Now that the bulk of import-tuners have come, and more or less gone, Rockstar, with its third iteration in the Midnight Club series, has tackled what is arguably the most stylistic and well-rounded arcade racer of the bunch. Developed in San Diego, Ca., where the tuner scene is highly visible even to the ignorant, Midnight Club 3: DUB Edition is rooted deep in the mod subculture and never gives up faith or sells out to commercialism as it delivers a great racing game. The intertwined message of stellar gameplay and entrenched culture gives this game a feeling of authenticity sorely lacking in similar racers.
Rockstar San Diego aims the third game in its series away from the relative cheesiness of Midnight Club 2 with its goofy characters, unlicensed cars, and limited customization. The studio adds in a mid-sized customization system to the mix, brings more than 50 fully licensed trucks, SUVs, tuners, exotics, muscle cars, and motorcycles into the fray (all of which take heavy damage, mind you), and brings to the game a sizeable and compelling online component. There are real reasons to explore the vast trio of cities, plus effective if not super-arcadey super powers that add a whole new layer of strategy to the racing itself. And while the MC3 isn't the fastest, nor the prettiest racer around (it's just a hair short on both ends), it's incredibly stylistic, long-lasting, and deep.
MC3 is at once the same beast as MC2, yet far deeper, broader, and richer in presentation and culture than before. An arcade game by nature, this racer builds its core gameplay on intensity. Compared to MC2, the city streets are wider with more traffic, the maps are entirely different, there is more action occurring onscreen, and the nature of the races has altered ever so slightly thanks to the variety of licensed cars and addition of power-ups. Strangely, the rail-branching element, so distinctive in the previous iteration, still exists, but it's no longer the core aspect to gameplay. Along with the un-ordered races (the dominant kind in MC2), the inclusion of point-to-point races and time-based races, in addition to ordered races, adds depth and variety to what was a relatively straightforward game. Running at a mostly solid 30 FPS, the game appears to blaze far faster when saddled on motorcycles, engaged in slipstream mode, or simply by changing to the first-person perspective. There are five perspectives in all.
As a starting bonus, you'll get all of the powers you earned in MC2 right away (Drift/Powerslide, In-Air Control, Nitrous Boost, SlipStream Turbo, Two Wheel Driving, and Weight Transfer). The new moves, Agro, Zone, and Roar, also add a wild arcade element to the competition, though at first they seem simplistic and silly. They're especially key multiplayer modes. And once the competition toughens up in Detroit, these moves play a more crucial role.
Similar to the previous games, players instantly can dig into Arcade, Career, Networking, or Race Editor modes. Arcade mode enables you to play any of the three cities you've opened in Career mode (San Diego, Atlanta, and Detroit) using the vehicles you've won or bought. It's a nice cruising mode, made valid by hidden stashes and secrets through the three huge cities. Career is the meat and potatoes of the game, offering a substantial (18-plus hour) single-player mode built on a unique progression system and incorporating a three-tier customization system. Networking offers Xbox owners eight-player SystemLink and Xbox Live play, while PS2 players get a straight eight-player online experience. Both the Xbox and PS2 online modes are tightly wired to provide a slew of good racing games that function technically well on both consoles. The new Race Editor is more interesting looking than before, using a fly cam to zoom players across the urban streets, but it's not as functional as before despite its graphic appeal.
Under The Hood
It's the Career mode you'll want to sink your teeth into. Players familiar with the series will quickly see and feel subtle changes. Right away you're provided with a chunk of cash to buy a decent car (I bought a VW Jetta, for instance). You're left with enough money to make superficial changes to the exterior and to upgrade a part or two. You'll return multiple times to Six-One-Nine Garage to upgrade your vehicle, sell or buy cars, and when new parts are won, buying them enhances vehicles' top speed, acceleration, and handling. After upgrading, exploring the city and looking for special icons (there are about 12 Rockstar icons in each city) can be a nice side-tour from straight races. The new handy map trains your go-to arrow to find another race, a transport to cities, or to head to the garage. Like MC2, each competition is indicated with a giant bonfire of blazing red that beams into the night sky for high visibility. Unlike EA's Need For Speed Underground 2, this open city is packed with interesting and cool things to find, which gives the vast area a reason to explore. In that way, it's like GTA.
