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.