Version tested: PlayStation 3
You're a loser! We're all losers. Everything's too hard, unless it's too easy, which we pretend not to notice, and then we go online and get beaten up by kids. Checkpoints are always in the wrong place, there's never enough health, weapons are puny and AI cheats. Against this (alright, exaggerated) backdrop of declining skills in videogames of the 21st century, Midnight Club: Los Angeles is a breath of occasionally swear-splattered fresh air; a fierce, often brilliant boot camp for recovering wimps.
Your drill instructor in this case is one Mr Angeles, a rather gaudy fellow in real life and less than spectacular on the eyes here, despite an engine shared with Rockstar North's Grand Theft Auto IV. But his ruddy textures are forgotten in the flattering sweep of the day and night cycle and, most precipitously, when he starts throwing you around Santa Monica, Hollywood, Beverly Hills and Downtown in a cut of the city enclosed by the 5 and 405 Freeways to the west and east and the 10 and 101 south and north.
When Rockstar North took Liberty's inspiration from the layout of New York, it sacrificed real-world details for imagined, gameplay-minded alternatives. Midnight Club's Los Angeles pulls the same trick, but rather than enabling GTA's fiction and multi-faceted action levels, the objective is to preserve the player's speed in a car or on a bike, and to this end the only things that slow you down are NPC-controlled vehicles and walls. Pedestrians scoot out of the way, and lamp-posts, chain-link fences, rubbish bins and bus shelters disintegrate on contact, or allow you to sail through them, while your speed increases, oblivious to their plight in either case. And the walls, though dangerous when struck at too straight an approach, are smooth to rub along if not, despite their superficial details. You're playing in a square-edged maze, where much of the city's content and sharp visual details are incidental to the gameplay.
However, they're paramount to tension. Predominantly a checkpoint-based racer, MCLA is almost uniformly open-world in its circuits and point-to-point chases, and as you glance down at the mini-map, which highlights the next two checkpoints, then back up at the road, the weight of visual information deceives the senses. Broken down to what's relevant - corners and cars - it might achieve a WipEout-style purity, but it's not after that; it wants to be an impossible, Fast And The Furious-style blur of shattered background, as you hurtle down LA's immense boulevards, through cross-sections, beneath buildings and over ramps, flying and sometimes gambling down half-expected shortcuts, imperilled by the headlights and brake lights you're constantly trying to dissect from the city's glossy, still-living carcass on the route to the next checkpoint flare.
Cars - even the spry but creaky opening trio - are built to go fast in one direction: forwards. Cornering knocks the wind out of you, and acceleration is a laboured recovery, challenging you to brake less. We were ambivalent about the prospect of adding bikes to this at first, but again, the balance is just right: acceleration isn't always great, and you're inevitably held up for longer if you're thrown across someone's bonnet than you would be spinning a car, but the bikes are nimble, LA's massive streets give them the edge through corners, and, like the cars, even a complicated-looking row of shopfronts catches them smoothly and redirects them back toward the road rather than grabbing at them with the usual videogame velcro of edges and indentations.
But Midnight Club has always been a brutal opponent, and MCLA is no exception. Everything in the world except the other cars and walls is on your side, but by god those cars and walls hate you. You'll spin, you'll roll, you'll crunch to a halt, and you'll have to wheelspin yourself in the right direction before getting back on track. Races, time trials and the game's other variations often last nearly five minutes, if not longer, and the AI - even in the first few hours - makes little concession to players who hold it together almost to the end, barrelling past you when you come unstuck and necessitating a restart.