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Pimp my ride
Midnight Club returns with even more under the hood

Seldom has a company lived up to its name as has Rockstar Games. The publisher has the boundaries of acceptable content with games like Manhunt and the Grand Theft Auto franchise, and with the Midnight Club series Rockstar set the standard for street-racing games. Now, with Midnight Club 3, they've enlisted the aid of DUB magazine, which bills itself as "the authoritative voice of the urban automotive universe." The result is an often thrilling racing experience with the street cred to please real-life rock stars or rap stars, as the case may be.

Comparisons to Electronic Arts' recent Need for Speed Underground 2 are inevitable. The gameplay model is nearly identical: cruise the streets of a bustling metropolis looking for races, and then put your prize money toward enhancing your car's performance and its looks (though maybe not in that order). Both games offer an extraordinary amount of customization options for their numerous real-life vehicles, as well as sprawling urban areas to explore. There are even some of the same "it" bands on each game's soundtrack. Nearly all the differences between the two, however, break Midnight Club's way.

The three cities available in Midnight Club 3 San Diego, Detroit, and Atlanta are faithful re-creations of the real things (although one gets the impression that San Diego is awfully rainy). However, racecourses aren't confined to the blacktop and a few choice alleyways; the game abounds with shortcuts, tunnels, and epic jumps. If you find yourself sticking to the road, you're probably doing something wrong.

Despite the bustle of the city streets, navigation is pretty easy. Most races require you to hit a series of yellow checkpoints, each of which shows an arrow pointing to the next one. New checkpoints appear in the distance as conspicuous, towering columns of smoke. Occasionally, checkpoints are dubiously-placed, and you might find yourself barreling down the highway when you were supposed to take an off-ramp, but fortunately it's easy to start a race over.

There are several types of races, though most vary only in name. In addition to numerous optional races that can be completed with any vehicle, there are leagues for different types of cars, such as luxury sedans, motorcycles, and exotics. There are also grudge matches in which you compete against bad-asses with such intimidating names as "Phil." Most of the races are one- or two-lap affairs through the city streets, although there are races on narrow, traffic-free autocross tracks and enjoyably lawless free-for-all sprints from one landmark to another.

Once you win a race, it's time to take your spoils to the garage and pimp your ride. Sure, you can do boring things like increase your transmission's gear ratio or upgrade your suspension, but performance is so much less visible than rice. Accordingly, there are a commendable number of cosmetic accoutrements available to the discerning tuner. The guiding hand of the venerable DUB magazine is certainly felt most strongly in Midnight Club 3's body shop.

But although adding ground lights and hydraulics (for that Ice Cube-style three-wheel motion) is nice, the racing is what makes this game special. The sense of speed is almost ludicrous at times (particularly when triggering a blast of nitrous), and there's no graphical slowdown even in the most congested city centers. You can drive vehicles as lightweight as sport bikes and as heavy as Hummers; although no one is going to mistake this game for a Gran Turismo-like simulation, each car handles noticeably differently. Power-sliding demands just the right mix of intuition and skill, and reminded me more of Sega's classic Daytona USA than anything.

Unique to the Midnight Club series are a number of exaggerated driving techniques such as two-wheel driving (to navigate narrow spaces) and slipstream turbo (which operates much like drafting in NASCAR races). Each vehicle class has a unique special move as well. Light, fast cars can enter "Zone," which slows down time and allows them to navigate tricky parts of a course; heavier cars can activate "Agro," which essentially turns the vehicle into a battering ram; and muscle cars and choppers can "Roar," which scares other drivers off the road, just like in real life. These arcade touches provide a helpful entrée to those of us who can't tell the difference between various brands of spoiler.

As if the career mode weren't comprehensive enough, Rockstar has kindly included an offline arcade mode, which features hilarious power-ups and several different race types, and online multiplayer action. Midnight Club 3: DUB Edition offers so much to do that the only question is whether your interest will hold long enough to get to it all. For most people, the answer is probably yes.

Score: 8.5 (out of 10)

Issue Date: April 22 - 28, 2005
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