The new customization feature is complex in parts, simple in others. The engine aspects are all handled on a three-tiered system, with the stock part, plus three upgrades. You can choose to upgrade manually or automatically, but the upgrades are unlocked after wins, and they compel you to return to the garage for adjustments. On that front, I found upgrading way more simplistic than GT4 and the upcoming Forza Motorsport, but basically in line with SRS. It's less sophisticated, however, than NFSU2's interior upgrade system, which also offers a Dyno. Still, Rockstar did a good job visualizing the modification menus, and each part explains its purpose and effect, shown in the car's feature chart. It's not skimpy and you won't feel cheated in the least; rather, it's a functional means to faster, more insanely chaotic races.
The exterior customization system is more complex, giving players zillions of colors, pearlescent, gloss, metallic touches, and vinyl and matte materials to enhance their cars' look. The color scheme is easy, using a palette and a mouse-like system to enable players to select the exact color they want. Adding vinyls, players can provide flames, stripes, modern designs and more. They can layer on badges, decals, and customize the license plates. The can stylize the motorcycle riders' looks, too. The cooler stuff, like custom colors and high-level vinyls, must be unlocked.
Once you're introduced to the city by Six-On-Nine's garage mechanic, you'll start in San Diego, a huge urban mecha filled with ram-road trolleys, busses, and beach front raceways. The new map system, key to find what's going on, is explanatory and functional on all fronts. After a certain amount of general wins, you'll then progress to Atlanta and Detroit. (You won't have to finish each city to play in the others; another friendlier trait found in MC3.)
The game's progression scheme is sophisticated. There are four basic kinds of races. To progress, players enter City Races for extra money, Club Races for parts, cars, and special moves, and Hookmen Races (for a multitude of things, especially unlocking new cities). There are specialized tournaments requiring distinct vehicles to enter, such as luxury sedans, choppers, or SUVs. You'll have to win or buy vehicles to enter these. But the most efficient way to beat the game is to constantly challenge the hookmen. They present as many as three to five challenges, sometimes with mixed vehicles, and all of them increasingly more difficult.
From a game design standpoint, MC3 grows on you. It felt too easy at first. The wider streets seem to have eliminated the cool rail-branching element. But by skipping the city races, which are generally there to provide extra cash, the Club Challenges, tournaments, and hookmen races quickly challenge your skills. The opponent AI does rail-branch, though less than before, because the course designs are more linear than before. The difference then is the addition of traffic, more aggressive AI (though not as agro as in Burnout 3), and the insanely high speeds you'll reach. Rockstar San Diego reached a sweet spot with its AI. You can catch up in some races, depending on where you crash, but rubber band AI is not an issue. Also, crushing, smashing, and breaking objects plays a much bigger role in MC3. Knowing the difference between breakable and non-breakable objects becomes another key.
Adding to the mix are physics. Using a robust in-house physics system, ROckstar San Diego's cars will scrape, thrash, hammer and ram all sorts of opponents, obstacles and buildings, all of which do damage. You'll hit jumps, beaches, wooden planks, and freeways, and sometimes a heavy rain adds new layers of slipperiness. Incur too much damage and your car explodes, only to rebuild, adding in a few penalty seconds. The cars are arcadey in feel, meaning they aren't too heavy (except the SUVs, naturally). They generally land on their wheels, and after being thrashed by opponents, you can recover speed and stability within seconds. You car takes an amazing amount of damage before exploding, too. The only real bummer is you can't control your car very well in mid-air, so when the vehicles land on their sides, valuable time is lost and there's little to do about it.
The cars might appear to reach the same sense of speed as Burnout 3, especially in Slipstream mode, but the game doesn't look as good when at the same levels of speed. That's due to the immense amount of activity, larger, open levels, and the volume of cars on screen simultaneously.
Online, MC3 offers a suite of new changes, additions, and improvements over MC2. The games include Tag Matches, Capture the Flag with Classic, Split, and Basewar options, a Paint Mode that forces you to gain territories, and Track. Familiar race types include Cruise, Ordered, Circuit, and Unordered, plus addition ways to alter the parameters (number of players, city location, time of day, weather, privacy level, vehicle types, special power-ups on and off, and even heavier flags).
