As you would expect MCLA has the typical Rockstar story - young bloke arrives in new city looking to prove himself in the big bad world of street racing. If this sounds familiar it's because Rockstar has done this sort of thing time and time again, the last time being Niko in GTA IV. However, it's hard to see the formula changing as it does work well. You begin with the small cars and small time and slowly work your way to the top of the pile all the while the game becoming increasingly more difficult.
And difficult it will become. MCLA is one of the most 'balls to the floor' games you are going to play in 2008. You will break controllers, you will cuss and smash things, but when you get it right, the feeling of accomplishment is strong and you will once again put yourself through video game torture on the next level. Basically, MCLA is a very rewarding game but it is a punishing game. And to be honest, there are some inexcusable flaws.
For instance, during one mission we were tasked with meeting up with our competitor before a race. Every single time we approached the set of traffic lights the cops would give chase and distract us. This happened three times leading us to believe that this was not coincidence. To get past this erroneous police activity, we drove around 20mph to the start and finally got the race going. The fact the driver beat us by quite some margin leads us to believe the cops were an indication from Rockstar you aren't ready yet, so we are willing to give them the benefit of the doubt.
Another total annoyance is that the game contains rubber band AI which can actually work in your favor sometimes. Unlike the recently released NFS Undercover, if you drive a perfect line you will still not pull away from the pack and one small slip at the end can end it all for you. It also does not help that the AI does not make mistakes ever, and seem to have the ability to smash traffic off the road where as you can become stuck. This is MCLA's biggest failing. If you have the car and skills to hammer the other drivers, then why doesn't the game let you, and vice versa?
Where the game gets it right however is the city and environment that you race in. This is not your casual racer, there is no skipping between events here. You drive to the event and if the cops happen to take a liking to you so be it. The cop chases in this game are quite enjoyable but they fall to the same problem that NFS Undercover has. They hit you and hit you and hit you again and never really change their tactics. It is also a lot harder to outrun these cops.
Rockstar has also seemingly captured the US undercover street racing scene as well. You meet at hang outs and can race other characters with low stakes right up to pink slips, giving you the opportunity to win rides, but also lose your own. For those old school gamers it gives us a very strong feeling of street rod. Cruise up to the local diner, take on a racer, and try and win the pinks. Lots of fun, and adds to the storyline immensely. The fact you have to grind your driving skills before even getting a chance with top line cars is annoying, but for those who keep at it, it is very rewarding. The gameplay here is as expected though; point to point races, outrun cops and circuit races are what makes up a fairly timid roster when compared to some more recent games.
The city itself is stunning to say the least. Rockstar has recreated Los Angeles to the nth degree and any manner of famous buildings are represented. From Hollywood Autos where you gain our first car through to some of the more famous fast food joints, the city has it all. Because of this the replay value is also upped. Once you complete the game, you can take the time to cruise the city and find these landmarks all without the pressure of moving on to the next mission. The city is so detailed that looking in the map screen and using the analogue, you can move it to a three dimensional representation.
Visually as expected the game stuns. Utilising the GTA IV engine was a masterstroke and with the smaller city and focus on driving, Rockstar was able to up the graphics ante even further. There are some elements that, once you get down to it, really fell out of place however. The cars do not appear to move in a realistic fashion, especially around corners and the lack of significant visual damage does limit the immersion. The fact you have to repair damage before racing again is a nice touch to keep you on your toes, but not being able to see it visually is a bit of a shame. One element which really comes off however is the cockpit view. Racing in this view is a lot of fun despite the fact the sense of speed is reduced.
Midnight Club was so close to being the racing game of 2008 and the lackluster release from EA has certainly helped. There is no doubting if you want a street racing game in 2008 that Midnight Club is it and not only because of a lack of competition. The speed, the cars, the city and the mechanics all come together to form a very competent game. Next time though, please leave the rubber band AI and lack of damage behind, Rockstar.