Your role is never really explained to you, but as the story progresses it becomes obvious that you're an undercover police officer of some kind, always answering to a shadowy, obscured higher power a'la Charlie's Angels and shifting between a variety of different pseudo-occupations in your quest to crack the case. As you progress further and further into the game, your undercover jobs become more and more respectable. You'll work your way up from pizza boy to car salesman to paramedic to police officer, performing your search for clues and information related to your case as an unnamed agent while also keeping the owner of the pizzaria or the dealership sales lead happy. You've got a choice between two slightly smaller-than-scale cities when the game starts, Washington DC and Paris, which are (for storyline purposes) roughly as different as night and day. They may as well have drawn an enormous black line between the two when you make your choice, because they're completely unrelated aside from the fact that you're driving cars down streets in both. You're answering to a different overseeing power, (in DC you work for a private eye, complete with over-the-top crime noir accent, in Paris you answer to an outrageously stereotypical French government official) you're driving for different businesses, and I'm not even certain you're supposed to be playing as the same character. In DC you're investigating the arrival of a set of moviemaking brothers in town and their connection to a mob that bares more than a striking resemblance to the Corleones, while in Paris you're trying to rescue kidnapped racing legend Dieter Kleinmann.
The stories themselves are incredibly cheesy, but that slowly becomes part of their appeal. Every single character you interact with is a crazy, super-exaggerated parody of some sort of culture, be it French, American, German, Swedish or anything in between, and the voice acting reflects that more than anything else. The unifying sense of humor between all the different stories is a bit too cartoony for my taste, but occasionally delivers for an honest laugh or two. If you're looking for a game with the realism, grit, grime and atmosphere of Grand Theft Auto, you'd better move along because this ain't it. If you've got your eye out for a squeaky clean, sometimes amusing, lighthearted adventure that won't lose you any sleep at night, this is your ticket.
It's far from the most realistic driving game you'll ever play, and therein lies a lot of the fun. If you take a turn too quickly, your car will flip up on two wheels or tip completely onto its side, but by revving the engine and turning the steering wheel, it'll right itself. Various ramps are strewn about the landscape in coincidental spots, and several noticeable landmarks have been slightly altered to make them more accessible to the stunt-minded driver. You won't find yourself cruising up the side of the Eiffel Tower, but you'll get an awful nice view of it when you leap off the edge of the twelve story building across the street. While the meat of the game itself lies in the "Undercover Mode," which I've described above, the entirety of it's replayability is in the "Cruise", "Blitz", "Checkpoint" and Multiplayer sections. While a good driver will more than likely bowl through the Undercover missions of both cities in a couple afternoons at most, that only unlocks a handful of cars for use on Xbox Live and single-player action. To really stand a chance online, and to enjoy the majority of the title's ongoing appeal, you'll need to show your skills against both the computer and the clock in the various single-player checkpoint races. The only real difference between a "Checkpoint" race and a "Blitz" race is the presence of opposing cars. You're racing against half a dozen computer-controlled vehicles in "Checkpoint," and if you can cause a trainwreck early in the race, you can pretty much take your time getting to the finish line. In "Blitz", you've got a strict time limit to work with. You can take the various checkpoints, strewn around the cities, in any order you like (which further emphasizes the "go anywhere" feel of the title and provides a nice change from the straightforward "run this track exactly as we tell you" rule you see everywhere else) as long as you get there before the clock reaches zero or the first computer racer crosses the finish line. Your top five times are stored on the hard drive, and instantly compared to the archived times of everyone else with a game saved on that particular Xbox.
In "Cruise" mode, you're basically just surfing the city looking for different paint jobs, which don't appear to be much more than a shiny token to show off to other players on Xbox Live. About three quarters of the game's cars have an additional two or three paint jobs laying somewhere around DC or Paris, and you only really have a chance of finding them in this mode. As a rule, they're all in a difficult to reach spot, and they must be retrieved by the car to which you're applying the paint job. For instance, if you're looking for an alternate color scheme for your Mini Cooper, you've got to reach it from behind the wheel of the Mini itself. The different stunts required to retrieve these paint jobs increase or decrease in difficulty depending on the specs of the car you're driving, and range from extremely easy to nearly impossible. I spent more time retrieving paint jobs alone than I did working through the entire "undercover" mode.
