Here’s to computer gaming’s simplest, yet most addictive genre: Arcade racing. Busy working stiffs looking for a quick escape need not worry about 200-page manuals or complex keypad reconfigurations. Seconds after game startup, you can be pushing 150 mph. Two minutes later, the race is over, the console is off and you’re free to attend to the dishes, the spouse, the parole officer or whatever. Instant adrenaline fix.
TWO NEW ARCADE RACING GAMES for the Xbox, “Midnight Club II” and “Midtown Madness 3,” promise quick thrills. In both, vehicles race along convoluted urban highways and alleyways. Victory comes not only to the fastest, but to those who know the shortcuts.
“MIDNIGHT CLUB II”
In “Midnight Club II,” you test your mettle on the streets of Los Angeles, Paris and Tokyo against a series of street toughs ported, it appears, from “Grand Theft Auto.” Winning races earns better vehicles and a growing library of driving tricks. Accomplished players can coax “nosies” out of motorcycles where the bike balances on its front wheel. Cars can fishtail, perform 180-degree turns and burn a shot of Nitro/SST for those bursts of speed.
Accumulating tricks is essential. “Midnight Club II” is a street racing game and winning depends on the ability to transition from speeding down the Champs Elysee to taking a hard right onto a cobble-stoned alley. And avoiding cops: police cruisers and helicopters will be hell-bent on getting you off the streets.
Developer Rockstar Games applies the same mastery of stylized (and massive) cityscapes from their “Grand Theft Auto” series to “Midnight Club II,” which features some of the sharpest graphics I’ve seen on a console racing game. Lighting effects are rendered superbly. Among the nice touches: Rain-slicked cobblestone streets in Paris; neon-lit signs in Tokyo’s Ginzu district; and day-glo graffiti tags in Los Angeles. The way the game catches the light quality of a hazy Los Angeles at sunset is amazing.
As this is an arcade racing game, control is fairly easy. Real-world physics don’t apply; a tap of the brake is often enough to execute any turn and you can choose between automatic or manual transition. Three of the game modes, “Cruise,” “Circuit Race” and “Battle,” offer the option of quick races and a chance to brush up on the controls before entering the “Career” mode, where play gets difficult fast. Winning, as in every driving game, relies on how well you can anticipate the next turn. Expect to miss many, many turns at first.
Checkpoints located throughout the race courses are supposed to help guide you through the cities, but I found the arrows meant to indicate the direction of upcoming turns ambiguous. A map stays on your screen, but it can be a hassle to follow when you’re banking a turn at 120 mph.
This being a game about street racing, I would have liked to have had the ability to tweak my own vehicles. Instead, “Midnight Club II” ditches realism for atmosphere. The soundtrack is beat-heavy, the streets are dark and ominous and the verbal taunts directed at your driving skills are cliche-ridden. It’s the kind of simple, dumb fun one expects from an arcade driving game.
“MIDTOWN MADNESS 3”
If “Midnight Club II” appears similar to the street racing flick “2 Fast 2 Furious,” then “Midtown Madness 3” is the “Herbie the Love Bug” of the driving genre. The overall atmosphere of this city racing game is bright, bubbly and just a tad corny. City streets and buildings look scrubbed clean.
After choosing between Paris or Washington D.C., players participate in one of two silly adventures. Both involve performing a variety of race-related tasks while serving as some sort of undercover detective. Be warned that opting for adventure will leave you exposed to a torrent of audio commentary — the Parisian adventure had me reaching for the freedom ear plugs.
Both cities are laid out with a nice degree of accuracy. I took a Citroen for a spin west along the Seine toward the Eiffel Tower. After executing a series of deft fishtails underneath the tower I gunned my Citroen over the vast lawn and up the stairs of the Ecole-Militaire.
Players may want to skip the adventure and choose from two racing modes either against other cars or the clock. Driving controls are easy to learn and not too sensitive.
Single player options are actually a tad boring, but “Midtown Madness 3” was really built to be played online. Subscribers to the Xbox Live service can choose from a variety of game modes and jump into races and change cars as needed.
The graphics are nice, but they pale in comparison to “Midnight Club II.” The latter’s darker settings allowed for greater contrasts of hue, more depth. That doesn’t make “Midtown Madness 3” any less playable than Midnight Club II.” In fact, its bubbly nature is perfect for the kids. But a $44.95 introductory price sounds high, especially when considering that “Midnight Club II” costs $49.95.
When not babbling about computer games, Tom Loftus produces interactives for MSNBC.com