You can almost see the look of horror on the faces of Rockstar San Diego bigwigs when the Christmas 2003 charts flopped onto the doormat. "Like, crap, dude," said one, probably. "I'm pretty sure Need for Speed wasn't supposed to be this successful."
But it really was. Underground came from nowhere, what with its abilities to mod cars and pinpoint accuracy market-pitch, and took second place in the UK Christmas charts, second only to the risible Medal of Honor: Rising Sun after some heavyweight TV pimping from the good old E of A. The boss man at Rockstar SD was probably less than impressed.
"Now what?" he possibly screamed at his boardroom full of cowering acolytes, slinging his 10 gallon hat against the wall, huge moustache flapping in the drilled border sun. "We need a hook, and we need it right now! These gosh darn Helectornic Earts people are gonna crush our prairie oysters to milk powder! What the hell do we pay you for?"
"DUB," said the best looking one, grizzled Marlboro voice cutting the room's molasses atmosphere like a branding iron, throwing a magazine on the table where it came to rest under the steer horns above the boss man's head. "Call these guys. Let Need for Speed make Ford Focuses as rude as it wants. Midnight Club 3 will give the kids Mercedes and Ferrari. We'll let them make $100,000 changes to $80,000 cars. We'll give them dreams. There's your hook, boss. Now what was that about pay?"
Rub A DUB DUB
Midnight Club 3 is using American magazine DUB - which features highly modded cars of rappers, fashion mogels and other famous types - to sell itself this time round, in the face of extreme competition in the genre. Need for Speed Underground 2, Juiced and Burnout 3 all hit Europe at roughly the same point as the Rockstar game, but the people behind GTA are focussing squarely on the DUB aspect right now. It's all about wanting to put 20" rims on Mercedes coupes.
The cosmetics look as though they're not going to detract from the game, a criticism fairly levelled at NFS Underground at the end of last year. More than 50 licensed cars and bikes, including choppers for the first time, make an appearance, and you're going to get full damage modelling as well. Tearing a wing off your Impala isn't going to affect handling, however, as Rockstar is more than aware that Midnight Club 2 was far too hard. It's arcade racing. Simulation doesn't belong here. The man in the big hat knows this.
Instead, Rockstar is sticking to what it knows best for Midnight Club, which is frantic open city arcade speeding. Midnight Club 2 may have been difficult, but shortcuts, point-to-point action and a superb online mode - reinstated for the third game with eight-player options - made it a little classic of its type. Midnight Club 3 brings huge levels of customisation to the cars, overhauled graphics and three new cities to bear. Vroom.
Watch Me Now
San Diego, Atlanta and Detroit have all been loosely modelled for DUB Edition, using well-known landmarks and trademark adrenaline-based routes to maintain interest. The formula is likely to be lifted nicely by the enhanced tech this time out, and the sheer weight of modifications, damage and licensed cars may yet again produce a game to keep well on your radar. Bells and whistles during play, even at this stage in development, are enough to excite. Trains scream past, sirens wail, NO2 injection causes blurring; there's enough potential polish on display for a whole fleet up beefed up Ferraris. We only saw it in action briefly, but given the pedigree and the enhancements, there's plenty of promise here.
The modifications are the most obvious addition to Midnight Club, and let players add up to five layers of paint to cars, feature licensed body kits and allow rim customisation (hush your filthy mouth). We saw a Lancer Evolution VIII receiving the treatment in a demo last week, and the level of customisation is impressive to say the least. The prospect of being able to work on cars in this then let players take them online must be having Rockstar rubbing its hands with glee.
But, as previously mentioned, competition is seriously fierce this time out. We weren't allowed to actually play the game, but have been assured that we'll be asked back soon. "There's always been competition," said Rockstar PR nonchalantly when we ask how they feel about the upcoming battle for Christmas car dominance. "We're aiming to be the biggest illegal street racing game."
Meanwhile, the man in San Diego is looking out of his penthouse across to Mexico and nervously stroking his moustache. We'll have more on this soon. In the meantime, check out these screenshots.