Gameplay on Live is a blast, and the community is pretty unanimously accepting of new players. I won't lie and say I've never gone into a room and been booted for no particular reason, but I found the MM3 crowd to be level-headed pretty much across the board. The style of online gaming supported by Midtown Madness is very friendly to new players, as each game's rules and instructions are displayed on the screen while the board loads and different connections sync up, and the games themselves aren't too hard to comprehend. There are technically half a dozen different game modes for online play, but they all revolve around one of two basic themes; get to the finish line first or ram into others / try not to get hit yourself. Though the themes are similar, the concept is shaken up enough between them that things never seem to get repetitive.
The controls employ your standard racing setup, basking in the glow of the strength of Microsoft's controller design. The triggers are your gas and reverse, respectively, and are pressure-sensitive, which makes all the difference when you're trying to set the proper speed for taking a turn or lightly brake before pulling a fancy Hollywood U-turn. Both the left analog stick and the D-Pad can be used to steer, but you're out of your mind if you use the D-Pad. The right stick is used to look up, left, right, back or up, but lacks a real free-camera feel since you're limited to strictly looking in those exact directions, with no wiggle room. Your headlights are operated with the white button, the main camera clicks between any of four different perspectives with the black button and the horn / siren blows when you hit "Y." Unlike Sony's classic dual analog, Microsoft's S-Controller was born to handle racing titles, and my hands never cramped or suffered throughout my experiences behind the wheel of MM3 (which is something i most certainly CAN'T say about my marathon sessions with Gran Turismo 3.) Even the extra "click" functions of the Box's two analog sticks come into play here, as clicking the right stick will bring up a translucent full-screen map of the city and your location, overlaying the game screen itself which is still in motion. It really gives the feeling of keeping one eye on the road while you quickly check the map in your passenger seat, and often leads to similar results. I've driven headfirst into some nasty situations because of this map, and I love it that way. The left analog's "click" is only used in online play, when it toggles between speaking exclusively to your teammates and talking to everyone in the room during play with Xbox Live. The placement for this one could've been better, as you'll find yourself accidentally clicking it in the middle of a tight turn pretty regularly. Otherwise, the controls are the tits. Very nicely done.
Though not particularly original, the graphics of MM3 are still quite a sight to behold, and deserve special mention without a doubt. There's a nice visual theme running between the cutscenes, (which are few and far between) the loading screens, the main menu and the in-game HUD, and the car / building models themselves are fan-freaking-tastic. There's no question in my mind they were setting out to flex the Box's muscles in a big way with this one (thus the inclusion of both 480p High Definition and Dolby Digital 5.1 support) and in this regard they were quite successful. While I won't go so far as to claim the vehicles or environments trump those seen in the previously mentioned Project Gotham 2 or Gran Turismo titles, they do give both a healthy bit of competition. The sheer visual interactivity of tiny elements of the scenery especially caught my attention. When you plow over a parking meter, for instance, it doesn't just fold under you and lay flat on the pavement or sail through the air, bounce once and vanish. Not only do you put a notable dent in the front of your vehicle, but the meter itself sails high into the air, spraying coins in every imaginable direction, glimmering in the light, scrapes across the asphalt and then slams back to Earth, ready for another ride. Light poles distribute showers of sparks when they're sent into the air. Trash cans fire garbage and loose papers. It's a step forward for the visuals, and really works to envelope you into the environment.
Almost as an afterthought, the sound is also an impressive example of what the Box can do when it really sets its mind to it. The use of Dolby Surround is more effective than you'll give credit for at first, sending the sound of squeeling tires, angry horns, screaming pedestrians and scattering change from one side of the room to the other as you wildly spin the wheel. There's no doubt in my mind that this is an example of some of the best use of ambient noise in a video game, and it aids the entire package immensely. The in-game music is nothing worth remembering, no doubt, but never really gets in the way and is negated due to the inclusion of custom soundtracks. There's really no excuse for a racing game to ship on the box WITHOUT this feature, since even the greatest tunes can get old after an hour of solid racing, but it's noteworthy all the same.
All in all, this is a game I'm happy to have in my collection. It didn't force my jaw to the floor in utter disbelief when I first caught a glimpse of the visuals, it didn't blow me away with unique, revolutionary new gameplay methods or stun me with a totally original concept. Put plainly, it is what it is; a solid, straightforward adventure game mixed with a solid, straightforward driving game. The single player story mode isn't anything to write home about, but I can't think of a time at any point in the future where I'll grow tired of playing the online modes and trying to erase my old land speed records offline. This is a great example of a game that never takes itself too seriously and is meant as a diversion, a way to kill a couple hours with pure, unadulterated fun. It isn't perfect, but it's good enough. I'd recommend a purchase without a second thought if you're Live-Enabled yourself.
Overall Score: 8.5