Players: 1 to 4 Player Game | Release Date: 04/11/05 | Genre: Driving
Let's get one thing straight here. I'm a gamer. My idea of an exciting Saturday night is a play-through of Doom on Nightmare skill level. And that's why I don't know a thing about illegal street racing; pretty much my entire mental landscape about it comes from movies and the occasional "Low Rider" magazine that my roommate lends me. In my mind, street racing consists of beautiful women in bikini tops, twenty bottles of "NOZ" stacked out like Gatorade cups at a marathon, the thunderous thuds of over-watted woofers, and the garish colors of the ten thousand LED lights attached to every conceivable surface of an automobile. (And, inexplicably, Vin Diesel sternly presiding over the entire affair.) And you know what? With the exception of Mr. Diesel, Midnight Club 3: DUB Edition pretty much recreates my mental picture of street racing... and then some.
But first, lets examine the bad. MC3 is a straightforward arcade racer whose sole standout is the amount of customization that it allows you to perform on each of the game's 70+ automobiles and motorcycles. The actual gameplay consists of riding around 3 cities (San Diego, Atlanta, and Detroit...with only San Diego open to you at the beginning of the game) and choosing which races you want to try. With the exception of a couple of tournaments, the races are all checkpoint-oriented burnouts through city streets. Hit all the checkpoints, win the race. Win the race, win money and unlock new cars to buy and mod. There are 4 classes of cars (A,B,C,D) and 5 basic "types" of cars (tuners, muscle, luxury, SUV, and bikes). Unlocking these cars and the additional 2 cities is essentially the impetus of MC3's gameplay.
The racing itself is pedestrian. This game is not a sim, doesn't want to be a sim, and the developers probably stuck their fingers in their ears and screamed "LA LA LA" every time a simesque design idea was proposed to them. The cars of a similar class and type all handle nearly identically. Vehicles can plow into a wall at 90 miles an hour and, other than a few scratches, be just fine; you can make 1,000 foot jumps or put your car up on two wheels at will (General Lee paint job not required for either of these stunts). This is fine and good, except that if you've played other racing games you've probably played with better gaming elements than MC3 offers. Crashes and impacts lack the visceral impact of Burnout or FlatOut and don't really even do much except slow down your vehicle - although you CAN actually damage your car to the point where it becomes unusable, it requires so much pounding and crashing that it's a virtual non-issue.
Thankfully, MC3 is not wholly reliant on the rather average racing - each of the five types of cars has a special ability that you unlock by completing a series of races. For example, SUV-type cars are able to activate an ability that makes them completely invulnerable and able to drive right through anything in their path short of a building. Muscle cars can "Roar", which sends out a sonic shockwave that knocks away all cars in your immediate area -- good for straight-aways and catching your opponents' off-guard on a corner. And tuners can enter a "bullet-time" mode that allows them to precisely control their vehicle. In addition, the game heavily supports the use of nitrous, including giving you a free shot of the stuff if you "draft" behind your opponent's vehicle for a few seconds. This ability let you do all kinds of fun stuff, and they add a nice level of complexity to the game. However, as stated earlier, the game is so straightforward and middling when you're actually racing that a few cool tricks remain just that - a few cool tricks.
Production values are extremely high but the art direction is decidedly average. Because the game simulates illegal street racing (not to mention the title of the game IS Midnight Club) things mostly take place at night. The designers seemed to make a choice to reduce the color palette of the game to mostly dark browns, grays, and greens - earthy colors that reminded me less of vibrant nightlife and more of the original Quake. The game also over-uses a blur effect at high speeds, further muddying the game's palette. The "checkpoint" nature of the races ends up being a detriment as much as a feature. As a feature, it allows the driver to choose their own path through the city and allows for easy creation of tracks (the game ships with a track editor that allows you to make your own races by placing checkpoints around each city). However, with rare exception there is usually an optimal path to each checkpoint -- and it's not always obvious. This is not a problem in the earlier parts of the game where there's time to spare, but the game's rapidly escalating difficulty curve means that as things progress you'll be trying to shave precious seconds off of your time to compete with the AI racers. At that point, route knowledge becomes almost as important as racing skill, resulting in many reruns of the same track. At later stages, the game allows you to go through checkpoints in any order, and the game becomes a frustrating exercise in trial-and-error as you try to find the fastest route (or shadow the fastest AI racer). A special mention must be made of the street traffic in this game - it alternates between either being insignificant or infuriating. I lost several races when a car would blow through a blind intersection in front of me and get t-boned by my 140 mph Saleen (with Spinnaz). With no chance to avoid the vehicle, I was taken out of the race almost instantly. Other times, I would see a lone (and easily passable) minivan in a 1000-yard stretch of road.
Although the racing is so-so, it's fun to modify the aesthetics of MC3's cars. This is where the game's production values are top-notch. There are something like 100 different parts per car, plus total control over paint colors and vinyls. The actual innards of the cars, such as shocks, suspensions, and other parts cannot be upgraded with specific parts - you simply go from "Level 1 Radiator" to "Level 2 Radiator". The body kits and other after-market parts use real brands. It's fun to take some little, underpowered Ford Focus and turn it into the Ricer Express Type S (featuring Spinnaz). The DUB magazine association of the game allows you to access a lot of real-world parts and kits for each vehicle. The ambience of the game is excellent. The game has a large soundtrack of rock/rap/electronica music, most of it aggressive and bass-heavy. The soundtrack does a good job of setting the mood, as does the general introduction to each race. The races all begin with loving flybys of all the cars involved, people cheering, the occasional woman with a white flag to start the race, and plenty of crazy real world paint jobs and rims.
However, the DUB association also brings some nasty downsides with it. In order to perpetrate what I imagine is the "DUB culture" into the game, the producers decided to go completely over-the-top on racial stereotypes. When playing the game, you will receive voice-messages and cutscenes from local mechanics that work the street-scene. These mechanics range from being car-nuts to downright offensive racial caricatures, with the worst of them being the Latino mechanic from San Diego. Upon seeing this character (who wears a white tank-top, is covered in gangster-style tattoos, is bald, and calls you "Holmes" after ever single sentence) my Mexican roommate exclaimed that it made him "ashamed to be Hispanic". Now, I'm no social crusader, but when a guy who has a "Powered by Mexican!" bumper sticker on his modified Civic thinks that your character is over-the-top, that's saying something. About the only thing that the producers could have done to make him more stereotypical is to put him in a large sombrero and have him sleeping whenever you entered the garage. I guess we can expect that in Midnight Club 4: We Be DUBbin'.
As far as a racing game goes, Midnight Club 3 is an average arcade racer. It is a polished game with good-looking cars, even if the environments can be drab. The car types are different from each other but the actual cars within a type are mostly the same, and the controls are adequate but not noteworthy. It's fun to play around with cars and their body kits, but you will have to race a lot (and there are many, many races in this game) to earn the money to mod and enjoy them. Because of the lack of a plot or story, the game can occasionally become bogged down and tedious. The ambience is solid, but the different racing elements (the nitrous-boost passing, the "open" race course design, the traffic) don't always integrate smoothly. There's a very good game lurking amongst these elements, but MC3 isn't able to bring it together.
Author's note: I was not able to try out the online portion of the game, although it is supported through Xbox Live