Rockstar has almost made a rod for its own back by releasing a game as expansive and freeform as Grand Theft Auto III. When there's a game that's almost every racing game rolled into one, combined with the ability to beat and shoot the crap of everything that moves, why bother with a straight up urban street racer? It's a compelling argument, and one that will rage across the world as gamers wrestle with their conscience over whether they can justify blowing another forty quid.
The only way to answer that, in reality, is to play Midnight Club II yourself. Because, you see, even after we'd seen various good reviews of this game, we still somehow refused to believe that it could really be that special, but here we are about 15 hours later barely able to tear ourselves away from the game and not even halfway through the damned thing.
Ugly on the outside
But this state of bug-eyed, frenzied lunacy wasn't always so. To begin with, we were utterly underwhelmed by some distinctly unimpressive visuals, which will do little to lure you in during the game's overly easy early levels. The first city available to you is Los Angeles, and it's a somewhat foggy, murky affair, and devoid of colour. The cars look scratchy, the backdrops lack detail, and the whole thing is a world away from the delights of Burnout 2. Call us spoilt, but we expected more from a game as heavily hyped and critically acclaimed as this.
You're also left wondering what the fuss is about, when all the game really seems to consist of is a series of point to point races, which you have to win to unlock a series of cars, power ups or characters to race against. But if you put your joypad down early on, and never return, you'll miss out on one of the best racing experiences that the PS2 has to offer.
The old adage about graphics not making a game has rarely seemed more fitting. If the premise was to make an incredibly fast and brutal cocktail of street racing madness, then it succeeded. It's as compulsively addictive a racing game as there has ever been. In no particular order, Midnight Club II has superb AI, incredibly satisfying handling, a rock solid frame rate, extremely well judged and useful power ups, a non-linear approach to every single race and three cities packed with secret routes.
There are two main modes to choose from; Career and Arcade. Career is where the main meat of the game is, and where you'll be able to unlock the 28 different vehicles, as well as earn the four main upgrades and the two other cities (Paris and Tokyo). Progression is a case of driving around the traffic and pedestrian filled city, finding someone to race against, flashing them with your headlights (L3), and following them to another part of the city for a race. At that point you're then tasked with beating a whole crowd of street racers, working around a series of (often non-linear) checkpoints, which is never as easy (or as hard) as it first appears. Such is the GTA-esque complexity of each city, that you can find yourself repeating some of the more challenging races 15, 20, maybe 30 times before you're finally able to find a route that's cunning enough to beat these sonovabitches. Thank goodness for the GTA3-style mini-map.
The Arcade mode, meanwhile, is divided into various sub modes; 'Cruise' merely allows you to get a feel for the vehicles or cities you've unlocked, 'Circuit Races' is a series of lap based check point races, while Battle Mode offers solo or multiplayer thrills in the form of Detonate or Capture The Flag across numerous maps. The former has up to eight players (online) either duking it out in teams or all against all in a fight to get to the trigger points first to blow up your opponent. The latter is the usual pick up flag/drop it off at your base affair, but good fun all the same. Sadly though, until Sony gets around to switching its online service on in Europe, we're unable to report on how good online play is, but from reading some US reviews, it's clear that this is one of the best network gaming titles on the system to date. At least Rockstar had the good grace to put "Available soon" next to the broadband gaming icon on the box.
Brains and motors
Possibly the most refreshing element of Midnight Club II is the CPU AI. On no account can you simply follow the fastest opponent and expect to win the race by overtaking them near the finish. Every single time you race, your opponents take different routes from one another, and their own routes and performances will vary from race to race. Not only that, your AI opponents are just as likely to mess up as you, and very often you'll see them getting snarled up by the traffic filled streets, or forced off the road by an overzealous cop. Perhaps even more heartening is the fact that the skill level seems to adapt dynamically to your level. Unlike so many racing games that demand the perfect race, Midnight Club II employs a more forgiving system that keeps you in with a chance almost to the end. Even if you drastically mess up early on, you'll always stand a decent chance of catching up. It does seem like the AI cars are deliberately driving like idiots to make allowances for you, but in practice it stops you from needing to restart a race four minutes through, and makes the experience all the more compelling for it.
