Midtown Madness 3 screeches its way onto the Xbox, marking the first time the series has appeared on a console system. Developed by the company formerly known as Angel Studios, the original PC releases were renowned for their wild driving antics within famous cities. MM3 follows suit while taking advantage of much of what the Xbox has to offer. Swedish developer Digital Illusions CE (aka DICE), best known for the superb RalliSport Challenge, picked up development duties for this installment and created a solid game that is enjoyable both online and off.
Presentation/Graphics : 80
DICE sure knows graphics. Its previous Xbox titles boasted savory visuals, with RalliSport Challenge still considered one of the Xbox's sharpest-looking games. How does MM3 fare? Pretty well.
While staying true to the style of the previous games in the series, MM3's graphics show an immediate upgrade. This is to be expected, though, since the first two games were released several years ago when graphics technology and hardware were less refined. In other words, MM3 sports many of the visual features gamers have come to expect today, and while the graphics may not rank among the Xbox's elite, they are certainly impressive.
It all starts with a smooth game engine, backed by rich colors, complex environments, great special effects, and most importantly, a consistent frame rate. The vehicles, of which there are more than 30, look fairly good and display a moderate amount of damage, including busted hoods and cracked windshields, while the exaggerated physics allow for some truly outrageous crashes. Well-animated pedestrians, realistic traffic, and an abundance of destructible objects fill the game's two cities (Washington DC and Paris) with life. Each city is huge and contains an assortment of landmarks and things to see, with varied weather and ambient lighting adding to the graphical charm.
As with any game, however, the visual presentation is not flawless. Assorted graphical glitches and issues occasionally dampen things. And although there is generally an adequate view of the horizon, fog is used liberally to conceal pop-up and preserve the frame rate. Furthermore, some textures are noticeably flat--namely, those for trees and buildings--and seem out of place in an Xbox-exclusive game. Nevertheless, the graphics remain easy on the eyes, if a little short of DICE's high standards.
Presentation/Audio : 80
For the most part, MM3's audio presentation is in line with that of other driving games of this nature. Crashes create aural chaos, pedestrians utter amusing quips, and the soundtrack supplies spacey beats (you can import your own music if you choose, but the randomization is a bit screwy). Engine noises vary among the vehicles, and diverse environmental sounds build ambience in each city. Voice-overs for the zany cast of characters are expectedly goofy, suiting the style of the game sufficiently.
Where the audio really begins to shine is in the surround-sound department. Like most Xbox games, MM3 features in-game Dolby Digital 5.1 support. Fantastic channel separation and crystal-clear panning provide a dynamic, enveloping audio experience. What's more, you can distinctly hear rival drivers closing in on you, which helps make up for the lack of a rearview mirror. The game sounds good through a regular stereo, too, but those with home-theater setups will enjoy the greatest benefits.
Interface/Options : 85
MM3's menus are colorful, quick to load, and simple to navigate, and these qualities carry over to the Xbox Live interface. Standard offline options let you adjust the sound and controls, among other things, with various options available for configuring online games. Apart from Live, MM3 also supports system link and standard split screen. Unfortunately, only two players can compete in split screen, whereas Live and system link allow up to eight. Another minor disappointment concerns the inability to enable traffic or AI drivers in multiplayer.
Regarding vehicle options, you can select manual or automatic transmission, edit the license plate, and choose from available paint jobs (you unlock new ones by finding hidden paint cans). Initially, only a few vehicles are available in single-player, but new ones become available as you progress through the different modes. Luckily, Live players have access to vehicles locked in single-player, giving everyone a good selection right from the start. All vehicles are rated in five key areas, including top speed, acceleration, handling, mass, and durability.
If you skip the heavy action and leisurely cruise the city streets instead, you have several options to customize a joyride. Cruise mode enables you to set the season, weather, time of day, and amount of pedestrians and vehicles clogging the streets. You can even add cop cars into the mix for a little excitement. Of course, Cruise mode is untimed, meaning you have plenty of time for sightseeing.
