Midtown Madness

a Reeeview item by J Nash (Thursday November 26th, 2009)

JN says...JN saysA review for PC Gamer, almost certainly given to me by mistake. (As a rule of thumb, my name wouldn’t flash beepingly on the freelance board unless the office expected a game to struggle to a double digit mark, or if all the writers were out grouse shooting in their land yachts.)
 
Aw. Look at my adorable tousle-haired big squeezy face light up with unexpected delight, like an urchin who found a bun. Well, I’d better get along: there’s an urchin outside with a bun who I can rob with a stick.

Publisher: Microsoft
Developer: Angel

First rule: what’s behind me is not important.

Excellent

J Nash and cars. “Erk. Ugh. Tsk. I still can’t quite accept that they’re not allowed to knock you down and kill you. What? Oh, no thanks, I’ll walk.”

J Nash and cars in Midtown Madness. “Aaarghh! Get out — get out of my WAY! Mmmph. Yes — no — yes! Handbr — HANDBRAKE! No — yes — Yes! Hargle har har! Into the lorry of justice with you, friend. What the — Noooo! NOOOOooo. I HATE TREES. And the police.”

Readers, I love it. After a smothering run of completely crap games that have tried to drain my spine with their jabbing proboscides, Midtown Madness has made things fun again. It’s a driving game, in the same way that the mighty Micro Machines is a driving game — the wearyingly tedious stats of PC-dom have been peeled away to reveal the nutritiously excellent fruit of entertainment. You needn’t even bother with the speedometer or damage alarm, as you can see perfectly well what’s going on. This bit steers, these bits regulate speed, and this bit does handbrake turns. Off you go.

And what a go there is to off. You’re racing through Chicago — a populated Chicago, with short-tempered pedestrians, civic amenities and terrible traffic problems. (The citizens are indestructible. Does that bother you? Then you’re an idiot.) At every turn you’re apt to smack into a taxi or something, and having to pass a swarming crossroads with the lights against you is sheerly exhilarating. The crashes are breathtakingly spectacular. You’re not driving around some made-up course with obvious tricks like putting a tight turn after a blind corner (excuse my not knowing the stupid technical terms, but I hate driving games. You see? I hate driving games, yet have been playing Midtown Madness for six hours at a time. Gawd, eh?) but through a real city, with its landmarks, smashable-through shops, rush hours, attentive police force, box-filled alleyways and pleasant parks.

And drawbridges.

And motorways, that, sensationally, you have to drive up the wrong way.

What you’re trying to do is pass a series of checkpoints, then find the until-then-hidden finish line. (The other games are the Cruise, where you can indestructibly learn the best ways around, but which, upsettingly, I couldn’t get chased in by more than one police car; the Blitz, an exciting race against the clock where you have to finish the whole thing before the time runs out, not just reach the next flag; the Circuit laps; and the Multiplayer set, which I cover in the ‘Calling All Cars’ section. Although there’s, er, just the one full-scale city, ingenious design gives you 32 distinctly different levels. Anyway, the Checkpoint game’s my favourite.) Your opponents are, essentially, ‘bots.’ They don’t all drive as a pack (brilliantly, you can take the checkpoints in any order you wish), they react sensibly to obstacles (dodging around cars sent spinning into their path, for example, although not superhumanly — you won’t just be sitting there watching them all zoom off into the distance, and one of the great pleasures of the game is seeing a huge pile-up occur that has nothing to do with you) and they’re intimidatingly competitive. As you progress through the game, they become better. They aren’t simply given faster cars, they drive more skilfully, taking devious alternative routes and ploughing through supermarkets as shortcuts. I haven’t enjoyed being thrashed by a game so much since, well, I can’t remember the last time. (What a tragedy, eh?) It’s a thing to cause big grinning.

Errors? Sometimes the scripted traffic idiotically turns directly into you (but they don’t do the same things each time, and if you’re good enough, you’ll get past the danger spots before the lights turn green), there are no replays, and the other cars are unforgivably known only as ‘Opponent 1’ and so on when giving them names would have introduced that vital element of personal revenge, but, embarrassingly, that’s all I can think of. There’s even a bit of depth to it, with a Pro mode, secret bits and 10 acknowledgeably different vehicles (including a bus and an 18-wheel artic), and a blissfully single ‘physics realism’ slider if you’d like to go from the extreme of deadly accurate handling to flipping over cinematically every time you sneeze.

Midtown Madness is excellent. Congratulations, er, Microsoft. (Blimey.)

It is
Ignitingly fast
Resolutely non-fatal
Eye-nuzzlingly crashful

It is not
For drivers with beards
Kindly
Over in a twinkling

VERDICT
The Gumball Rally — but on the PC. Stupendous fun that lasts the distance.
91%

BOBBY
There’s no point playing it safe, as your lunatic opponents attract the police anyway. Once activated, they never give up, and they’re suicidally keen, slewing across the road in front of you like deranged atomic slugs. Later in the game you face three jam-sandwiches at a time (intensely evil), and we’re promised road blocks in the finale. Coo.

CALLING ALL CARS
Midtown Madness’ (Madness’s. Whatever) multiplayer games are hugely disappointing. They’ve tried to give you a bit of choice — you can riffle through all the one-player races, as well as a special Cops and Robbers set where you have to deliver gold shipments to checkpoints, or steal it first, but — absurdly — you and your net chums drive alone. No traffic, no shirty police, no buses pulling into the fast lane of the motorway — nowt. It’s just not on, frankly. While we concede it’d be a fair bit of fun with all eight drivers taking part, the lost opportunity to nudge someone into a traffic jam at over 100mph means we’ve given up on net games already. Bah.

IT’S QUITE A MACHINE
My favourite way to play Midtown Madness is in Super Widescreen In Your Car Vision. This makes the screen go letterboxy, increases the speed by about half again and feels ever so much like being in a film. Your low-slung point of view from the driver’s seat means you can’t see as far ahead as usual, and every collision is absolutely terrifying. Couple this with the office Fanatec Monte Carlo steering wheel (shamefully undervalued in last month’s Money Pit) and you have a Mode Of Champions to rank with the Of Championsest. For Gumball authenticity, switch off the rear-view mirror.

DRIVER
A similar game, but with crime-based missions, the original Playstation version candidly looks a bit tired next to the hundreds-of-everything Madness, relying far too much on a multi-purpose ‘danger’ bar. We sincerely hope the Driver chaps look at this and think, “Right, we’d better top it then.” Or we’ll probably have to kill them.