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Midtown Madness (PC) Review

Background Info

Microsoft has been in the arcade racer business for a while. First was the successful Monster Truck Madness series. Recently they followed it up with Motocross Madness. While both titles were polished and fun, neither added anything really new to the genre. In fact, no one seems to have been particularly innovative in this market for a while. Until now. With Midtown Madness (developed by Angel Studios) Microsoft has published the most innovative and fascinating racer I've seen in years.

A cross between the old PC game Vette and the arcade classic Harley-Davidson LA Riders, Midtown Madness lets you race in the actual streets of Chicago. A city known for some classic car chase scenes in the movies (The Blues Brothers, The French Connection), it was a natural choice for the game's designers.

Presentation/Graphics : 95
The graphics are quite impressive given the detail of the environment being modeled. There are literally hundreds of independent objects in the city, everything from traffic to pedestrians to street-side objects you can interact with (e.g., you can knock over garbage cans and stop signs). The graphics are crisp and attractive. Most importantly for a racing game, the frame-rate stays high at all times, quite an impressive achievement given the amount of activity going on. The developers went to considerable lengths to achieve this, writing complex clipping code so that only objects actually visible to the driver are drawn. The result is a game that provides a marvelous sensation of speed, with none of the "pop up scenery" problems some racing games have.

Midtown Madness is not as close to photo-realistic as Need for Speed, but this was a conscious design choice, I don't consider it a flaw. It was a trade-off of pure graphical quality vs. environmental complexity. And given the fun that the environment adds to the gameplay this was certainly a good decision.

In particular some parts of the weather effects aren't perfect (though some parts are - the sky graphics are very well done, and add a good feeling of atmosphere to the game). There are some nice graphical details, such as the L-train running on its overhead tracks and jets that actually touchdown and takeoff at the airport.

Overall I'm very impressed with what the developers achieved graphically. They had the courage to try a lot of things that hadn't been done before, and managed to pull it off.

Presentation/Audio : 93
The sound in Midtown Madness is of high quality. Most important is the sound of your own car, since in a racing game it directly impacts gameplay. The screeching tire sound makes it very easy to tell when your tires are losing grip. The screech will start out very quietly for a small amount of slippage, and the sound gradually increases as wheel slippage does. It helps make the cars easier to drive.

The environmental sound is also well done. You hear the screams of pedestrians, the curses of other drivers, and the sound of jets passing overhead. As previously mentioned the cursing could use a bit more variety.

The game also has a commentator with an appropriate Chicago accent. Like the other drivers' cursing, his comments could be more varied. But it is still a nice touch that makes the feel of being in Chicago more apparent.

One thing that would have been helpful is more stereo sound effects for traffic coming at you from the side (i.e., when you are going through intersections). In real life you would see such traffic with your peripheral vision, which of course doesn't work in a computer game. It would be nice if you could hear a vehicle coming from one side or the other.

Interface/Options : 96
The user interface in Midtown Madness is first rate. It is quick and intuitive to navigate. I had no problems at all finding any option I wanted to set. The game supports all controllers, including force-feedback wheels like my Logitech Wingman Formula Force. You can even set the strength of various types of forces (i.e. if the road surface effects are too strong for your taste, they can be turned down without changing other effects).

The in-game controls are also very good. A few users have complained that the steering was either too twitchy or not responsive enough, depending on their choice of controller. But the game has a good set of options for adjusting controller sensitivity, and with a little experimenting it's not hard to find a control setup that works well for you. One nice touch is that you can adjust the sensitivity from the game's pause menu, which makes it easy to try different settings until you get the one you want. The pause menu also has all the other options you'd want, such as restarting the race, quitting to the game's menu, or quitting to Windows.

The control works a little differently for each car, as it should. The city bus, for example, feels heavy and sluggish, while the Beetle is quick and nimble. The rain and snow also have a realistic effect on the traction of the vehicles.

