Reviewed: June 11, 2003
Released: June 3, 2003
Street racing games have been around as long as there have been racing games and racing games have been around since the dawn of computer, coin-op, and home video games. What still surprises me the most is that the most authentic street racing game to date is still a little title from 1989 called Vette from Spectrum Holobyte. Sure it was only an EGA game and the physics and gameplay were not much more advanced than Atari’s Pole Position, but the designers had somehow packed the entire city of San Francisco (every last street, alley, bridge) and even part of Oakland into that game.
There have been plenty of games released since Vette that have aspired to come close to the level of city realism this game achieved. Microsoft made a respectable attempt at digitizing the streets of Chicago in their Midtown Madness game and most recently, The Getaway reproduced 40 square-miles of London for your crime-inspired racing pleasure on the PS2, and now Rockstar San Diego (formerly Angel Studios) takes us on a new high-speed tour of three famous cities, as we explore the underworld culture of illegal street racing in Midnight Club II.
Rockstar has become synonymous with “illegal activity”. Whether you are building a criminal empire in Vice City, smuggling illegal weapons across Russian borders, or racing laps around LAX for “pinks”, if it’s illegal you can be sure Rockstar has their hand in it. Midnight Club II is the sequel (in case you didn’t guess from the Roman Numeral) to the original Midnight Club that released when the PS2 launched, and Rockstar has spent their time well developing and releasing a finely tuned and highly polished racing experience that is guaranteed to please arcade racers everywhere.
Midnight Club II features:
I had previously logged about 50+ hours playing Midnight Club II on the PS2, so sitting down to play the Xbox version was like climbing behind the wheel of your favorite car - it just felt right. While there are a few minor enhancements to this new version I was surprised to find that nothing really substantial has changed and a few things remain identical.
I still dislike the funky menu system in MC2, but after trudging through it for a month on the PS2 it just didn't bother me as much this time. You scroll sideways through text options that then offer additional drop-down options you can access by using the D-pad then you cycle or toggle these options by moving sideways again. Truth be told, once you setup your options you are only a few presses of the A button from starting your Career each time you start the game, so as bad as the menu design is, you won't spend much time inside.
Fortunately, once you get through the menus enough to set your options and start a career things get a bit easier. MC2 has some of the best controls for an arcade racing game ever and if you don’t like the default layout you can choose from several presets until you find one that works. My only complaint (and warning for those still using non-S controllers) is that the black button is your Nitro and can be very difficult to reach when you are already accelerating and handbraking with your right hand. Of course if you are using the right stick for gas and brake then you need only click down on the stick to activate the Nitro.
As your career progresses you will earn new cars with new abilities such as Nitro Boost, and you will also learn new skills like the Burnout, Weight Transfer, and Reverse 180. The interesting thing is that even if you know how to pull off these moves they are still locked out until the story allows you to perform them. This can be a bit frustrating when you go back to replay MC2 at a later date, or in my case start the entire game over on a new platform.
MC2 supports a racing wheel controller, but I found that a wheel is not the preferred controller for a game such as this. First of all, unless you are playing from the first-person (cockpit) view, the wheel gives you a very disjointed feel to the overall control scheme. Trying to drive a car with a wheel from a chase view just isn't natural. And due to the nature of the game, you are practically required to play from outside the vehicle. You need that extra level of peripheral vision to make those tricky turns and jumps and just be competitive.
Midnight Club II is all about unlimited freedom most of the time. When you are not committed to a specific race event you are free to roam the city and explore at your leisure. This is a great way to familiarize yourself with the semi-accurate layouts of LA, Paris, and Tokyo. I will give the designers props in that they made a great effort to include most all of the popular landmarks for each city then connect them with famous and not-so-famous streets. But there is no mistaking that these are the Cliff Note editions of these cities.
There is something delightful to be said for being able to drive from the baggage claim at LAX to the front door of the LA Convention Center, but when you can make the trip in under 2-minutes city realism definitely takes a backseat. The same goes for being able to drive from the front of the Chinese Theater in Hollywood to the front door of the Staples Center in 79 seconds. I’m not as familiar with Paris or Tokyo so I cannot comment on their realism or size, but LA is definitely scaled down.
