Now this is a proper game - fast cars, famous locations, cheesy acting, gloriously addictive gameplay. We've spent long enough waiting for Microsoft to get its act together with a third Midtown Madness, and thanks to the careful guidance of DICE, it looks like it finally has. It has everything: multiple cities (Paris and Washington), tons of vehicles (including all your old favourites), mission-based driving, checkpoint races, choose-your-own-route blitz races, and plenty of multiplayer modes - even Xbox Live support! What more could we ask? [errrm…sexy visuals? -Graphic Whore Ed]
One step beyond
As with the previous games, MM3 is about racing frantically between points on a couple of city-based maps in various arrangements. The main story mode is where you'll spend most of your time, completing various missions as an undercover cop in a series of roles, ranging from delivery guy and taxi driver to security guard and even, um, a police officer (good cover!). You're supposed to be keeping your eyes on various characters (or so the cheesy videophone briefings claim) but, generally speaking, you concentrate on getting to the next checkpoint before your rival or ahead of the clock.
The missions themselves generally consist of picking things up and dropping them off (effectively racing between checkpoints that you physically have to stop at), while fending off the unsettling efforts of the local constabulary, and your local female rival (the sassy but petulant Mathilda in fair Paris, and Kelly Osbourne-looking goth gal Angelina in Washington). Sometimes though it's just a straight race with a handful of other cars, and there are other variations too - but if that's what you're after then the dedicated checkpoint-racing mode is probably your best bet, with plenty of layouts to conquer ahead of your contemporaries.
As ever though, one of the most entertaining modes is Blitz, which gives you a set number of checkpoints and a challenging time limit to hit them all in. As with the rest of the game, you're guided by the GTA3-esque arrow at the top of the screen and the equally GTA3-esque rotational map in the bottom left, but although this is fine for the first few races, the optimal route is often one of your own design. Having to retry a single blitz stage multiple times can be draining, but more often than not the intense gratification of nailing a perfect route with seconds to spare more than makes up for it.
Finally, there's cruise mode, which is, as the title suggests, a good way to cruise around the maps and get a feel for them. Fans and locals will no doubt enjoy the chance to meander down the Champs-Elysées at 120mph, and race around the lawns of the White House like Colin McRae on a bender.
But, you may be wondering, what's changed? This all sounds mighty familiar. And on the whole, you'd be right. The game looks, sounds and acts very much as it always has, so in a sense it's a testament to the strength of the gameplay that it's so addictive. The graphics certainly aren't anything special - quite the opposite in fact, falling some distance short of games like Gotham and RalliSport (from the same developer no less). Textures crawl and stutter at times, and it all looks rather like a pre first-gen Xbox or even PlayStation 2 game - we likened it to the original Burnout… However, there's a lot of detail and tons to smash through - be it smaller objects like lampposts and railings or massive great information kiosks and hot dog stands - and the vehicles and surfaces are nicely contoured, shaded, reflective and so on. OK, you'd be hard-pressed to describe it as a top-end Xbox game, visually, and if you buy games based on their looks then you're going to be disappointed - it even slows down here and there - but the more you play it the less you care. It's about the gameplay.
Equally at this stage the soundtrack is worryingly devoid of charm. Fortunately the background music is easily ignored. A pity, really. However the rest of the noises - the crunches, splatters and voice acting in particular - are all fairly enjoyable. The French accents are thick and stereotypical, but affectionately so, and you can tell the developers basically trouped down to a recording studio one day and took the piss for a few hours each.
And besides, anybody from France will doubtless be thrilled to drive around such a well-realised version of Paris. You can almost forget The Getaway's London; they haven't pasted photographs onto the geometry, sure, but this actually has street furniture, pedestrians, traffic, and massive great landmarks like the Eiffel Tower done to a monstrous scale, to be explored as well as pondered from afar. Admittedly we haven't spent as much time in Midtown's US of A as we have in their version of Paris, but we drove past the White House this morning and it looked about right.
Answer the question
OK, we're being a bit evasive: what is new? In a word, multiplayer. In two, Xbox Live. Although the split-screen modes aren't anything too special, we can see the game becoming something of an icon if the Xbox Live side of things is up to scratch. If if if! Unfortunately our efforts were restricted to the split-screen and System Link modes (cruise and checkpoint). Despite giving us an update disc for our debug Xboxes (the consoles which run the preview code), apparently adding a load of online options, we couldn't get it to work at the time of writing. Even recovering our actual, paid-for Live accounts didn't seem to work, which was frustrating. Hopefully we'll encounter less trouble with the retail version of the game.
Apart from that though, it's shaping up quite solidly. As it is, the code we have is labelled preview, and it's already getting well towards completion by the looks of it, with the full game due out on June 27th. There are bugs here and there - characters clip into cars, or fail to get out of them at set points necessitating a mission restart, and most infuriatingly, the map doesn't overlay properly onto the street layout, so you often have to guestimate turns. However, those are our only real complaints, apart from the shoddy visuals, and once you start getting into it they're few and far between.
We don't know how we're going to score this at the moment. Midtown fits the Xbox snugly - the triggers control scheme from Gotham and co. works a treat, and the subtle difficulty curve, blitz mode, Hollywood physics and game world are all highly enjoyable, but we're concerned that there isn't anything especially new about it. The only thing keeping us going is that it's so nice for us cynical hacks to play with something that isn't trying to conform to reality. A "game", if you will. Ultimately, we'll have to reserve judgement until we've had some time with the online modes, and finished the single player. Somewhat tellingly though, we are looking forward to replaying it from scratch when a boxed copy turns up. Maaadness.