What to Expect from MCLA: South Central

Rockstar's high octane LA race course gets four whole neighborhoods bigger - here are our hands-on thoughts.

When you're play-testing a game within the walls of the company that created it, with employees of that company hovering over every twitch of the analogue stick, there's one, all-important unwritten rule: whether you're great or terrible at it, be spectacular. If you're going to win a race, do it skin-of-the-teeth, Fast-and-the-Furious style; if not, try to wipe out so hilariously your PR baby-sitter has to go off for a stiff double bourbon. Daredevil brilliance and stunning incompetence stick in the mind, while a merely sub- or above-average performance is soon forgotten. And forgotten players, needless to say, don't get so many event invites.

It's not often I bowl people over with my daredevil brilliance, but the God of Racing was with me when I stopped by Rockstar's London offices to go hands-on with South Central, the first wodge of DLC for prime rib motor-choker Midnight Club: Los Angeles. After a wobbly re-introduction to the controls, I stunned myself by racking up three golds in a row - one with a jaw-dropping, spinning, spark-struck leap over a railway carriage.

That's partly, to be honest, because Midnight Club: Los Angeles is as bullshit-free an arcade pedal-pumper as we could wish for, 24 hour open-ended Californian backdrop and car tune-up options aside: boost on the straights, jam down the handbrake to slide into turns, fire up those EMPs and slo-mo racing line corrections when the other drivers least expect it. If you've played anything from Daytona USA onwards, you'll know exactly how to roll.

So what's new in South Central? Well, that depends on your budget. You can download the entire region - fully one third again the size of the original setting - for free, but without the nine cars, 26 races, 12 battle maps, 10 delivery missions, 100 plus red light races, vinyl packs, parts and music which comprise the premium package, available for a not-outrageous 800 Points on Xbox Live and $9.99 on PlayStation Network. Freeloaders still get to plot and share courses through new areas using Midnight Club: Los Angeles's race editor.

South Central covers four neighbourhoods, amongst them the immortal Crenshaw with its low rises, bungalows and boyz in the hood, and good-for-nothing Compton, Dr Dre's old stomping ground. Baldwin Hills-Crenshaw plaza shopping mall is there for hazardous undercover escapades, and the Santa Monica freeway provides direct access from one side of the map to the other.

While the new area isn't a complete departure from the city north of the freeway, it puts more emphasis on off-road racing: entering the train yard, your relief at the absence of civilian traffic is soon lost as you slip-slide over gravel and rainy concrete. The football stadium, refitted with a jump or two, is open to invasion; jumps, indeed, are much more numerous in this particular quarter of LA.

Nevertheless, the races we sampled - "Crenshaw And Back", "Out Of The River", "South Central", "Central Exit" and "South Central Tour" - felt little removed from those of the original game: the plumes of gas that denote waypoints are wider spaced than before, making it easier to get lost, but as Midnight Club: Los Angeles is all about learning a course inside out (and then teasing more and more short-cuts out of the urban fabric), the confusion probably won't extend beyond your first few goes. The number of AI cars per race has been bumped up to seven, though we didn't get beyond four or five in the pre-release code.

The nine additional rides include the low-ridin' 1964 Chevey Impala with its boxy muzzle, the luxurious 2008 Mercedes-Benz CLK63 AMG "Black", a Range Rover Supercharged (grips the road like an RBS exec grips his multi-million pension, but couldn't out-run a milk truck) and classic muscle cars like the 1966 Pontiac GTO. A pretty straight-laced selection alongside the flying Deloreans and toy cars of Burnout Paradise, I suppose, but well-distinguished and a treat to the eyes.

South Central isn't the most exciting DLC pack to write about, especially after Grand Theft Auto IV's volcanic The Lost and the Damned expansion. There's no story extension, not that we were begging for one, and it's hard to see the new rides, laps and maps lending more than sparkle to an already sexalicious racer. Still, at those price points this ticks all the right boxes.

Midnight Club: Los Angeles South Central is out on 19th March for PS3, Xbox 360 and PC.

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