But whatever liberties and shortcuts the designers took with their city maps all fades away when you start to focus on the intense layouts of the nearly 100 races you will be participating in during the course of your illegal street racing career. You won’t be concerning yourself with the fact you just drove across the entire city of Paris in less than two minutes, but rather trying to plot the best course using alleys, catacombs, rooftops, and parking garages as shortcuts.
As with any racing game Midnight Club II comes with all the modes including Arcade, Career, and Multiplayer, both for two players local and up to eight players online using Xbox Live. Offline games require you to unlock cars, cities, and racing options through normal career play before they are available in other modes like arcade, and online play also restricts you to cars and tracks unlocked in career mode. Unless you have completed the entire career mode before going online you may be in for a frustrating experience if other gamers are wanting to race using cars and tracks that are unavailable to you. I must admit I was rather shocked when I discovered this. Most games unlock everything for online play and those who are unable to complete the career mode for whatever reason may never get to experience the complete online experience.
There is a Race Editor feature and creating your own tracks is as easy as picking your city then moving the cursor around the maps and laying down checkpoints (up to 64). You can then decide if you have to do them in a certain order or if the player gets to determine the best route. You can also add a time element to the race or have the clock reset at each checkpoint. Basically, if it’s something you experienced in the main game you can replicate it here. This feature alone will extend the replay value of MC2 exponentially.
My one major complaint with the gameplay model in MC2 is that there is no real story or plot. Sure, you encounter plenty of crazy characters and will ultimately win their cars, but it would have been much cooler if there were some reason for all the racing. Perhaps you are an undercover cop investigating international car thieves, or even something along the lines of Fast and the Furious where racers were using their fast cars to commit a variety of crimes.
As it stands, you simply go from race to race to race until you win the local champ’s car then you move on to another series of races and repeat. After you have won all the cars in LA you ship them all over to France and do it all again in Paris. When you have conquered France you move on to Tokyo to complete your collection of cars. Your only motive for completing the game is simply the fact that it can be completed, as noted by the percentage completed score attached to your racer profile.
Sometime it can be beneficial to use older cars in later races, but most of the time you have to use the latest cars to remain competitive. Winning races is often more about “knowing the city” than having a fast car. It also helps to save back one Nitro boost for the final stretch of the race. The computer has a tendency to use all their Nitro early in the race so if you can save one back you can almost always win a race in the homestretch.
All races involve checkpoints whether it be a sprint to a finish line or a multi-checkpoint race that spans the entire city. Some races require you to hit the checkpoints in a certain order while others let you decide the best path to the finish. These can often be the most challenging races as the computer AI does a fantastic job of picking its own path. From the starting line the entire pack may spread out taking multiple routes leaving you to wonder which one is the best. These are also some of the most fun races, as you will be speeding through town seeing other cars cutting across your path or coming straight at you collecting checkpoints in an entirely different order.
The Career mode for MC2 is the core of the gameplay. You start with only one possible car and are greeted by Moses, who introduces you to the racing underworld. You learn to cruise the city looking for potential racers then flash your high-beams, which triggers a short “follow-the-leader” sprint race. Fall too far behind and you lose the respect and right to join the big event. If you manage to keep up you will then get to participate in 2-3 races and finally get challenged by the reigning champ for the ownership rights to their car. Unfortunately, there is no penalty for losing a race. There is no cash to win or lose and you can never lose your car. You just keep running each race until you finally win.
While the career mode is rather linear you do have the option to pick the racer you wish to challenge when driving around the city in Free Roam mode, although unless you have previously played the game and noted which drivers lead to which races their cars and names will do you no good, and once you are locked into a racing event you cannot back out to the Free Roam until you have finished the series and won a new car.
One thing I did enjoy and appreciate was that there is a definite level of progression with this game. As you learn new skills these become critical to successfully winning future races. Your first 20-30 races in a city will each cover a certain part of that city then when you get to the final marathon event you will need to combine all of your city knowledge and driving skills to win the race and move on.
