Written by: Rik

Date posted: June 29, 2008

The game was released pre-bendy buses. Hooray for the Routemaster!

Despite being saddled with the unfashionable Microsoft name, the original Midtown Madness was an unexpectedly accomplished racer, arriving from nowhere to steal Driver‘s thunder and provide the software behemoth’s games division with a much-needed hit. We quite liked it, too, although it has to be said that playing through the swiftly cranked-out sequel wasn’t a desperately particularly pressing priority once we put up the review, with yours truly happy to go along with the majority verdict that MM2 largely offered more of the same.

However, alluding to the merits of an oldie on FFG without giving it a fair hearing in a full review (or indeed, playing the damn thing) doesn’t do a great deal for our credibility [oh, I wouldn’t worry about that – a reader], and seeing as it’s been a little while since we looked at the original, (not to mention the fact I banned myself from padding out the racing section with any more Need for Speed games during this calendar year), now seemed as good a time as any to revisit the series.

As a cursory glance at the screenshots will confirm, Midtown Madness 2 does closely resemble its predecessor, with any graphical improvements as difficult to spot while playing the game on a 19-inch widescreen monitor as they are by squinting at the grainy screen grabs on this page. After several hours’ play, my highly-trained gamer’s eye could only pick out minor, intangible improvements that could equally be my memory playing tricks on me. Referring back to my notes, the phrase “looks shinier” is the only comment on the visuals – and regrettably that’s not a general term for all-round improvement, it’s that things do actually look shinier, with your own car in particular demonstrating an immaculate sheen.

San Francisco provides numerous opportunities to roll your car and generally smash it up. This, er, wasn’t deliberate though.

Many of the game’s options also remain largely the same, with MM2 offering the same blend of Checkpoint (try to beat AI opponents by finding the quickest route through checkpoints dotted around the city), Blitz (get through checkpoints as quickly as possible to beat the clock), and Circuit (race round in circles on a cordoned-off section road) modes to keep you entertained. Those who played first game will also be very familiar with the selection of vehicles initially at the player’s disposal, and even the most charitable of observers would do well at this stage to keep phrases like “Midtown Madness 1.5”, “same old, same old” and “cynical cash-in sequel” from entering their head.

While such concerns are well-founded, and it would be remiss of us not to mention that lazily updating a successful title with a sprinkling of new features and passing it off as a brand new game isn’t really all that great actually, it’s worth pointing out that there’s actually plenty of new content here – at least enough to halt an indignant diatribe against sloppy sequels before it even begins.

For starters, you get two brand new cities – San Francisco and London – to horse around in, with each greater in size than the virtual version of Chicago that featured in the original. Having gleaned all of my knowledge of American cities from Hollywood movies, I’m not well-placed to comment on the accuracy of MM2’s version of the former, although anyone displaying similar levels of ignorance will be relieved to hear that steep hills and the Golden Gate Bridge both feature. I can report, however, that the London map represents a decent facsimile of the real thing, although I can’t ever recall Waterloo bridge opening in the middle to let a boat through.

A cut-down version of the Underground features, although there’s never anyone waiting at the platform. Probably because the trains never actually stop.

The main addition in gameplay terms is the ‘Crash Course’ mode, in which you receive expert tuition on becoming a stunt driver (San Francisco) or a cabbie (London). Essentially, it’s just another set of timed challenges, albeit with an irritating voice-over from your ‘instructor’ in an attempt to add context. And while we’re on the subject, and without wanting to launch into yet another rant about terrible accents in games, it’s worth mentioning that those featured here are genuinely awful, with the typical Dick van Dyke/Don Cheadle effort (complete with cringe-inducing cockney rhyming slang) for the London taxi driver being particularly grating. Not only does an American actor seem to have been hired for the London voice duties (which you could understand) but, bizarrely, your American stunt instructor appears to be voiced by someone from the home counties. Some equally terrible pre-and-post-race commentary features in the other game modes, too, but you can at least turn that off with a swift visit to the options menu.

Anyway, despite this, the ‘Crash Course’ mode is actually a decent addition, with the time-limited tasks and contrived scenarios a possible nod to former rival Driver. To an extent, how much you enjoy this section depends on how much you’re able to tolerate repeatedly attempting the same fiendish challenge over and over again, but overall the balance between frustration and progression seems to be about right, and all but the most impatient of gamers should find themselves slapping their fingers on the keyboard for another go. Admittedly, neither ‘Crash Course’ actually lasts all that long, but if you take this mode as an extra on top of the standard selection of races rather than the main event, then it’s pretty hard to find fault.

Speaking of which, the other race options are much the same as before, with the Blitz and Checkpoint modes proving most enjoyable, and the Circuit races again a largely unexciting chore. In-game, little significant has changed, although the handling seems a little less slippery and collisions now produce more spectacular crashes. Oh, and you can now smash through small trees without fear of wrecking your car, contrasting with the first game in which you could easily uproot lampposts and post boxes but would be brought to a shuddering halt following impact with any kind of tree. And finally, despite being lumbered with the same dull selection of small hatchbacks and unexciting saloons at the start of the game, progression does unlock some slightly more sporty numbers, as well as the usual ‘novelty’ vehicles, although it should be noted that the vehicle count is padded out by three (count ’em) versions of the VW New Beetle.

“Cor blimey guv’nor, you’ve got yourself in a right two-and-eight!” Etc.

Elsewhere, much is as before: the vehicle models remain a little on the chunky side, especially the general traffic, which again regularly displays fairly moronic behaviour in order to get in your way, although I do like the fact that when you collide with them their indecipherable shouts sound like swear words, even though they aren’t (this was in the original, too – I just never mentioned it in the review). The police also feature this time around, but as before their presence is more of a minor irritation than anything else.

Overall, then, Midtown Madness 2 is a solid, high-quality racing game that does pretty much everything its predecessor did but slightly better. The racing is nicely balanced, and entire evenings can be lost attempting to complete a particularly tricky race or challenge. For owners of the original it’s far from essential, and it’s tempting to say that newcomers would be equally happy with either game, but in truth it has just about enough new content to make it a worthwhile addition to any racing fan’s collection.