Supporting up to eight players online for both systems, MC3 offers a hefty assortment of options, stats, and bonuses. Stat-wise, the number of wins, hours played, hours cruising, and miles driven are complemented by the number of races started, races completed, logins, flags returned, stolen, and highest tag score). There's even a "best time" tracker. For those who love clans and clubs, MC3 supports these with a progressive pledge system, rewarding players with the ability to recruit, ascend to the rank of officer, and ultimately to become an owner. On Xbox, you can even transfer ownership to someone else.
Technically, one of the best additions to the online component is the implementation of a host migration system. So, if a host quits or is caught with severe lag problems, the second person to join becomes the new host. Thus, sudden mid-game problems shouldn't continue. The additional of "Asynchronous Join" means players can leave the race whenever they want while new drivers can hook up at any time.
In the visual department, Rockstar San Diego appears to have pushed both the Xbox and the PlayStation 2 to their limits. There is an immense amount of action on the screen. Whether it's pedestrians, normal traffic, or the debris of trees, light posts, mailboxes, or store windows bring pulverized or shattered by your car, well, that's just the first layer. You'll race against as many as six others, sometimes less, and all of the AI runs independently; they cause wrecks amongst the pack and among normal non-racing traffic, they take their own paths, and they use nitro boosts in addition to slipstreaming you. So, in every race you'll see opponents smashing into each other and sending up a small fireworks display of particles.
Rockstar incorporated more cars and widened the streets. Thus, you'll see immense amounts of traffic on-screen at once, especially when you hit the freeway, which is impressive. There are way more cars on screen here simultaneously than in Burnout 3 or Need for Speed Underground 2. The framerate on both consoles hangs relatively steady is 30 FPS, with occasional dips and minor slowdowns. The slowdowns aren't drastic, but they're noticeable. Which brings up another point: the simple textures. Your cars are indeed stylized and beautiful, but because of the sheer amount of stuff happening at once, some things -- OK, many things, people, buildings, even other cars -- are less detailed than expected. It's the small price for heaving so much for on screen at once, but you'll notice some imperfections. Still, and this is no slight on Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, but Midnight Club, with its size and vastness, is remarkably good looking in comparison. To put a nail in the coffin, once you hit slipstream, the game remains steady, blazing fast, and impressive in every regard. Perhaps even more impressive than when simply driving around.
Taking place at various times of night, the courses are always dark. After all, it's called Midnight Club. This doesn't mean you can't see far. In fact, the draw distance is long, and the LOD work is generally good enough to prevent you from seeing cars take shape as you come close.
Lastly, Rockstar's game is, as expected, stylistically well hung. The featured mechanics, who are more or less your narrators in each city, are smartly motion-captured and they move and feel like they have their own personality, realistically, and with attitude. The menus are sleek and quick (different looking from the sleek, minimalist menus of MC2), and the tutorials and customization menus are tight. It's minor, but I'm not a big fan of the vehicle selection screen, where your vehicles sped away. You'll be able to play MC3 480p on Xbox (not on PS2) and widescreen, too.
Considering the new face of racing games these days, especially with import-tuners becoming the most popular route to go, the music invariably has changed too. Thank God for Rockstar. With the nauseating, terrible licensed music of Burnout 3 and the dull, forgettable sounds of Need for Speed Underground 2, the drum and bass, dance hall, and sprinklings of various forms of rock create a truly distinct sound. Backed up with Dolby 5.1 on Xbox and Dolby Pro Logic II on PS2, the sounds are crisp and clear. None of the songs turned up being my favorites, but I like these way more than anything on other import tuners. Rockstar also made excellent editing cuts that blend distinct and catchy rhythms into menu scenes and winning sequences. Remember in GTA the familiar sound of beating a mission? MC3 does it when you win a race, and it does it well.
Unlike MC2, which was filled with hokey voices and stereotypical international voices, MC3 focuses on only a few characters: that is to say, you, the silent type, and three others, each of which man the garages in the three distinct cities. The stereotyping of various minorities here is in full effect, though, since stereotyping is based on real people, these characters at least feel real, knowledgeable, and like hardcore racing heads, unlike the short-lived sex appeal and rather cheap feeling NFSU2 left us with Brooke Burke. As videogame narrators, I prefer knowledgeable gearheads any day of the week.
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