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Midnight Club: Nostalgia Damaged Edition

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Whenever I find myself in a conversation about street racing games, it’s always just a matter of time before someone brings up Midnight Club. Usually it’s either “what happened to that series?” or “Midnight Club LA/3 is my favorite game and I miss it.” I also played it back in the day and remember next to nothing about it, which is always a good sign, so I decided to give it a fresh look and see what the fuss is about. Unfortunately, it looks like this game is nostalgia damaged, similar to Crimson Skies, but worse.

Right when I booted the game up, it felt super nostalgic. The main menu theme, the beautiful logo, the weird map zoom effect thing, it was great. Getting into driving, even the roads felt familiar, to the point that I still knew where some things were on the map, including some hidden shortcuts. That definitely didn’t save me from my infamously bad navigation skills, but it was a nice feeling. I also quickly noticed that a lot of walls and obstacles have slanted hitboxes and some kind of repulsion property about them to prevent you from getting stuck on them if you hit them at speed. The developers knew how annoying that is and how many places it could happen in this game, so they solved it, which is a really nice quality of life improvement that I don’t see very often. Those nice feelings wore off really quickly though, as the game immediately began showing its many problems.

First and foremost, the game runs at 30 fps tops, and drops frequently and heavily. This combined with the deliberately slow visual design (like intentionally lowered framerates in menus) and the constant stutter the game seems to have make it feel like it’s actually running at 20 fps or less the majority of the time. While it’s not truly that bad, it is very very frequently below 30. What’s worse is that this effect doesn’t come through on a recording, because I can play the game and feel this issue, then look back at my own footage and notice that it seems dramatically smoother to watch. I believe that a smooth 60 fps is the minimum for a good racing game experience, but even putting that belief aside nobody can deny that this is awful performance and hinders the experience. Only adding insult to injury, performance is this low even with a very short render distance, and I’m pretty sure it’s because of the traffic, more on that later.

Part of the reason framerate is so important for a racing game is for precision and control. Another big part of it is because lower framerates can be fatiguing and disorienting, which is one of the reasons motion blur is used, to help smooth out the roughness of a low framerate. So what happens when the motion blur in itself is disorienting? This whole game has a brown tint over it – a product of its time I suppose – which makes everything blend together visually, and the color palette is washed out and muddy, and the motion blur is wildly over the top and makes a third of the screen into vague smudges. On top of everything, the whole game looks like it’s covered in a grainy layer of something… not film grain, just grainy grossness.

Combining all of these things leaves visibility at an astonishingly low point, even during the day. It’s to the point where black cars directly in front of you can sometimes escape your vision in broad daylight until it’s too late to react. Somewhat ironically, I actually find visibility is best in the rain in this game. It gets even worse still too, because all of the camera angles are bad and are disorienting in their own ways, with a massive helping of violent camera shake for good measure. Usually I’d use the bumper camera to avoid this kind of problem, but even that’s bad in this game because it’s got no damping whatsoever on the motion of the car so you get to see every little bump translated one-to-one in the camera angle, right down against the ground, which also happens to be so low that even the smallest traffic cars will totally blind you, even from a moderate distance.

Now about the traffic… it is just far, far too dense. It’s insane how much traffic there is in this game. I get that traffic on the roads is part of the challenge of a street racing game, but there’s a balance that much be struck here and this is way past that point. That’s why I’m so sure that most of the severe performance problems are caused by the traffic, and you can imagine how catastrophic this can be with such low visibility, but I haven’t even mentioned the best part yet. The AI is so bad that it feels like it’s specifically programmed to fight you. You would not believe how many times I’ve been cut off by a traffic car aggressively changing lanes directly into my path at the very last second giving me no time to react, or a car suddenly popping out from behind something at the last second, or being behind one of the countless blind corners. Even when there is time to react to these things, it’s still often not enough, because then you have to fight the physics.

