Midtown Madness

An upbeat urban racer that loves to destroy things, including your sanity.

Angel Studios’ Midtown Madness wants to be a great game. It is obvious that the developers put a lot of care into their design, and it has far more polish than the average cookie-cutter racing game. The premise is stuffed with great ideas, and many of them are skillfully implemented, but the game is hampered by a few significant problems.

6The centerpiece of the game is its setting – a living city that recreates the streets of downtown Chicago in a massive, non-linear map that serves as the setting for all the game’s races. Different races follow different courses through the city, but it is often possible to deviate with shortcuts. It appears, though, that the designers have had little first-hand experience with the windy city—major landmarks such as the Water Tower and Navy Pier are faithfully represented, but many streets, intersections, and minor buildings have a “glossed over” feel.

Inaccuracies aside, the city feels real enough for the purposes of a racing game. Pedestrians and traffic choke the streets as they go about their daily business, regulated by changing traffic lights. The sidewalks are lined with street signs, garbage cans, trees, newspaper vendors… and they are all interactive. The visceral feel of taking a shortcut across a plaza, plowing through obstacles and innocent bystanders is difficult to dismiss (this isn’t Carmageddon by the way – civilians always jump out of your way). Some objects are indestructible, but most of the game’s miscellaneous scenery will succumb to off-road onslaughts in a satisfying fashion. Garbage cans and newspaper machines explode in clouds of litter and newsprint, and pedestrians freeze like deer and then dive for cover. Other cars are equally interactive, and depending on traffic density, fender benders and full-blown pileups are common.


Riding into the sunset in a Panoz Roadster.

Therein lies one of Midtown Madness’ most prominent problems. Many of the races are gruelingly difficult, and even at amateur level the time limits for completing blitz and checkpoint races are far too severe. In such situations traffic is more of an annoyance than a challenge. Traffic patterns vary from race to race, and because even a single accident often results in the loss of the race, success in races that involve traffic is reduced to coin-toss randomness. Circuit races avoid the problem by eliminating random traffic altogether, but they eliminate the game’s living city appeal in the process.

Overall physics modeling is generally unimpressive. Spin-outs and accidents feel scripted and artificial, and once the rules-based physics engine has decided that you have lost control of your vehicle, it is impossible to do anything other than ride it out and hope for the best. Better hope to avoid police patrols while you are at it – cop cruisers will relentlessly chase and ram your car, cheerfully disregarding public safety and the laws of physics. These über-police are able to accelerate from zero to sixty in a few seconds.

A multiplayer-only “cops and robbers” race variant makes up for a lot of shortcomings in the single-player races. Players choose teams (cops or robbers) or go it alone in a race to recover a bar of gold and carry it back to their headquarters. It has all the excitement and chaos of a downtown car chase, with less of the frustrating randomness of the single-player race modes. It is a pity that this variant is not present in the single-player games – it might have brought this title closer to the greatness it deserves.

System Requirements: Pentium 166 MHz, 32 MB RAM, 300 MB HDD, SVGA, Windows 95

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