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Midtown Madness: A Living City in a 90s Racing Game

By: Edward
Published: 27 June 2023, 2:57 pm

A dead world is a bane of any game. That may not be the top priority in racing games; they are about cars, after all. But many racing games in the 2000s had beautiful but empty streets. To see the racing world done right, we must go back to 1999 and the release of Midtown Madness.

For the ones that don't know it, Midtown Madness is a racing game developed by Angel Studios (now known as Rockstar San Diego) and published by Microsoft Game Studios in 1999. Set in an open-world rendition of Chicago, the game offers players the freedom to explore the city streets and engage in various racing challenges.


More Than Just a Race

At first glance, Midtown Madness is your usual arcade racing game. It has all sorts of cars, from Ford Mustang GT to a City Bus. Inspired by games like Need for Speed (1995) and Test Drive 2 (1989), each car has a real image and details like top speed, horsepower, and engine. Plus, decent physics and damage systems, which will often result in trashing your car early. Not to mention a few game modes to test your driving skills in.

In that sense, the game checks all the boxes. The controls can be hard to learn, but you won't be the one crashing because AI drivers often crash themselves, which is fun to watch.

But what made this game indeed a classic was its world and how detailed it was for a racing game. Welcome to downtown Chicago.

Beauty and Detail of Chicago

The game world of Midtown Madness is designed based on some parts of downtown Chicago. The lead designer Frédéric Markus must have liked this city so much. You might even recognize a few names if you are familiar with Chicago.


A city is nothing without its people. And you will see a lot of them. Unlike in most racing games, the world is filled with pedestrians who will scream whenever you get too close. Somehow, this is the feature we will see many years later in Cyberpunk 2077, but don't worry; in this case, you can't run over them. Pedestrians will dive as you are about to hit them and will be safe and sound.

And, of course, traffic. Chicago is filled with drivers. Both good and terrible. Some cars drive slowly, abide by the traffic lights, and use blinkers. In comparison, others will cut you off and yell at you as soon as you crash into them.


To top it all off, there are a few destructible objects across the city. ATMs, bins, and barriers can be destroyed if you wish. And did we mention the famous Chicago Style bridges? A few of them are in the game, and they go up and down on their own. Yes, you can jump off them. Fantastic!


The game has many racing events, many of which have different time and weather conditions. There's morning, day, evening, and night. And from the weather, you have sunny, cloudy, rainy, and snowy.

Fun fact: if you drive in the snow, it will slowly pile up on the roads and affect handling more and more.

After completing each race, you can customize weather, time, and pedestrian density, making it a more personalized experience.

The Road is Yours

However, Midtown Madness is more than just a detailed city and the weather effects. What's really fun and innovative is that you can freely enjoy all that in free play. You can drive around Chicago in an open-world mode without limitations or rules.

In all honesty, driving is relatively free, even in regular races. In each event, there is no set route. There are only checkpoints that you have to go through. And how you do that is up to you. There are many shortcuts and hidden passages for you to take advantage of.

If you have yet to try this game, download Midtown Madness here; it's really worth it. It's not a coincidence if, in November 2002, Angel Studios became Rockstar San Diego.

So, choose your car, take your time, explore the city, and remember to use the minimap while in it. Have fun!

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