Physics are arguably the most important part of any racing game. The entire game is played by controlling a physics object, so the physics better be good and the controls better be up to the task as well. Problem is, this game doesn’t make sense. Cars feel light as a feather, extremely sensitive to the smallest inputs, and can be stopped dead in their tracks by a traffic collision while the traffic car you hit then goes flying into the stratosphere. Traction is incredibly loose too, making the cars hard to handle at best and unpredictable at worst. The controls themselves are strange too, only adding to the weirdness, because they’re extremely sensitive but also nonlinear in a weird way that often makes me have to rapidly tap the stick to make a turn, as I would if playing with arrow keys on a keyboard. Power delivery for the cars is strange too, as gears seem to be handled with nothing more than a vague suggestion, so that combined with the fact that your own car’s engine is quite hard to hear much of the time left me playing this game with an automatic transmission despite heavily preferring manual transmissions in racing games. I could go on.

I haven’t even talked about the gameplay itself yet, and look at how much has been said already.

Difficulty in this game seems clear, as you have four color coded difficulty levels to choose from – from easiest to hardest, green, yellow, orange, and red. Problem is, that mostly means nothing. I’ve had green races as hard as orange and vice versa, multiple times. Sometimes there’s extreme rubber banding, other times there’s none. Sometimes the race seems easy, but then some traffic kills all of your speed and suddenly your opponents are way ahead of you, seemingly way faster than they ever were, and it’s too late to catch up. That said, the vast majority of the time, opponents offer no challenge at all, taking away all the fun of the race and making it seem to drag on and on and on, especially with circuit races as they take a couple minutes longer on average.

Adding to the dragging factor are the series races and the tournaments, where you have to do several races in a row, and restarting means restarting the whole series, not just the race. And then you realize just how many of these you’re expected to win to progress. And then you have the time attacks, races with no opponents that are just so, so boring, that also force you to wait a long time before you can come back and try it again, because you have to beat each one three times to progress. And then you realize that there’s no fast travel here and the game expects you to be running all over the map constantly, putting several minutes of tedium between already tedious races. Freeway races could have been the most fun, but they’re extremely sparse, easier than any other race type, and victim of by far the highest traffic density, altogether ruining the mode completely.

Racing games are repetitive by nature. What makes them fun is the compelling challenge of the gameplay, the rewarding feeling of getting better in a competitive setting, and the satisfaction of progression and earning better cars and parts, and this game lacks all of these things. The gameplay is neither compelling nor challenging, which takes away the rewarding feeling of victory, and progression is not only unsatisfying, but virtually nonexistent. In the first hour, I was sick to death of the music as Midnight Club has quite possibly one of the very worst soundtracks I’ve ever had to deal with, and I was already sick of the story because there isn’t a single likeable character in the game. Everyone is a jerk, every woman gets hit on, every man has a complex, and the trash talk is painful to listen to. Three hours in, I was no longer frustrated, I didn’t have the energy to feel that way anymore. Five hours in, I was so bored that I muted the game entirely and put on some YouTube videos on another screen as I mindlessly played. Eight hours in, I stopped having fun altogether, because I had become disillusioned as reality finally set in.

Midnight Club Los Angeles is a game about grinding for the sake of grinding. It is an honest waste of time.

By the time I hit eleven hours of gameplay and still felt like absolutely nothing had happened, no progress was made, and nothing changed, I had to drop the game. I lost all will to play it for nearly a year, and when I finally came back and tried to see it through to the finish, all the same feelings came back again and the game is once again shelved. This is one game I won’t regret leaving unfinished.

I understand the appeal of open world street racing games, and it’s definitely not lost on me. My dream game is and always will be an open world street racing game that strikes the right balance and pushes the right buttons. Unfortunately, it’s evidently very difficult to do that, because nothing has gotten there yet, and the ever present trend of prioritizing graphics and realism over all other things will only make it harder. Midnight Club Los Angeles is just another one that missed the mark for me. That said, I also realize that my standards and expectations are way higher than most people for these kinds of games, and because the responses I most often get are “it’s just an arcade racer, turn your brain off” and “it’s not realistic enough, therefore it is trash”, it gets hard to tell if any of my opinions are justified anymore.

All I know is this. Though I may complain at length about racing games, it’s precisely because I love them that I do it, and there are many that I still love to play despite having complaints – this just isn’t one of them.

bUt aT leAsT tHeReS cUsToMiZatIoN

Now look at my RX-7.