Reviewed: October 23, 2003
Reviewed by: Travis Young

Microsoft Games

Digital Illusions

Released: June 17, 2003
Genre: Racing
Players: 2 / 8
ESRB: Everyone


Supported Features:

  • Custom Soundtracks
  • Xbox System Link (1-8)
  • HDTV 480p
  • Dolby Digital
  • Xbox Live! Online Play

  • I must confess that despite my obsession with racing games Midtown Madness 3 is my first experience with this franchise. I can’t even remember the first one and I remember seeing the box for the second installment and had a sneaking suspicion the game was an infomercial for the new VW Beetle prominently displayed on the cover.

    That Beetle has now made its way into the background art of this new cover to clear the path for the Mini Cooper being chased by the Corvette. 2003 will probably go down as the year of the Mini Cooper. Newly reintroduced to the States, this little import (now made by BMW) has received more high-profile exposure in both games and movies than any car in media history since the Bandit tore up the highways in his black Trans-Am.

    My worst fears of a game created to hype a single model car (see The Italian Job) were quickly laid to rest once I started playing Midtown Madness 3 (MTM3). The selection of drivable cars in this game is dazzling, numbering in the 30+ range and including everything from popular licensed cars to trucks, buses and other obscure rides. And when you combine this massive stable of vehicles with two of the most fleshed out cityscapes in recent gaming history you have quite a wild ride in store.

    As much as I was hoping for something original in the gameplay department, MTM3 was anything but. I will give Digital Illusions props for doing their best to disguise the stale “drive from point A to B and back to A” gameplay with some original story ideas, but it will easily show through after a few missions. Surprisingly enough, even once you recognize the pattern of traditional gameplay the actual driving remains quite fun and always challenging.

    MTM3 is broken down into several gameplay modes including a career mode known as “Work Undercover”, Single Race where you challenge the clock in Blitz mode or drive against computer racers in conventional Checkpoint races. You can also kick back and Cruise the city learning all the best routes and discover hidden shortcuts.

    Naturally, you will want to jump right into the Undercover mode so you can start unlocking cars for use in the other modes including the substantial multiplayer modes (more on that in a moment). You are free from the very beginning to pick your city, Paris or Washington D.C. and undertake seven jobs in each city. Each job has multiple missions of increasing difficulty and you are required to finish three to advance to the next job. Naturally, any real gamer is going to complete them all.

    Missions range from delivering pizza, picking up bags of money in an armored truck, driving a taxi, driving an ambulance, or even a limo just to name a few. You are briefed between jobs as to your main story-driven goal but this is so weak it’s hardly worth mentioning. MTM3 is basically a giant checkpoint racer no matter how they try to disguise the checkpoints as injured people, bags of money, or taxi passengers.

    What does set MTM3 apart from the competition are the driving environments. Both cities are massive and highly detailed. The only thing that can compete with the scale and complexity of these cities is the 40-square miles of London that was reproduced for Sony’s The Getaway for the PS2. Of course that is speaking from a realistic point of view. GTA and Vice City are prime examples of huge fantasy cities “inspired” by real-life locations, but MTM3 is the first to reproduce real cities at this level of detail. Yes, it even surpasses Midnight Club II who also did a version of Paris.

    Both Paris and DC come to life with sophisticated AI driving both the traffic and the pedestrians to create a bustling city environment. Something is always moving or happening wherever you look. Pedestrians are fairly good about getting out of your way, especially if you honk your horn, and other motorists are almost anal in their ability to obey traffic signals and speed limits.

    Control varies based on the vehicle you are driving, a true testament to the attention of physics and momentum. Small cars have great handling and acceleration while the heavier armored car, busses, and semi-truck take three city blocks to get up to speed then handle like an oil tanker going around corners. Each time you get behind the wheel of a new car you get to learn the game all over again, and no, this isn’t a bad thing. This is a level of realism that racing fans have been wanting all along.

    Collisions are handled quite well with a sophisticated detection engine that is mapped to the skin of the cars and the objects in the world rather that some arbitrary force field surrounding those objects. That means that when you visibly hit an object it registers an impact – not just getting close but actually hit an object. The same goes for other cars as well and the collision model is sophisticated enough to register the level of collision and the weight and momentum of your vehicle so you can have the abrasive scraping of fenders or a full-force T-bone collision in an intersection.

    Despite my best efforts it is impossible to run over and harm a citizen. They do an impressive job of leaping and rolling out of the way no matter how fast you swerve at them. This is why MTM3 maintains its “E” rating and there is even a humorous “Making of” parody video showing the stuntman who was mo-capped to create these daring leaps.

