Midtown Madness 2
Preview - we take a beta version of Microsoft's urban racing game for a spin
Midtown Madness was one of the only games of recent years that actually kept me up well into the early hours on several occasions. Normally I exhibit enough restraint to avoid mammoth 24 hour gaming sessions, but through its unique mix of challenge, playability and finesse Midtown Madness kept me coming back time after time, and often kept me plugging away at the same level for many hours in order to progress.
So obviously when Midtown Madness 2 code arrived I leapt at the opportunity to rejuvenate those lengthy summer nights of yore by writing a preview. Sadly the code we received was still rather buggy and had a nasty tendency to dump you to the infamous Blue Screen Of Death, although Microsoft insist the game will be fixed up for its release later this year. Fans of the original game will be aware that it was loosely subtitled Midtown Madness : Chicago Edition. While the naming convention has changed, the focus has not - this is still very much Midtown Madness, except that this time it takes place in San Francisco and London, each complete with real-world locations like the Golden Gate bridge and Union Square in San Fran, and Hyde Park and Buckingham Palace in London. Wily players looking for some rush hour revenge can even dive Crazy Taxi-style into the Tube tunnels and play chicken with the 3:43 to Elephant & Castle, or our American friends can try and shunt a tram off the tracks a-la Nicholas Cage in The Rock. Vehicle-wise Midtown Madness 2 comes complete with nine new cars (including everything from an Aston Martin to a Freightliner fire engine!), as well as the repertoire from the original, which of course included the legendary VW Beetle as well as Land Cruisers, city buses and the like.
Crash Course Mission Mode
One of the other big changes since the original is the addition of the Crash Course Mission mode, where players can take on the guise of a Hollywood stunt driver in San Francisco or an aspiring London cabbie in the (eurrgh) Imperial Cabbie Academy, following skill-building scenarios that help to introduce the player to the style of the game and teach veteran racers new tricks. The slightly questionable physics engine of the original game was suitably Hollywood-esque, although Microsoft seemed to think it was "ultra-realistic", whatever that means. Having played the new game I can confirm that (between the crashes) it still feels like Midtown, and that is nothing but a good thing. And as usual players can do pretty much whatever they like within the confines of the cities - there are plenty of other cars on the road, and lots of things to knock down! The usual Checkpoint, Blitz, Circuit and Multiplayer Capture-the-Gold modes are also back with a vengeance. Speaking of multiplayer, Midtown Madness 2 features much more optimised code for use over LANs and the Internet, although as usual it's heavily orientated around MSN's Gaming Zone.
Where's The Action?
What is most likely to concern gamers though is how little Microsoft has chosen to change the game graphically. Midtown Madness 2 has time on its side to an extent, but with titles like The Getaway due out on PS2 in the next year there are plenty of other games out there that are following Midtown's example, and as such it will be entering a very different arena. The question of whether or not the same game can sell on the strength of two new cities and a few new cars is one we won't know the answer to until it hits store shelves. In the meantime the graphics do look slightly improved, though the interface is pretty much identical. Thanks to advances in hardware the developers can now afford to use higher quality textures, and the difference does show (particularly on the non-player vehicles in the game, which are now endowed with a lovely range of textures), but I thought more could have been done to the actual building models, which just look like bland geometric shapes. Unfortunately, by moving away from Chicago we also lose the hilarious radio announcer! According to a friend of mine who grew up there he is a genuine radio personality in the area, and I'm sure you will agree that he certainly added a lot of sparkle to the first game. Although there are going to be new voices to accompany the action in Midtown Madness 2, I doubt either will be as memorable, and knowing our luck London will presumably get lumbered with some bigmouth from Capital FM or somewhere equally awful. Ah well, you can't have everything your way.
Playing For Time
One very under-appreciated aspect of the first game was its soundtrack. The chirpy music was almost as endearing as those classic notes that accompanied Mario and chums, and humming along to them as you buzzed around the city was half the appeal! Having sampled the sequel's soundtrack briefly (in-between crashes), I can report that it was suitably entertaining, although it remains to be seen whether or not it will stand up against the original. And I suppose therein lies the problem for Midtown Madness 2; it looks good and moves a bit, but technically it hasn't gone anywhere, and it's not only up against its illustrious predecessor this time, but also a whole host of similarly themed games across a variety of formats - Dreamcast hit Crazy Taxi in particular comes to mind. The other issue that I really can't leave alone (despite the fact that this is beta code) is the bug-ridden nature of the game in its current state. To be brutally honest it was virtually unplayable, and the game is due to be released in just a few weeks. Unless this is an old build, it's going to be an uphill battle to beat her into shape...
Irrespective of the bugs and a lack of technical advancement, Midtown Madness 2's two huge new cities and the vast array of new vehicles on offer should be enough to satisfy even the most insatiable of Midtown fans when it hits the shelves, providing that the team can clear up a few outstanding issues. That should be enough, but with so much competition on the horizon it might not be, so we will have to wait and see when we get final code. Look for a full review coming soon!