To win races you will require more than just expert use of the gas, brake, and steering. Later cars will have various levels of nitro boost and once you learn how to draft other cars you can use this slipstream effect to give you additional boosts. This is perhaps the hardest skill to master and one of the most beneficial as it allows you to save your real nitro for when you really need it. Weight transfer allows you to unrealistically move your car about the X and Y-axis while in midair. This lets you make the perfect landing and reduce car damage that you would normally take when smashing into the ground at some awkward angle after jumping off a rooftop. The other driving skill that will often come into play is being able to pop your car up onto two wheels. This is very useful for navigating narrow alleys, slipping through bumper-to-bumper traffic, or squeaking through a police roadblock.
Speaking of police, whether you are racing in Japan, France, or the U.S., street racing is illegal and the law is never far behind. The police AI is very good but I didn’t see any noticeable improvements over the same AI used in games like Vice City or even NFS: Hot Pursuit. The cops work individually trying to smash you off the road and they will also work together setting up roadblocks or calling in the “eye in the sky” to light you up with a giant spotlight. I was glad to see that the police do not discriminate against the human players. They will go for AI racers just as aggressively as they do the human ones.
Inclement weather affects both car and driver performance. Cars loose all their traction on wet pavement and power sliding through turns can often lead you into stalling spinouts. The worst weather has to be the fog that is surprisingly some of the best volumetric vapor effects I have ever seen in a video game. I’ve had my fair share of experience driving in real fog including that nasty stuff along the California coast, and the experience has never been this perfectly replicated, from the total lack of visibility to the diffused and blinding glare of lights.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the wonderful collection of cars; more than 28 high-performance tricked-out speedsters and even a few motorcycles have been tossed into the line-up. These two-wheel additions were no great surprise after Rockstar added them to the latest installment of Grand Theft Auto, and the crotch rockets in MC2 offer some of the most challenging races of all. Bikes have no nitro boost – they simply don’t need it. These rockets fly down the streets at speeds exceeding the boundaries of sanity weaving through traffic and leaning into tight turns. As fun as this might all sound I only used the motorcycles on races that required them. They simply weren’t stable enough to be remotely competitive in most races, but they are fun to drive around town in Free Roam mode and pull off wheelies, endos, and burnouts.
None of the cars or bikes are licensed but you can see obvious similarities to popular models of Ford, Toyota, Ferrari, and even a Jaguar. Aside from choosing a color, there is no car customization whatsoever. One thing I did appreciate was the ability to switch-out cars when restarting a race. If one car isn’t competitive with the current pack you can quickly try another, even though it does force a reload of the entire track. I did not like the fact that there was no way to selectively compare the car attributes such as speed, handling, and acceleration when picking a car.
There are no skill or difficulty settings for Midnight Club II. The entire game is a gradual progression of difficulty, as the opponents, cities, and courses become increasingly more challenging. The racer AI uses a new technology called “Railbranching”, so each AI driver is free to analyze the course and take their own route through the city. In linear checkpoint races this isn’t as big a deal, but when you can hit the waypoints in any order prepare for total chaos.
Unlike other street racing games where you can simply keep up with the pack then boost to the finish, you will find you eventually have to plot your own course through the city. Finding back alleys, crashing through buildings or ramping over them may give you the edge you need to finish first. To make things even more challenging, the AI can and will use the same shortcuts human players have available, so just when you think you have discovered the optimum route the AI is going to find a faster one.
Whether you are playing solo, against one other person or going online for an 8-player race the multiplayer action in MC2 is fabulous. In addition to the traditional race modes you can also participate in some exciting Battle Modes that include classic Capture the Flag and an innovative Detonator Mode. CTF speaks for itself but the Detonator mode is pure genius and total fun. Everyone races for the detonator then they must take it back to the “trigger point” to blast their opponents. Of course, the goal of everyone else is to stop the one with the detonator.
