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Midnight Club LA offers a racing experience as compelling as Grand Theft Auto. This is real life car customising and racing done the Rockstar way. But be warned, videogames can have a profound influence on those playing it, no matter how grown up and sensible they may consider themselves to be.
My relationship with racing games is a strange one. On the one hand, I get a huge kick out of thrashing around as fast as possible with the world's gnarliest cars. On the other hand, my eyes glaze over as soon as the race is over and a game deposits you into the garage to tinker with a car's set up, giving you a startling array of components and completely foreign concepts like gear ratios and tyre pressures to mess around with.
Midnight Club LA made me both excited because it's a racing game built on the same engine used for Grand Theft Auto, and irked because there are simply so many things to tinker with before you can start racing. But though usually I loathe that kind of thing, I must admit that once I started playing around with the wheel trims and the air-cooling systems I was sucked in. Without realising it I spent over an hour in the garage considering paint jobs, vinyl stickers and body parts.
No matter that the children want to watch TV, both my six-year-old daughter and two-year-old son loved it just as much as me.
Like the Grand Theft Auto games, you start out as a lowly nobody, working your way through ever better cars and harder races to improve your standing with the Los Angeles street racing elite, taking on a variety of challenges like winning ten highway races in a one on one setting or coming out top in a best of three against four other street racers. Unlike a proper, simulation racing game, Midnight Club LA doesn't force you to take a perfect racing line when some aggressive swerving and ramming will suffice. Which is just my sort of thing. Clipping the rear side of a car in front to cause them to spin out is way more satisfying than doing it all properly.
Soon, I was a complete addict, switching the game on at every opportunity. Five minutes until dinnertime? That's just enough time for me to get a quick race in. No matter that the children want to watch TV, both my six-year-old daughter and two-year-old son loved it just as much as me. My daughter just liked to watch me play, but my son screamed for the joy pad whenever I turned it on and thrilled to the sight of our car bashing into walls and trees until it resembled an aluminium carcass. Eventually I had to let him hold the other joy pad and pretend it was him doing all the racing since it had got to the point where whenever I did switch it on he would help by standing between my knees and hitting every button he could get his hands on - usually right in the middle of a race I was winning.
Perhaps it was because I'd only had an hour with it before relinquishing control of the TV to my wife's house improvement show needs.
But I was shocked by how the game influenced my real life driving. I'm not sure where or when, but after some time playing, whenever I got behind the wheel of my own car, my son would call out from his seat in the back, faster, daddy, faster!
It all came to a head for me when, frustrated that the railway lines round the corner from my home were down, I pulled a handbrake turn in the middle of the street (I was the only one in it at the time, I hasten to add) and shot off in the opposite direction. That could have all gone so wrong as I had no idea what really happens when you yank the handbrake and turn the wheel as hard as possible - I could have flipped the car and barrel rolled it into the legions of parked cars easily.
It was a decisive moment. Either I laid off playing it so much or I went the whole hog and began turning my tin pot Nissan Almera into a street racing beast and scoured the Internet looking for illegal street racing meets. In the end I stopped playing the game so much (I found another game to get hooked on), sold the Almera (the clutch fell to pieces) and bought a huge Ford Focus estate. And I can happily state that I have never been tempted to try anything as dumb as pulling a handbrake turn in that lumbering beast nor drive round my local car parks of a Saturday night looking for rubber burning action.
With so many different perspectives it can be hard to know where to start - a little like walking into a crowded pub. Sorry about that.
But so far we've not found a way to streamline our review output - there's basically too much of it. So, rather than dilute things for newcomers we have decided to live with the hubbub while helping new readers find the columnists they will enjoy.
Our columnists each focus on a particular perspective and fall into one of the following types of gamers: