time where you will oversteer and slide into a light or telephone pole or other feature of the landscape. While some of them will give and land to the ground, others won’t budge in the slightest, no matter how fast or how many cars collide into them. Even odder is the fact that some of them seem to change from race to race, so, for example, a pole that you could literally drive through in a previous level suddenly becomes rock solid in the next. This arbitrary solidity can manage to cost you a race time and again, especially if the computer decides to be over aggressive for a turn. This little issue extends to pedestrians as well, and while not damaging to your chances to win, it can be disconcerting to drive through a crowd of bystanders on the sidewalk without a reaction, only to send two or three bouncing off your car in the next turn.
One of Rockstar’s trademarks is the music that they put in their games that captures the essence of the onscreen action. Vice city was a prime example of this, and Midnight Club II does a decent job in capturing the musical flavor of each region. Ranging away from more recognizable tunes in favor of more underground artists, the songs vary from the Hip-Hop of L.A. to the wildly different styles of European and Japanese techno. The lone problem with the music is that it's wildly overshadowed by the sound effects and speech from other racers. In fact, you’ll most likely pay so much attention to what’s going on around you that you’ll turn the music off.
Sound effects throughout the game feel and sound appropriate, and each machine seems to have its own distinctive roar when the gas pedal is pushed. Tires that are burning out have the appropriate squeal, accidents seem to feature the thick, metallic crunch of steel, and shattered glass sounds particularly violent. However, what makes the game are the sound bites delivered from your opponents and pedestrians. Slide towards a group of bystanders, and you’ll hear shrieks and people calling for help. Start falling behind a few racers, and expect to hear a ton of trash talking from rival characters. There are a few pearls with the lines. The first time I heard a cop say, “Pull over now, homeBOY,” with blatant unhipness, I fell out of my chair. They could’ve used many more lines, though, because if you ever wind up replaying a race a few times, you’ll exhaust a character’s set dialogue list.
Much of the gameplay, like I said before, has been augmented, and easily for the better. The inclusion of online play works perfectly for this title, and seriously puts other racing games to shame. Transmitting newly designed circuits for online friends or competitors to race through is rather simple. Holding an edge over the Broadband Adapter in terms of comment input, Xbox Live allows gamers to hurl better invective than what’s included in the game. Yet, while multiplayer is incredibly solid, there’s probably only one hindrance to the game as a whole, which is the highly biased targeting that the game seems to exhibit towards single players. For example, cops only target your car, arresting and taking you out of the race instead of any of the other drivers you’re competing against. Maybe it’s just me, but it would seem logical that if the cops were actually trying to target racers who are causing havoc in a section of the city that they’d go after all of them instead of focusing on one car. During one race, three squad cars slammed me at the same time while other “criminals” sped by. What’s up with that? Similarly, why do the other cars on the road seem to spin out or swerve into your lane only when you’re around? I’ve seen reckless, out of control racers not even be noticed by the computer. As soon as I entered the general vicinity of certain sedans, all of a sudden the driver feels the need to turn directly into my lane head-on.
Quirks aside, Midnight Club II is the kind of sequel that you want for a game franchise: Enough of a connection to the previous gameplay for newcomers, but enough variety with new features for hardcore fans. With a larger career mode featuring more cities and greater tracks, additional gameplay modes and rock solid online play, this is the racer you want to cross the finish line with in your gaming console.