To make things more interesting there are nearly a dozen creative power-up icons that can be collected and used on your opponents or by you in both multiplayer racing and battle modes. Anything from gaining an additional nitro boost to forcing an opponent’s handbrake to activate to distorting their view is possible and so much more. How about forcing your opponent into nitro mode and disabling their brakes, or if you want to really play dirty you can reverse their steering controls. The power-ups are fiendishly clever and a ton of fun to collect and use. This is one of the few console games in existence where the online and multiplayer fun may actually exceed the single player component.
The Xbox Live service is fully supported including voice chat, friends filtering, and online scoreboards. The only thing negative about the online aspect of MC2, at least for now, is a lack of competition and an even playing field. Since you can only play what everyone else has unlocked you have to find other racers that have completed the career mode or at least are as far into it as you. Then you have to find racers of equal caliber. I’m not saying I’m some racing god, but I couldn’t find any human opposition that came close to the computer AI.
MC2 is easy to get up and running online and remarkably stable once you do. I never experienced a single dropped connection and aside from a few major collisions where multiple cars were involved, the framerate was flawless.
Midnight Club II starts of with a killer CG opening movie then drops you into one of the worst menu systems of recent memory. Once you navigate the vertical and horizontal scrolling text options and actually make it into a race you will be in for a nice visual treat.
The cities are massive and suitably complex in architectural detail and modeled with plenty of textures. LA is the least impressive of the three cities, perhaps because it is the least impressive of the three cities in real life. Even so, LA residents will recognize the loop around LAX, the LA Convention Center situated next door to the Staples arena, the famous path along Mulholland Drive, the Chinese Theater on Hollywood Boulevard or any one of several other landmarks.
The same goes for Paris and Tokyo, and these cities seem to be a bit more refined and polished. The cities become much more complex, the course layout is significantly more devious going both underground and over rooftops, and traffic becomes more congested creating more hazardous racing conditions. The bright neon lights of Tokyo are the icing on the visual cake. There is just so much going on in Tokyo. Even subtle details like the neon Kanji on the various buildings and billboards is authentic, although the signs don’t always match what is in the windows, such as the Tobacco sign over the window of what is clearly a clothing store.
The car models are merely average. They aren’t as sophisticated as a serious racer like Project Gotham or NFS: High Stakes, but they hold their own when compared to other games like Burnout 2. Despite their low polygon construction, each car has a unique and identifiable shape and is textured with a reflective surface that could either pass for metal or a high-polished plastic.
There are plenty of visual treats in the special effects department. Aside from the aforementioned weather effects, including the amazing (and hazardous) fog, you have plenty of smoke, fire, sparks, and colored lighting effects. And despite the fact that all races occur during the evening hours there are even some realistic shadows thrown into the mix. The shimmering blue and red columns of light that shine down from the heavens marking each checkpoint are easy to spot from miles away and reminded me of the blue glow just before the destructive blasts from the alien invaders in ID4.
One of the most obvious and perhaps overused special effects is the shower of sparks that erupts from any streetlight you happen to knock down during a race. These lights will fly down the street at 150mph creating a display worthy of a July 4th fireworks show. It's cool the first 47 times you see it.
You have a variety of views you can race from including several zoom factors in chase mode and of course the cockpit view (sorry, no dashboards). Each view offers their own pros and cons to successful racing that each driver must discover on their own. You can also view the replays for each race, cycling through several exciting views. The only replay view that was missing that I am still waiting for somebody to include in a racing game is the “cop cam”. I want to see the action from the dashboard cam of that pursing cop car or even from the police chopper in the sky. When my illegal street racing looks like an episode of Worlds Scariest Police Chases I will be happy.
I must offer major props to the genius (or geniuses) who created the “nitro effect” for MC2. When you activate the nitro or slipstream turbo the screen sort of distorts and stretches out and the camera pulls back creating a Hitchcock Vertigo effect. Combined with some visual blurring and amazing sound effects, this is one of my favorite effects in the game and I never get tired of seeing it. Sure it’s been done before in games like Burnout, but it has never been this “perfect” or seamlessly integrated into the normal gameplay.
