City of Angels
Midtown Madness was truly the epitome of class within the driving genre for last year. Far more than the transient glare I thought it was when I first played it, it took some weeks before I removed the CD from the drive tray and played something else. Yet for some reason I find myself looking upon its sequel disparagingly. After all, the concept of racing around a city with so-called "absolute freedom" is now nothing to get particularly excited about. Far from providing denouement, Midtown 2 is dispassionate on the whole, but momentarily fulfilling. Is it a worthy sequel to Midtown Madness? And moreover, is it worthy of you £30? On balance I'd say yes, you should buy this game. After so many serious driving titles in the offing and on our plates already this year, a bit of town-hopping furore is precisely what's needed! Unfortunately Midtown 2 isn't going to light your fire quite like its predecessor did. In terms of sheer excitement and intensity it will; every bump and turn is enough to get your juices flowing, but sadly there was never going to be anything that could be done to equal the impact of Midtown, so instead of reinventing the wheel, Microsoft and Angel Studios have chosen to reinvigorate it, with two new locations and a whole host of new challenges. But thankfully, by retaining its feel and composure, this sequel does enough to keep even the most diehard fan happy.
This time around you've got two gigantic cities instead of just the one. Both San Francisco and London are included, complete with all the familiar landmarks. Of course the gameplay is recognizable to anyone who has ever played Midtown (and if you haven't.. well you do own a PC, right?), but in the unlikely instance that you're a newcomer, the Cruise Mode is there for your kind and indeed old-hands alike who feel the need to brush up on the game's Hollywood physics. As you start taking on the Checkpoint, Circuit and Blitz races, and a new addition to the series, Crash Course challenges, there's a continual progression and of course appropriate rewards for your efforts, with new vehicles and challenges. Some of the cars that are locked at the beginning are incredible fun and well worth aspiring to reveal. The cars at your disposal from the off can be grouped by performance. Some are sluggish but indestructible whilst others are nippy medium runners. There are a few that move swiftly but practically fall apart when so much as the wing mirror is clipped, and later on you come across a few that are good all rounders. Sadly though, because most all you need to win at Midtown is a bit of daredevil attitude and some caution, the middle class cars are the only option, leaving the others in relative obscurity. The aforementioned Crash Courses are new to the game. They are tough, feverish challenges which while short-lived stack up and provide infuriatingly addictive gameplay. The winding back streets of London and the number of parked cars within them makes for some intense action at high speeds, and the never-say-die cops with their high performance vehicles in San Francisco tearing around after you do likewise.
The engine enhancements consist of a longer view into the distance and nicer textures on the other vehicles, but to use an old adage, if it ain't broke.. don't fix it! Sadly the multiplayer problems are also still inherent, with lag occurring even over a local area network, so playing on the Internet is still a joke. As has been shown in the past by games like GTA, enormous real-time worlds like this can be hard to sustain without enormous amounts of data passing between the computers involved, but there has to be a way of making this work somehow. Often computer cars and player cars appear in the wrong place, and there are other little inconsistencies between where things seem to be on one machine and where they are on another. Unfortunately there's little to be done about this, and I dare say it will make multiplayer intolerable for people used to a steady, smooth gaming experience. The engine isn't the only area that could use some work; the audio accompaniment is downright unpleasant at times as well. The sound effects are as they were before, but unlike our crazy Chicago commentator from the original, Midtown 2's clichéd group of wannabes are ambiguous to say the least. Stateside you get a hippy and a gangster and Londoners can look forward to a Scot and a thug.. there's a lot more in-game commentary than before, but I would have thought local radio personalities would have made better choices. What we have are just loose associations.
Fundamentally, one of Midtown Madness 2's biggest faults is that it lacks a coherent structure. There's nothing to tie it all together. You race therefore you are? Had we seen a properly structured single player game instead of unrelated tasks held together under the banner of "separate" modes, it might have been easier to recommend this to owners of the original. The London Cabbie Academy might have been a good idea (if a rather despairing one), but it's not even put to any real use. On the whole you play Midtown Madness 2 and you always have something new and varied to do, but eventually you grow tired of the pick-a-door tasks and lose interest. Don't get me wrong; it's an enjoyable, exciting and occasionally emotional piece of software (evidence: my cracked keyboard), but it could have done with something to meld it all together into a whole. That said, there's nothing quite as entertaining as smashing headlong into police car and watching it roll over and over before ploughing into something else. The challenge, variety and intensity is there, and that's what most people will remember.
It looks good, feels good, plays good and has enough to keep you occupied for a good long while. Midtown Madness 2 is one of those games that needs to be played. It's not without its gripes - it locked up on me several times during our brief relationship, and I'm not a big fan of its commentary, but once it has you in its grip it won't let you go until you've utterly exhausted it, and vice versa, and that should be enough for anyone.