Before you go cruising, you will need to learn the controls. Fortunately, they are easy to pick up, thanks to an intuitive layout. The default setup uses the triggers to control acceleration and braking, X and B to change gears, and A to manage the handbrake. You can use the digital pad or left analog stick to steer, with the analog stick obviously offering finer control. Other control functions let you do such things as honk the horn and turn on the headlights. Finally, the black button switches between four camera views, and the right analog stick enables you to look in different direction (e.g., pull back to look behind).
Gameplay : 80
In terms of driving, not much has changed since the last Midtown Madness. Realism is pushed aside in favor of hectic arcade-style action. Automobiles, ranging from popular sports cars to service vehicles, are fully licensed and control uniquely. Each can ram through objects and traffic like a bat out of hell. However, every vehicle has advantages and disadvantages when tearing up the streets. So, while an Escalade may have more mass and durability than, say, a Mini Cooper, it lacks the speed and finesse of a compact vehicle.
One thing all vehicles have in common is mortality. Crash often and your ride will take major damage and eventually break down completely. A handy damage meter helps you assess the destruction to your vehicle, though you know you're in bad shape when parts start breaking off. While speed and handling are only marginally affected when sustaining a high level of damage, the engine will die once you attain maximum wreckage. In Cruise mode, your vehicle is given new life--but do not expect the same in the other modes.
Thus, you will need to drive skillfully when tackling the main single-player modes. Blitz and Checkpoint have been successfully transported from the previous games, while the new Work Undercover mode (think Crazy Taxi meets Wreckless) seriously tests your driving and navigating skills with its stressful missions. Blitz mode forces you to pass a series of checkpoints within a time limit, while Checkpoint mode has you doing the same but against opposing drivers and without time counting down. Work Undercover mode puts you in the shoes of either a PI or undercover detective, depending on the city, and gives you a wide collection of tasks to complete (54 in all). You'll be doing everything from delivering pizzas to driving some sap's poodle to dog shows. Missions are sometimes frustrating, since you must often deal with a strict time limit, and are somewhat repetitive (you'll encounter similar mission types in each city).
Both cities have their own series of races/missions per mode, and their individual layouts present unique challenges. You have to become familiar with the cities and discover shortcuts to gain the upper hand against the feisty AI drivers, who drive recklessly and play dirty. Thankfully, directional arrows and a miniature on-screen map, which can be enlarged by clicking the right analog stick, assist your driving, but you must find shortcuts yourself. Relying too heavily on the navigational aides can do more harm than good because they do not always point you in the quickest direction.
Supplementing--and in many ways overshadowing--the single-player experience is a strong multiplayer element, featuring competitive driving and game modes not found in single-player. As mentioned earlier, MM3 supports split screen, system link, and greatest of all, Xbox Live. Split screen features basic two-player action in Cruise and Checkpoint modes, whereas Live and system link contain all-new modes for several players. These include Capture the Gold, Tag, Hunter, and Stayaway, in addition to Cruise and Checkpoint. Like its single-player modes, MM3's online modes differ from those of a straight-up racing game, as they revolve around player interaction instead of standard races. Needless to say, if you're after a traditional racing experience, you won't find it here.
Replay Value : 85
In case you haven't been paying attention, here's a newsflash: MM3 is Xbox Live enabled, so gamers equipped with the service will be busy with all the different online modes and challenges. Plus, with future downloadable content, the appeal of the game can potentially expand. Those without Live, on the other hand, will probably find the magic to wear off more quickly, notwithstanding the offline multiplayer options. Still, MM3's gameplay is entertaining enough--and its single-player experience is decent enough--to hook the average gamer for a reasonable amount of time.
Overall : 82
While it's not the main selling point, Midtown Madness 3's single-player game is rather fun--if you fancy mission-based driving and checkpoint racing, that is--but the online component is what will likely lure most gamers. Accordingly, your mileage with the game will vary depending on whether or not you have Xbox Live. Overall, DICE has done a respectable job of transferring the Midtown Madness experience to the Xbox. Now the developer needs to get cracking on the follow-up to RalliSport Challenge!