The HUD is well designed and doesn’t interfere with the gameplay, although I would have preferred to move my rearview mirror to the top of the screen. At least you can toggle the mirror to only come up when someone is actually behind you. I did enjoy the effect used where you only see the glare of the headlights and that no CPU cycles were wasted on rendering the cityscape in my mirror.
The map insert is very nice and configurable, both in size and whether it rotates or remains fixed, and the speedometer, damage gauge, slipstream and nitro indicators are all well designed and merged into a nice instrument cluster in the lower corner. Your time and position are located in the top-corner. The arrow that points to your next waypoint is large and easy to read, unlike many 3D arrows in games like these. You can also toggle a complete city map overlay, but the game does not pause when you do this, so it can be confusing trying to drive and read an animated map at the same time. The only thing I found that was missing from the informational display was a checkpoint counter that told me how far I was into any given race.
Midnight Club II has what I consider to be the best racing soundtrack in the history of the genre. I was a full-time club DJ from 1985-1995 and a part-time DJ since then and I know music. You could take the soundtrack to MC2, and with nothing else in your audio library have one of the best dance clubs or raves imaginable. With more than 35 mind-blowing techo, hip-hop, and house mixes available, there is something here for everyone’s taste. The soundtrack is divided up into various tracks for each city, and each race has it’s own default music selection. If you don’t like a particular selection you can change it up in the options menu.
One particularly cool aspect of the music is that is restarts and repeats for each attempt at a race, so you are able to use the music (and lyrics) as an audible gauge of how well you are doing for any given race. It’s kind of hard to explain, but when you know that a certain lyric or synthesized riff occurred when you went under a certain bridge during one race and that it happened before you reached that bridge on a future attempt, you “know” you have shaved some seconds off your time. The music becomes part of the track.
As great as the MC2 soundtrack is, I was most disappointed that there was no support for custom soundtracks. Perhaps techno isn't your groove, or perhaps you simply want to race to some heavy metal or Sammy Hagar performing "I Can't Drive 55". No Xbox racing game should ever be released without this feature.
The excellence in sound continues past the soundtrack and into the excellent car effects that include unique engine noises for all the various cars, squealing tires, the rush of a nitro boost, the sirens and radio chatter of pursuing police, and of course the annoying taunts of your fellow racers.
Between races you will get to hear a bit of inner-monologue of what your rival racer is “thinking” followed by a short burst of speech (where their lips actually move), then it’s off to the races. None of these “encounters” are actually useful or help further the non-existent story. They are there more to taunt you and give you the incentive to blow their doors off in the next race. I will give credit to the voice actors that portrayed these very ethnic and often stereotypical characters. Even though some characters were downright annoying, they always put a smile on my face.
All of this is presented in a wonderful Dolby Digital surround mix that literally envelops you in sound. Everything sounds so much clearer than it did on the PS2 and there is direct support for low-frequency that really gets the old sub-woofer humming, especially at the start of a race with a bunch of cars racing their engines. Even subtle effects like your slipstream gauge filling up is much more obvious.
The length of Midnight Club II is deceiving as the game starts off fast then starts to slow and level off in the later cities. You can speed through LA in a single day’s play, but Paris gets a bit tougher and Tokyo is very challenging. Expect between 20-30 hours to finish a career.
Once you have all of the stuff unlocked from career mode you can then explore the deep multiplayer component, either locally against one human opponent or online with up to eight racers. As previously stated, the multiplayer modes have the potential to outshine the single player aspect of MC2. And if all the pre-packaged content isn’t enough you can use the simple yet very effective Race Editor to create unlimited courses ranging from 2 to 64 waypoints of your choosing in any of the three cities. Think you can design a course better than the pro’s? Now's you chance to prove it.
Midnight Club II offers the best in arcade street racing with a large selection of cars, lively cast of characters, wonderful locations, challenging course designs, single, multiplayer, and online racing, and endless creative possibilities with the Race Editor. MC2 is highly addictive and total racing fun. The only loser is the one who isn’t playing Midnight Club II.