    Unlike other racing games in the same genre like Midnight Club II the solo aspect of MTM3 is rather weak. You can probably muster a week of solid gaming from the two cities and 14 jobs but the major draw of this title is its stellar online component. If there was ever a reason to get Xbox Live this is it.

    Once you hook-up with other racers online you can enjoy all the normal solo modes like cruise and checkpoint races, but the multiplayer-specific modes are what truly drive this experience (bad pun intended). Tag is a timed game where one person is “it” and must tag another car before the timer runs out. Whoever is “it” when the timer hits zero is removed from the game. Stayaway is the inverse of Tag where it is desirable to be “it”. The person who can stay “it” the longest during any gaming session wins.

    Hunter is a variation of tag where each tagged player becomes a hunter as well. The last person to get tagged wins the game. Capture the Gold is a variation of Capture the Flag. You drive around the city looking for gold to collect then return it to a specific location. Of course all the other players will be trying to smash into you and steal your gold. This is one of the most frantic and fun modes in the game.

    Both Paris and Washington D.C. are brought to life in stunning visual detail. I really enjoyed the graphics in Midnight Club II but there is only so much you can do with a game based primarily on night driving. MTM3 features races during the day, night, dusk, dawn, and all sorts of varying weather.

    The cities are indescribably beautiful and detailed. Words, not even screenshots can do this game justice. You simply have to see it and even then you won’t believe your eyes. There is so much activity going on all around you and the draw distance just boggles the mind. I wouldn’t have guessed the Xbox was capable of displaying this level of detail at this scale without a single instance of pop-up and no cheap fogging or mist effects.

    Matching the quality of the cities are some high quality models for the various cars with fully deformable meshes and stunning texture maps that model the damage in real-time. Even the environments will depict damage as you rampage down the streets in a big-rig tractor or drive through a city park in shiny sports car. Sparks fly, broken glass showers into the street, fenders rip off, metal crunches and bends. This is realism that we seldom get when developers are using licensed cars.

    Even more impressive is that with all of this detail and superior draw distance the game manages to maintain a flawlessly smooth framerate that does a fantastic job of depicting a realistic sensation of speed from both a chase and a cockpit camera.

    My one and only complaint with the graphics would have to be the quirky camera angles for a few of the cars, mainly the trucks, where the camera would take a position in which the vehicle would block your line of sight for driving. In some instances I was actually forced to take a cockpit view to drive some of the larger vehicles like the armored truck on the bank run mission. Regardless of your view mode the right stick allows you to look to either side or behind you.

    The audio mix varies from a nice soundtrack to some humorous dialog that borders on the annoying and possibly offended if you happen to be French or Scandinavian. Whether you are being given orders by the Inspector on your vid-phone or getting taunted by your rivals before, during, and after each mission, there is plenty of speech going on to help liven up the driving experience. Listening to the rich old lady complain about my “bad driving” was humorous the first two times I heard it but gets tiresome after multiple replays of multiple missions.

    The music basically takes a backseat to the sound effects and vocals creating an exciting but passive atmosphere. It’s nothing that really stands out which is why most of you will appreciate the ability to use your own soundtracks. The in-game interface for managing these soundtracks was rather clunky and I noticed some bugs where the same tracks would keep repeating, almost as if they were assigned to a certain mission.

    The audio package is rounded out with a wonderful Dolby Digital surround mix that compliments the HDTV visual support making this a showcase game for Xbox owners using component video and optical audio hook-ups to a home theater system. MTM3 is a feast for both eyes and ears.

    There is plenty to do, even in the solo mode with tons of cars to unlock and custom paintjobs to discover while driving around the single player game modes. I finished the single player component of MTM3 in about 14 hours but I don’t see any end in sight for my love of the online competition MTM3 offers. This is one of those games you will pop into your Xbox night after night after night making plenty of new friends and friendly rivalries along the way.

    Best of all, there is a surprisingly large number of people playing this game online, especially compared to other racing games like Midnight Club II. I’m guessing MTM3 will maintain its momentum for a long time to come or at least until Need for Speed Underground and Project Gotham 2 finally arrive.

    If I haven’t already made myself abundantly clear, you need to be playing this game tonight. In fact, you should have stopped reading about 400 words ago and already be on your way to your nearest gaming outlet. Why are you still here?

    I don’t say this often, but Midtown Madness 3 is one of those rare games that is worth a full-price purchase. Buy it, play it, love it, and I will see you online…in my rearview mirror that is.