I've never understood car culture. What draws people to auto shows or NASCAR events is truly a mystery to me. My relationship with cars tends to be more utilitarian: they're here to get me to the game store and back, nothing more. That said, Midnight Club II is one of the most enjoyable, and addictive, games I've played in years. Never have I expected so little from a game and gotten so much. I truly relished every (split) second of it, not only as a great racing game but as a great videogame that happens to be about racing.
My biggest problem with the genre—and a game like Gran Turismo 3: A-Spec—is its tendency to overly fetishize cars. Midnight Club II doesn't do this, at least not to such an extreme. No official licenses are used in the game, so the cars tend to be fairly non-descript and rather forgettable. But after completing the game, what I do remember, quite vividly, are the people I raced against. This is what distinguishes Midnight Club II from its competitors: the fact that Rockstar has wisely chosen to emphasize character over cars.
Before each race, each of my opponents took a moment to introduce themselves. Moses (the first foe in the game) has an oversized head, thick chains circling his neck, and beady, black eyes. "Look at this little shrimp," he says in a basso profundo. Took me a few seconds to realize he was talking about me. His face is surprisingly large and expressive; all the faces in the game are. Much time and effort obviously went into the facial animations and voiceover work—probably more time and effort, I would guess, than went into creating the cars. I was surprised by how much this bit of character development added to the game. It effectively puts a face on my competition. While other racing games ask me to square off against nameless, faceless opponents, Midnight Club II makes it absolutely clear who's driving the other cars, and as a result the races are exponentially more dramatic.
Once the race began, Moses jackrabbited his way through heavy traffic while I did my best to keep pace. The cities in Midnight Club II—like the cities in the recent Grand Theft Auto games—are teeming with life. Traffic cruises the streets; people crowd the sidewalks. Halfway through the race, Moses did something extraordinary: he made a mistake. Topping out his speed, he seemed to lose control of his car. He spun out, then crashed head-on into a bridge support.
This was a revelation to me. Racing games have historically asked me to race the perfect race against perfect opponents. The fact that my opponents in Midnight Club II could—and often would—make gaffes only further humanized the game for me. And because the city is a living, breathing, and always-unquantifiable variable, the computer-controlled cars clearly had no more of an idea what to expect around the next corner than I did. A bus could pull out of an alleyway, or an 18-wheeler might decide to shift lanes. No two races were ever exactly alike, and as a result, I was always anxious to see what sort of drama would unfold up ahead, for myself or for my opponents. It's exactly this quality that makes the gameplay so compelling and addictive.
After I beat Moses, he handed over the keys to his car. That's the reward system of the game: beat the opposition, win their cars. The cars actually feel like worthwhile rewards—it's very gratifying to drive the vehicle of a defeated foe—and the new cars are almost always necessary in order to be competitive in the next race. At a time when unlockables are becoming increasingly irreverent—remember the Pizza Diskarmor in Rygar?—Midnight Club II has a surprisingly logical and synergistic reward system.
Winning in Midnight Club II—and it doesn't come easy, trust me—is a moment of adrenaline-fueled, fist-pumping glory; it's one of the highest highs I've ever experienced in a videogame, and watching a replay of my winning run only served to sustain that moment of glory. I honestly can't recall a more satisfying gaming experience in recent years than putting the controller down after a win, leaning back in my armchair, and watching a replay of my victory. It's the gaming equivalent of a painter stepping back from the canvas to admire his work, and it's something games should permit players to do more often. While the replay interface is somewhat crude-I can't save replays, or "direct" them a la the Driver games—I can pause the action, switch camera angles, and slow-mo the action. Being able to do so is empowering. I'd inevitably spend 10 or 15 minutes after each race deconstructing my victories. I'd frame—advance my way through the choice moments, thinking ridiculous things like, "Look at that turn! Brilliant!" and, "I can't believe I actually drove between that pair of buses!"
During replays, the camera automatically cycles through a variety of angles. Seeing a manifestation of my car—i.e. my gaming self—from other points of view was incredibly satisfying to me for some reason. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that all games, from Super Mario Bros. to Metal Gear Solid, feature an on-screen manifestation of the player. When I play a Mario game, to some degree I take on the characteristics of Mario, and Mario, to some degree, takes on the characteristics of me. In this way, a videogame can function as a kind of mirror, letting me see myself—albeit a distorted self—reflected in the gameplay. During Midnight Club II replays, I was surprised to discover just how much of my personality was getting translated to the screen. From the conservative way I tended to drive on straightaways, to the overzealous way I took sharp turns, all of it worked together to form a kind of self-portrait. It was all uniquely me. Seeing traces of myself on screen is the ultimate gaming moment. And Midnight Club II shows me more of myself than any game in recent memory, which most likely explains why I enjoyed the game so much.
The game isn't without flaws. The graphics are sub-par and grainy, especially when compared with Need For Speed: Hot Pursui 2 and Gran Turismo 3: A-Spec. The hip-hop/techno soundtrack tends to grate at times. And the difficulty, especially in the later races, verges on impossible. Still, pardon my clich, but few games can get my pulse pounding quite like this one. While Midnight Club II didn't help me achieve a better understanding of car culture, I did learn that great games exist in genres that I typically avoid. And I learned that driving 200-plus mph into oncoming traffic, as I was doing in the final stages of the game, can be pretty liberating.
Disclaimer: This review is based on the PS2 version of the game.