8.8

Midnight Club: Los Angeles (Xbox 360)

Games Reviews Los Angeles
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Developer: Rockstar San Diego
Publisher: Rockstar Games
Platforms: Xbox 360, Playstation 3

Flying on four wheels in the City of Angels

Why bother visiting the car dealership when technology now lets you shop from the comfort of your own home? Last night I picked up a 2006 Lamborghini Gallardo Spyder. It cost me $175,000, which is roughly the same amount my wife and I spent on our house. Thirty-year payment plans are a hassle so I opted to pay in cash. Granted, I don’t usually have that kind of money lying around, but I’d just made the painfully tough decision to part with my 2008 Audi RS4.

God, I loved that Audi—my black beauty sporting widebody customization, neon ground lights and stylishly upgraded fenders, spoiler, bumpers, tires, brakes and dual exhaust pipes. It even had the “WHEEEEE” vanity tag I’d created and loved flaunting as I whipped around town. The car was so fast, I could sprint from downtown LA to the Santa Monica pier and up to Mulholland Drive in less than two or three minutes. Even still, I sold the Audi along with my badass ’69 Camaro, decorative skulls ornamenting both sides as if I was some street-racing tribal chieftain and the skulls belonged to other drivers who’d foolishly pulled up next to me at a traffic light and flashed their brights. Those cars had to be sacrificed to bring an even greater automobile into the world. My Lamborghini. Two words I never expected to string together.

eBay has some nice cars but I did my shopping in Rockstar Games’ Midnight Club: Los Angeles. I haven’t had this much fun pimping out a ride since college when I used a whole student-loan check to buy an audiophile-grade sound system for my beater Civic. If video games succeed on the level to which they provide idealized virtual shape to our fantasies, the developers at Rockstar San Diego deserve one of those gaudy, triple-decker trophies they give out to kids at band competitions and karate tournaments.

There are only 43 cars (and three motorcycles) to choose from in the game, but when you take into account the impressive level of customization available to you, it feels like there are an infinite number of options. The game’s designers appear to have set out to blend the disparate racing and RPG genres, as your cars become characters in their own right. How is upgrading your car’s engine fundamentally different from enhancing a paladin’s agility score? How is adding a sleek new hood to your Aston Martin any different from equipping a cooler-looking suit of armor that you just pilfered off a troll’s corpse? There are even missions to carry out that will help you get money to put toward nicer cars and upgrades—another hallmark of the RPG genre.

At the end of the day, the two biggest differentiating factors in the racing genre are the quality of the environment and, simply, how well the game makes you feel speed. MC:LA acquits itself marvelously in both categories. The Los Angeles presented here pulses with life and believability. When you’re winding up Laurel Canyon at night, you’ll almost feel the crispness in the higher-altitude air. At first I was bothered with the sheer volume of product placement in the game, all the way down to 7-11 gas stations, Pizza Huts, Best Buys and billboards for American Apparel and Michael Kors, but it wasn't long before I realized that they merely heightened the game's contextual realism. And I haven't had any mysterious urges to buy a pair of Air Jordan kicks so what's the harm if some of the game's development was subsidized by corporate America?

The driving in MC:LA feels dizzyingly, thrillingly fast. And when you flip the nitrous switch, you’ll swear your car is a spaceship about to implode as it blasts into warp factor 9. Careening down the Sunset Strip, you won’t feel any need to stop and smell the Roses. You’ll be content to drive as fast as those guys lived back when Axl and co. were rocking the Whisky. Only the music blasting from your Lamborghini tonight is Bloc Party's "Mercury." And, puns be damned, it's got your pulse racing.

***

[This game was reviewed on a hi-def AOC 2230Fh gaming display]

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