Initially you might be a tad frustrated with the rather useless car at your disposal, the rather rank Cocotte. Win a few races, though, and not only do you start to win some more powerful machinery; you get rewarded with some essential upgrades. The first of these is possibly the most important; the Nitro. By hitting R2, your car roars off at insane velocity, and strategic use of this is all important as you only have a limited stock. By the end of the Los Angeles tracks you'll also be equipped with In Air Controls (mid-air weight transfer), Burnout (wheelspin plus handbrake-release start), Slip Stream Turbo (build up a free Nitro by lurking behind an opponent), and Two Wheel Driving (for driving through narrow gaps Bond-style).
Once you've escaped the chronically difficult last few LA levels, you'll start to really appreciate Midnight Club II's depth and subtlety. Not to mention its often ridiculous speed. By the time you're roaring through the much-more-attractive Parisian streets, you've not only got all the upgrades, but you'll be equipped with cars that you can really tear up the streets with. And bikes for that matter – near the end of the LA section you unlock the Cohete, and you'll quickly discover that racing the windy streets on a motorcycle is a science all of its own, and whatever speed advantage you have over cars, you're so vulnerable to falling off/being knocked off the damn thing that it's a pretty even contest.
All this face-wobbling speed on the bikes or in the various cars could be an unplayable nuisance were it not for the fact that the handling in Midnight Club II is among the most refined you'll experience in an arcade racer. Sod realism for a moment. If you really drove around urban streets like you do in this game, you'd be dead in about 10 seconds, or at the very least end up with a car that is half the length it was to begin with. What Rockstar has managed here is to create a sensitive and responsive handling system that, with practice, allows you to skate around its hand-built cities at stupendous speeds doing ridiculous things. Like jumping off 50 foot buildings and land perfectly, skidding around a hairpin bend at over 100 mph with utter precision, driving on two wheels for a laugh, before firing off a Nitro, and weaving through a traffic strewn street before roaring past your once distant opponents at 170mph.
If this sounds like a snapshot of the best bits of this game, it's not. It's a snapshot of what you'll be enduring all of the time. To say Midnight Club II is an exhilarating game is an utter injustice. The feeling of joy you get when you've blasted your way to first place against some of the toughest AI opponents you've ever faced is palpable. It may be equally annoying at times, but you know that eventually, with pure Evil Knievel skill, you'll get there.
With all this talk of insane speed, damage is, of course, an issue as well. When you're smacking into so much scenery, traffic, pedestrians, police and fellow racers, it's virtually impossible not to incur some dents along the way. In fact by the time you've finished trashing the poor thing, you'll be driving along with flames shooting out of the bonnet. Although it is possible to completely wreck your car, the game does the decent thing and respawns you immediately, rather than greeting such insolence with a Game Over message. In fact the only way to have your race terminated is to be arrested or drive into a river, and it's more fun for it.
Join the club!
If you're a purist petrol head with a penchant for realism, then maybe this won't be for you. Midnight Club is an unashamedly fun videogame that just happens to feature cars and bikes. The driving experience undoubtedly bears no resemblance to the real thing, but when you're tearing around having this much fun, who cares?
Similarly, by the time you're done with Midnight Club II's Career mode and unlocked all the goodies within (which will take ages), you'll be scratching your head wondering why you ever sneered at it in the first place. Yes, on the very surface this looks like a tiny section of GTA 3 blown up into a standalone product, but it's been polished in almost every respect imaginable (bar the visuals) that it's deserving of a place in your collection on its own merits. And we haven't even had a chance to try out online yet. Miss out on Midnight Club II and you'll pass by one of the most enjoyable games released this year.