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Midnight Club's fourth iteration sees a return to Los Angeles and more moody street racing. Whilst unlikely to share in the limelight enjoyed by its mainline brothers, LA Remix nevertheless proves itself a viable alternative for fans of racing on the go.
It edges chief PSP rival Need For Speed Carbon: Own The City in nearly every department, save for the way in which it articulates its story. It's the games one out-and-out failing, so let's get that out the way now; whereas Carbon was surprisingly effective at building a narrative around its street sprints, LA Remix is a clichéd monstrosity. You play as an up-and-coming street racing twerp defined by his Gods-gift-to-everyone attitude. Gloating with such grotesque arrogance after each win, you're left to lament the lack of character embodiment within the game as then you could at least have pictured punching the guy at regular intervals. There's also the standard mix of unflattering stereotypes; black wheeler-dealers, shady Russian Mafiosos and the token "wouldn't date ya" lady racer.
Much as Ms. With-It rates her prog-rock (because that's the thing to dance to at beach parties, apparently), the soundtrack consists mainly of standard hip-hop filler, anonymous rock and the occasional slice of dance. One thing's for sure; Midnight Club certainly isn't interested in challenging any preconceived street racer notions, but it ultimately comes good where it matters: the racing.
Handling is responsive and the racing supremely fast, whilst the action trumps NFS Carbon by way of having a much, much busier city environment. Traffic is an ever-present danger and though the combination of a small screen and high speeds make for predictably troublesome bed-fellows, the ability to slow time momentarily during races proves a surprisingly imperative aid, helping the player to thread through thick traffic, effortlessly navigate a tricky corner or just allow a brief time-out to pick a route.
And though the city is perhaps not as large as would have been desirable, the number of short-cuts and alleyways that can be utilised opens things up nicely to a smartly-gauged game of risk and reward. Whilst nothing out of the ordinary, the mix of tournaments, time trials and chase events allow for just enough variety to keep things moving along. "Rep" and money are acquired through strong performances, leading to a greater range of upgrades and cars available. In a lucid bit of design, individual races staged around the city are coded into three difficulty classes; the harder the setting, the bigger the reward, but this system allows novices to get into the swing of things whilst still earning towards their next upgrade.
Working your way from cheap models through to the Ford GT's and Lamborghini Gallardo's is a satisfying process as the increase in performance is very tangible. It's not all about the exotic cars however; both muscle cars and luxury sedans have additional driving perks, such as the ability to ram-raid through traffic unscathed. Later on you can even use motorcycles, though the heavy, unwieldy handling can make life difficult.
The customisation elements available in LA Remix are absolutely fantastic. There's a bewildering array of tune-ups and design options, ranging from something as major as engine upgrades to as minute as the colouring of logos on your windscreen. It's super-addictive and much more fun than it had any right to be. The array of body kits and vinyl designs is incredibly extensive, meaning cars can be moulded into unique designs.
...A factor enhanced a fair bit by the impressively glossy visuals. Not content with the contrasts of day and night, LA Remix throws some excellent rain effects into the mix, as well as all manner of nice little scenic touches. Being a product of Rockstar, it's perhaps no surprise that its visual style is somewhat reminiscent of Grand Theft Auto. Bright skyscrapers dominate the night skies whilst sunsets bathe the surrounds in an attractive, soft hue, with palm tree lined beaches and houses in the hills evoking further comparisons. The racing cars look sleek and solid, and the game remains robust technically, reaching colossal speeds and animating lots of activity in the city whilst generally avoiding significant lag in the frame-rate. If I was to be picky, the traffic is slightly humdrum looking, but this is a small gripe.
Fans of the series should be aware that the city is based on the older PS2 title Midnight Club II and not the HD Los Angeles games. As compensation, the Tokyo setting from Midnight Club 3 is included as a bonus, and if you consider that simply unlocking this will take weeks, there's plenty of mileage under the bonnet, even if the increasingly tricky street races do start to feel samey after a time.
There isn't anything else significantly wrong with the game. The loading times are a touch painful, the police presence feels like an after-thought and it's propensity to respawn cars facing a wall following a crash is irritating, but on the whole it's pretty solid. LA Remix is likely the best street racer available on the PSP, delivering a high-end racing experience with slick visuals and is impressively feature-rich. It doesn't top Ridge Racer or Burnout Legends for sheer fun, but if you fancy yourself as the next Vin Diesel, then this should be right up your, er, alley.