We really didn't want to be back at the LA Convention Centre so soon after E3. But this quintessential 1990s corporate boot camp, this never-ending air-conditioned desert of glass, carpet and outsized croissant-wiches has a way of drawing you back, like a terminally confused and overtired moth to a particularly cheerless flame. We must have driven past it five times as we attempted to escape Los Angeles' infernal one-way system on the last day of the show.
At least this time we can do donuts in front of the atrium.
Midnight Club: Los Angeles really gets LA. To be frank, there are more graphically impressive and accurate recreations of real cities in games - most of them in Project Gotham Racing 4 - but there are few more atmospheric ones. The latest Midnight Club has an uncanny handle on the city's soupy air, greasy glamour and sepia-tinted, Scott-brothers sunshine. From the ambling boulevards and untidy beaches of Santa Monica to the boarded-up cracks in Downtown's glossy fašade, it's all here, and you can practically smell the suntan oil and smog.
Enough of the virtual tourism; following Tom's recent single-player hands-on preview, we've returned to Rockstar's offices to give Midnight Club: Los Angeles' multiplayer modes a thorough going-over. The mixed party of journalists, PRs and company reps jumps into VW Golf R32s - Eurogamer's assigned colour: hot pink - and starts with an acclimatising Cruise.
Cruise is a free-roaming mode in which a full lobby of players (the game supports 16 in total) can tool around the entire map as they please, drag-racing, screaming along the usually crawling thoroughfares, or jumping straight into races with each other. These Challenge races can be requested from the set options or even created in an online race editor without leaving Cruise. Once a race is triggered, a vertiginous but smooth map zoom transports you from your current spot to the starting line - exactly the kind of seamless integration of multiplayer with free-roaming gaming achieved by Burnout Paradise.
Before we get that far, there's a little time to be spent adjusting to MCLA's handling for this particular Gotham and GRID addict. It's defiantly arcadey, almost Out Run-esque in its progression from fierce grip to graceful, arcing understeer, tipped into savage powerslides by a tap of the handbrake. It's not the most physically involving racing setup out there, but it's not exactly shallow either, and it's pretty well suited to the grids and meandering, monstrous freeways of the host city. Plan your corners early, cut as much pavement as possible, be relatively sparing with the slides and you'll be surprised how little slowing down needs to be done.
To be fair, it's also a little muted by the first two cars we try, both machine-tooled slabs of disciplined, all-wheel-drive Teutonic muscle. The R32 and Audi RS4 are great for feeling out the vagaries of traffic-dodging on the freeway and gently drifting around the twisting residential roads of the Hollywood Hills, but they don't do the best job of bringing Midnight Club's character to the fore. That's best left to the 1970s Dodge Challenger, a gloriously throaty and tail-happy Starsky-and-Hutch-simulator. At the other end of the scale, the frighteningly quick and razor-sharp Lamborghini Gallardo boasts turn-in so quick it's surreal, and inevitably lodges itself at the top of the favourites list as a near-four-hour session draws to a close.
We also get a chance to try bikes for the first time, in the form of a Kawasaki Ninja. It's a reasonable implementation, falling somewhere in between Test Drive Unlimited's balsa-wood rockets and PGR4's meaty but unpredictable machines. In raw speed and handling terms it offers few advantages over the Gallardo, and suffers the usual "touch anything and you're out" fragility of videogame bikes. But MCLA is not a pure circuit racer. Given the Ninja's nimbleness and limited width, traffic and, especially, shortcuts are more easily navigable in the saddle.
Moving from Cruise to the more efficient Lobby to start our races, we launch into an epic series of Ordered Races - the freeform, point-to-point, checkpoint races that are Midnight Club's stock in trade. These work exceptionally well in LA's tarmac landscape, with slip roads providing some thrilling needles to thread, and freeways shooting you efficiently between the varied neighbourhoods of the world's entertainment capital.
It's not all road, either - memorable finales included blasting RS4s through a train-yard, leaping Ninjas across Terminator 2 storm drains and, best of all, carving up the sand of Santa Monica beach in the howling Challengers. Just don't take the wrong shortcut, as the secret multi-levelled labyrinths of LA can leave you minutes from the next checkpoint, even if you're right next to it on the map. (Just like the real thing, eh Tom?)
Circuit races are a little less interesting, for the most part, although Downtown provides some halfway technical challenges. You also get Unordered Races (clear checkpoints in any order, first to the last one wins), Landmark Races (a checkpoint-free race across town to a set landmark for budding route-planners), and a variety of Capture the Flag modes.
Capture the Flag works surprisingly well in Midnight Club. Again, the open, sprawling setting, abundance of shortcuts, and frequent grid layouts make this a game of evasion, anticipation and almost tactical route-planning - rather than simple cat-and-mouse - as you watch the mini-map like a hawk and attempt to head the flag-bearer off at the pass. Contact transfers the flag, and crashing drops it, while the flag-bearer's car runs slightly slower than everyone else's, just to keep things interesting.
Capture the Flag is available in free-for-all, where a sequence of flags and drop-off-points spawn, and the player with the biggest total wins; "splitbase", a team-based version where each team has its own base to return a randomly-spawning flag to; "basewar", where flags spawn in the team bases; and "stockpile", with multiple flags spawning in clusters.
To spice things up yet further, there's the option to turn on a surprisingly fantastical and comical range of power-ups, picked up from locations littered around the city and held two at a time. When used, there's a second pause while a laser locks on to the nearest car, if it's an offensive power-up, before it's deployed. You can encase each other in ice-blocks, fry electrics with electro-magnetic pulses, reverse steering, turn ghostly, give your car a skin of steel and other cartoon-racing classics. These provide some options for well-timed slapstick mishap, especially in CTF games, but don't really feel tuned into the game design as such, and are sometimes tricky to use effectively.
By contrast, it's the well-tuned double-nitro mechanic that really feeds beautifully into Midnight Club's multiplayer racing. You get several preloaded nitros per race (refilled by driving through petrol stations), plus the ability to charge even longer boosts through slipstreaming. Tactical, hair-trigger wars of boost-slipstream-corner-boost break out all over the place, especially along the freeways with their relatively sparse traffic to thread through.
These give Midnight Club: Los Angeles multiplayer its deepest thrill. Its most basic thrill comes from the vindictive, squealing, tyre-smoking pile-ups that happen on LA's abundant vast aprons of tarmac, and in and amongst the liberal amount of destructible furniture that Rockstar San Diego has graced the game with. (Like Burnout, this is a game in which crashing is actually fun.) Its flavour comes from the thumping, dirty electro soundtrack and that perfect evocation of the sinful city itself. The game's like the place: it is big, it's not clever, and for some reason, you keep coming back.
Midnight Club: Los Angeles is due out for PS3 and Xbox 360 on 24th October.