In an era of triple-A publishers hoarding big franchises, it’s rare to see any previously successful IP go more than a few years without a new entry or reboot. It’s even stranger to watch such a franchise sit gathering dust in a publisher’s catalogue for over a decade without being re-ignited or sold off to finance other projects. Yet, this is exactly the position that the Midnight Club series, once a staple of any racing game fan’s library, has found itself in. Forgotten about and left to rot.
That is, until January 2022, when Take-Two CEO Strauss Zelnick off-handedly mentioned the series during an investor call announcing the company’s acquisition of Zynga, where he included Midnight Club in a list of Take-Two’s biggest franchises.
As a fan, I was surprised to learn that Zelnick was even aware he still had the keys to Midnight Club in his back pocket. I certainly wasn’t alone either, as the name-dropping inspired a wave of fresh speculation about a revival for the street racing series, intensified by the discovery of a job listing at Take-Two owned studio Visual Concepts, seeking a producer to work on “an unannounced, open world driving game with a major license”.
Caught up in this hype, I decided to fire up my PS3 and powerslide back onto the sun-kissed streets of the series’ most recent entry – 2008’s Midnight Club: Los Angeles – with the goal of assessing whether there’s still a place for Midnight Club in a racing game landscape that’s changed a lot since the halcyon days of widespread financial ruin and Katy Perry’s ‘I Kissed A Girl’.
In 2022, the game certainly provides an interesting mid-2000s time capsule, from its car roster populated by Fast and Furious film props, to its soundtrack loaded with Noughties artists and some wonderful bits of product placement like the T-Mobile Sidekick, the in-game phone, which looks more like a pager than a modern smartphone.
For me, all of this nostalgic furniture evokes fond memories of blazing through the game for the first time as a teenager, showcasing skills painstakingly honed in Need For Speed Underground 2. I might not have been good at many other games back then, but in Midnight Club, I owned the streets, even if – in hindsight – this was only because they weren't populated by uber-skilled online players.
The fact that I was able to shelter myself from the crushing realities of online play without much effort is testament to arguably the most retro aspect of Midnight Club: Los Angeles, when compared to modern arcade racers like Forza Horizon 5 and Need For Speed Heat. Its prioritising of traditional single-player over all else, a philosophy which feels distinctly old-school, and a little refreshing in today’s era of live service games. Sadly, any modern Midnight Club revival is unlikely to adopt the same ethos. Nor, tragically, is it likely to include any Burnout Paradise-style split screen multiplayer modes. For better or worse, online multiplayer is the order of the day and – honestly – it’s an area that I’d argue Midnight Club is a franchise with untapped potential in.
Picture this. An open world map populated by car clubs made up of players, competing against each other in an array of races across town, pursued by waves of cops armed with a Need For Speed Hot Pursuit inspired arsenal of spike strips, roadblocks, and EMP blasts. Something like that might attract the kind of dedicated playerbase that’s made Take-Two’s own GTA Online such a big earner over the past decade. Though, there’s an irony to the idea of a new Midnight Club game attempting to attract an audience similar to that of GTA Online.
To many Midnight Club fans, the incorporation of in-depth car customisation into Grand Theft Auto back in 2013 served as one of the first signs of trouble for the Midnight Club franchise. After all, if Rockstar (and by extension Take-Two) could utilise one of Midnight Club’s biggest selling points to supercharge the earning power of what was already their most lucrative franchise, why would they bother investing in another entry for the series? In hindsight, this change had serious consequences for not just Midnight Club, but the arcade racing genre as a whole.
When Midnight Club: Los Angeles hit the shelves in 2008, the racing genre was overflowing with arcade-style games. In the span of that year alone, Burnout Paradise, Need For Speed Undercover, Racedriver: GRID and MotorStorm: Pacific Rift were also released – each offering slightly different iterations of the arcade formula. Of those four franchises, two are essentially dead. The other two have endured a tumultuous decade characterised by mediocre reboots, in the form of Need For Speed (2015) and GRID (2019). Rebooting games of any genre has always carried a risk (for every DOOM or Tomb Raider, there’s a SimCity) and while neither NFS or GRID’s attempts ended too badly, both attracted only mixed reviews and largely failed to re-invigorate interest from fans.
Concurrently, the coveted spots at the top of a deflated arcade racing genre were being taken over by GTA Online and Microsoft’s Forza games, while other established racing franchises like Gran Turismo realigned themselves to benefit from an explosion of interest in sim racing – spearheaded by iRacing, Assetto Corsa and rfactor.
Finding a place in this landscape for a new Midnight Club is certainly a daunting proposition but, if it’s going to happen, learning from the mistakes of its surviving contemporaries is imperative. For example, both Need For Speed and GRID have received backlash from fans whenever they’ve prioritised delivering an over-the-top story over good, proper racing gameplay. So, perhaps a more gritty, down-to-earth story about regular people seeking an adrenaline rush to break up the brutal monotony of everyday life is the ticket to success – especially since it could provide an alternative to the always upbeat and bombastic stories of the Forza Horizon games.
Speaking of Forza Horizon, I think any ambitions to immediately transform Midnight Club into a series resembling arcade racing’s current king should be resisted. While the Forza games have achieved mainstream success by being a jack of all trades, offering a huge range of shallower experiences rather than specialising in any one area, one of the main strengths of Midnight Club is that it’s always concentrated specifically on street racing. Having originally taken its name from a real life Japanese street racing group, the series has earned all of its fans via the simple formula of allowing you to scythe through busy city blocks at the wheel of a Nissan Skyline with a gaudy bodykit, surrounded by the wail of police sirens and in relentless pursuit of some poor punk’s pink slip.
Midnight Club deserves a reboot right now. Perhaps it can offer something unique and provide the nitrous oxide boost necessary to re-ignite a once thriving genre. Or maybe it’ll conclusively prove that the gaming world has moved on from arcade racers filled with tribal tattoos and underglow neon. Either way, I’d rather find out the answer than continue to watch a franchise I love sit and gather dust.