Overall the interface is effortless to use, which is a real compliment to the programmers. One or two people have complained that the current driver's score was difficult to find, but this is a minor flaw in an otherwise excellent interface.

Gameplay : 94
The gameplay is where this title really shines. Racing around in a realistic city environment that includes traffic and pedestrians is enormously fun. The game designers chose Chicago as the environment partly because of the many famous movie car chases filmed there. It's an apt choice - the game is the first one since Need for Speed 1 that really gives you a feeling of being in a car chase scene.

Whether it's weaving in and out of traffic on the highway, or running red lights through heavy downtown traffic, Midtown Madness offers plenty of adrenaline rushes for the arcade racer. The level of detail in the game is quite incredible. Traffic cars obey the rules of the road such as stopping for red lights. They will wait at intersection while pedestrians cross. Just like real drivers they make boneheaded lane-changes. They curse you when you run them off the road (this is one area where the dialog could use more variety).

There are three different kinds of races. In blitz races you have to beat the pack to the finish amid traffic and cops. Checkpoint races also have traffic, and you have to beat the clock to the finish line. Finally there are traditional arcade-racer circuit tracks, with no cops or traffic. One of the neatest aspects of the game is that in any mode you are free to find alternate shortcut routes: you don't have to follow any predetermined path.

There's also a "roam" mode, where you can just drive around the city. It's handy for getting oriented with the city. It's also great fun for kids who may find the racing modes too difficult.

There's a good variety of vehicles - everything from a Beetle to various Mustangs to a city bus. Many of the vehicles are locked until you win certain races.

If there's a criticism of the gameplay, it's that there aren't enough races. There are twelve in each mode, for a total of thirty-six. That may sound like a lot but many of them are easy to beat. On the bright side, Angel Studios has stated that they will release a race editor that allows you to make your own races. Once available it will help increase the replayability value of the game (there are also rumors of add-on cities being developed, but these rumors are as of yet unconfirmed).

Once last element of gameplay to mention is the force feedback support, which is quite well done. I tested the game with the Logitech Wingman Force wheel. There are many forces that you feel, including impact with other cars and objects, the texture of road surfaces and curbs, and the damage level of your car (it gets difficult to drive if you have a lot of damage). There is also the feedback of the wheel turning on various surfaces, such as going loose when your tires lose grip. This wheel feedback is too subtle though; Viper Racing is still the game to beat in this area.

Difficulty: 81
The game has two difficulty levels, Pro and Amateur. The difference being that in Pro there are more environmental effects (i.e., night racing, weather effects) and you have to finish the race in first place to unlock other races and cars. In Amateur you only have to finish in the top three.

The difficulty is one area where the game probably could have used a little more fine tuning. Experienced arcade racers won't have too many problems, but a game this innovative (and that has Microsoft's powerhouse marketing behind it) will probably have a wider audience than that. Beginners may well find a lot of the races too difficult.

One other problem is that you have to win too many races to unlock cars. My favorite car is the Mustang Fastback, and it seemed like I had to win half the game to unlock it. Even worse is the Panoz GTR-1, my girlfriend's favorite car. We spent all sorts of time working through the races trying to win it, before discovering that it can only be unlocked in Pro mode, and only after winning twenty races.

On the bright side, the artificial intelligence (AI) of the other racers is quite good. They drive well (if sometimes aggressively) and have a nice variance in skill level. Some of the racers are slow and will follow the most obvious, direct pathway from checkpoint to checkpoint. Others are more clever and will use various shortcuts - by watching them you can learn the shortcuts yourself.

The "roam" mode is another nice feature that eases the difficulty problem somewhat. This is a good game for kids as there is no real violence (e.g., you cannot hit the pedestrians). The races may be too hard for them, but they will have a blast rampaging around in the city bus.

Overall : 92
Midtown Madness is an excellent buy, one of the most innovative and fun arcade racers to come along in some time. If you like racing games, or even if you're just a fan of car chase scenes in movies, you must buy this game.

By: Joe McGinn 6/10/99

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