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Midnight Club: LA

Hands-On: Rockstar plays chicken with Burnout

Watching someone else play Midnight Club: LA is frightening. The blistering pace is hard to keep up with visually, especially when you're dodging traffic and lampposts with Jedi-like skills. But we'd never have guessed it'd be so accessible to play until we had a go for ourselves.

Burnout is fast. So is Full Auto. But Midnight Club beats them both. Trouble is how can you be in control going 110 down a busy highway in broad daylight? We set off to Rockstar's London HQ for a driving lesson to find out.

Burnout's solution was to reward you with slow-mo collisions. Full Auto (and now Grid) let you cheat by turning back time. Midnight Club's racing mechanic does neither thanks to some subtle and well thought out tweaks.

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We found it surprisingly easy to weave in and out of traffic at speed (that's blistering speed for trivia fans). When you turn at speed instead of gradually moving in a direction, your car 'nudges' left or right - a bit like a sidestep.

This allowed us screaming down the LA highways, through traffic junctions and even on the kerb, dodging cars and scenery for fun. The picture in your head might be that the game is now too arcadey, but there's not a lot we can do about that until some in-game shots and movies are released. Trust us when we say it doesn't look or feel out of place.

Burning around town in Cruise mode you locate and compete in various street racing events. These range from simple checkpoint-to-checkpoint competitions across town to dynamic head-ons on the highway. As usual, it's all the name of respect, in that you need to earn respect points, which can be used to upgrade and purchase new motors.

In one of the Midnight Club LA's more advanced challenges we took part in, a 'Dynamic Freeway Race', we flashed our headlights at a rival driver to initiate a mad competition along the highway. If this was Burnout we would've crashed at least twice in the first minute, before losing our opponent and having to start again. But the tight controls of our Ford muscle car - and one of the most satisfying handbrake turns in recent racers - dodging traffic and drifting across flare marker checkpoints isn't an issue.

The muscle car we took out first is one of the most comfortable motors in the game's licensed car roster. It's as tight as Chris Moyles' seat belt and sporting tons of strength in collisions. The other driving seat we got to fill, an Aston Martin V8 Vantage, was a very different driving experience. The tight cornering of the Ford was replaced with raw speed and monster drifting prowess, the down-side being that we span out violently with every mistake made.

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To be fair, this change of motor did alter how we approached the challenges. The game quickly became about timing our nitrous boosts and nailing perfect handbrake turns to take the lead. There was more than the odd 180-degree collision with traffic this time around but the rocketing nitrous boosts made up for it. There also seemed to be a forgiving catch-up factor involved too.

Under the hood, Club is polished to a fine shine. The seamless, no-loading-to-be-seen swoops from the overhead GPS pause screen, to on-the-ground racing are impressive. Driving is certainly better than in GTA IV, with plenty of smoke and spark effects you wouldn't expect to see from Rockstar's other big free-roaming series. And as you'd imagine all of the above is accompanied by a bangin' (licensed) soundtrack held up with plenty of drum and bass.

As it stands Midnight Club LA is one of the most adrenaline-fuelled and accessible free-roaming arcade racers we've seen. There is depth, such as a Forza-style decal system and plenty of real-world upgrades, but we need to see something else beyond the solid racing mechanics.

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