Driving around real-life cities is nothing new, and yet here we are in the middle of 2003 clocking up 10-hour sessions on Midtown Madness. You'd think that with Midnight Club 2 and Burnout 2, we'd be fixed for arcade racers by now, but apparently not.
It's not as if it does everything particularly well, either, or that it presents more of a challenge than its two most comparable adversaries. Indeed, we can't see the various single player challenges taking more than five or six hours to complete, and there's no reward for going back through with feistier vehicles.
But in a way, the single player game is just an appetiser for the superb multiplayer mode, which relegates Midnight Club 2 almost to the bin barely a fortnight after its Xbox debut. However since our first date was to be broadband deprived (pity me and my trips to the family home to do PC tech support), we can tell you plenty about the single player game.
For a start, it's split into a variety of play modes - the central "Undercover" option is a sort of story mode, which has you performing strings of jobs driving taxis, security vans, limousines, police cars and such, whilst two of our old favourites - Blitz and Checkpoint modes - lurk under the banner of "Single Race" options, along with the obligatory Cruise mode.
Because the game boasts two cities - intricately constructed (and destructible) incarnations of Paris and Washington - it's a bit like having two whole games to play. At first you'll race around Paris, tearing down the Champs-Elysées, roaring through back alleys and even leaping across the Seine, before embarking on a similar run past the White House and along freeways at 220kph.
But unfortunately the missions in Undercover mode, which could be considered the bulk of the single player, are mostly just pick up/drop off variants, punctuated by the occasional race, and set to the indignant whine of half-arsed Allo Allo-inspired voice acting. It doesn't help that you spend most of the time driving rubbish vehicles either - in a game with as much stopping, starting and handbrake turning as this, surely a knackered taxi, a plodding security van and a slip-slidey limo weren't the best choices?
I 'ate you copper, and you smell!
Fortunately the missions require more or less exactly the right balance of skill, city planning and outright luck, and you'll almost always get them within a few goes. Unlike Midnight Club 2, which we spent a lot more time swearing profusely about. What's more, you only have to complete three missions in each vehicle to unlock the next section, although you have the option of stomaching a fourth, often brutal mission in order to unlock that car throughout the game.
Meanwhile, the rest of the single player goes some way to making up for French nemesis Mathilda's horrendous accent, with the Blitz races in particular forcing us to think long and hard at times about our path finding. These are probably the most rewarding sections, and as you tear through these you'll start to unlock some proper, licensed cars from the likes of Audi, VW and others. Nevertheless, the structure here could have been better - we can't help thinking that the three modes could have been spliced together somehow to provide one long, progressive challenge instead of three self-contained mini-games.
But, as we confessed at the top of the review, the single player is buttered mushrooms and garlic bread to the filet mignon of succulent online play. If you can't get Live, then you can try System Link or split screen modes, but you'll run out of enthusiasm for MM3 rather quicker than you would otherwise do. As much as the cities deserve exploring (and occasionally yield paint job-shaped rewards for doing so), this isn't Vice City, and your options outside the structure of the single player game are limited.
Out in the open
Take it online though and you'll wonder why you slaved over 'Undercover' work for so long when the heart of the series has already upped and left for broadband climes. There are plenty of game modes to get to grips with here, whether it's regular checkpoint or blitz races, Capture the Gold (a tip of the hat perhaps to former MM handlers Angel Studios and their Smuggler's Run endeavours, in which you have to grab gold as it spawns and steal it away to a hideout before someone bumps into you and pinches it), the rather self-explanatory Tag or its total opposite Stayaway, or EG favourite Hunter. In this mode, one player starts as hunter and the others are his prey. As the prey is tagged, they also become hunters, and the last man standing wins. If you find us online, the chances are we'll be playing this.
Apart from the modes, the online element is built with all the Live features we've come to expect, from Optimatch/Friends/Hosting options and voice support to downloadable content (none yet, admittedly) and MotoGP2-style Live integration with your profile.
We're also pleased to see that DICE has used some common sense and allowed players to use any car they like right from the start, unlike Midnight Club 2 (and virtually every other online console game), which forces you to unlock them all in single player mode first - an evil we've been particularly vociferous about over the past few months.
It's online that you really start to appreciate things like the clever integration of the translucent GTA-style overhead mini-map, which expands to almost full screen when you click the right thumb stick, and being able to turn on a sixpence by handbraking and clutching the accelerator (right trigger) together. The controls are the now typical two triggers/thumb stick combo, and you also have the luxury of glancing left, right, up and down with the right stick - although this could perhaps have been left out, as it tends to get in the way of map reading.
In a world of no pausing and restarting - something we're plenty used to thanks to a diet of Midtown, Burnout and Midnight Club - it's also important that the physics, and particularly the damage model, are forgiving enough that not every race ends like a Destruction Derby in Monaco. DICE delivers on that front too, with more realism than Midnight Club and less aggravating interruptions than Burnout. You may take a wrong turn now and again, or end up smashing into a wall at breakneck speed, but with a full complement of cars to choose from, a suitable durability rating for each car, and a level, lag-less playing field, you can expect to stand a good chance regardless. And with so much destructible scenery that, crucially, doesn't impede your progress, it's more cinematic than either of the others.
That said, the visuals in Midtown 3 have split EG right down the middle. Some of us - myself included - think that with so many people diving out of the way, plastic tables and parasols spewed out in your wake, some clever lighting effects and a massive draw distance, Midtown 3 looks brilliant. Although hardly up to the level of Project Gotham and GT, the cars are sturdy and nice to look at, and pick up plenty of superficial damage, and we defy those doubting Robs and Kristans to find us a section of concerted slowdown - even as we zoom under the Arch de Triumphe or donut the White House lawn screaming "geeeet your pretzels!"
On the other hand, there is a school of thought which teaches the value of decent textures, derides invisible walls and abhors clipping, of which MM3 has more than its fair share. However, so far we've only been told it looks bad by people who either haven't played it, or haven't played it for more than five minutes. In my view, once you get into MM3 there's no question that it looks and feels right. The custom soundtrack option helps, too.
And technical issues aside, it's just staggeringly entertaining to play, with so many different ways to play it. Evading the sideswipes of more powerful vehicles in Hunter mode is the stuff James Bond movies are made from, and having to quickly plan your route whilst doing 175 through traffic as the clock ticks down, particularly with a bunch of Yanks who actually live in Washington smacktalking you through the headset, is something no other game can really offer.
The best Live game yet?
The real question on everyone's lips is whether Midtown Madness 3 is worth buying, and the answer is undoubtedly yes. It might not take as much effort to overcome or offer as much content as arcade stalwarts Midnight Club and Burnout, but neither game has the same depth online, and only hot seating Burnout's crash sections with a few friends can rival the Hollywood playground DICE has built here for sheer fun. What's more, with some room still for improvement, we're already looking forward to the inevitable follow-up.
9 / 10