It always amazes me how little some genres change and how much fans will tolerate such a lack of innovation. 2D fighters and first-person-shooters come to mind quickly, but no other genre seems more tired than the driving simulation. Sure, there have been a few sparks here and there (Test Drive 3, Super Mario Kart, Destruction Derby), but for every trailblazer, there has been an endless parade of lemons. Luckily, Midtown Madness isn't one of the marchers.
The main sell of Midtown Madness is that it allows you to race through an incredibly accurate recreation of Chicago (complete with landmarks, pedestrians, and rush-hour traffic). Old-school PC gamers (really old!) who remember Spectrum Holobyte's Vette! (circa 1990, the game allowed a spirited drive through the streets of San Francisco), know that Midtown Madness isn't the first of its kind, but compared to many of today's driving games, it's a breath of fresh air.
The best part about Midtown Madness is that there is no set path or course you must take. Players are free to roam out and about the city and the developers have designed modes that take advantage of that. For example, "Cruise" mode allows players to freely explore the city and 'Blitz' mode requires players to race across check points (placed throughout the city) in any order they see fit. The second best thing about Midtown Madness is the sensation of racing through active traffic. The physics engine is well tuned; striking a good balance between realism and arcade fun. Few driving experiences will compare to the rush of jumping a draw bridge or driving against oncoming traffic (especially on highways)! Frequent car wrecks and pileups are also quite a sight to behold.
There are a few notable flaws about the game that knock it down a level from pure excellence. One is the selection of cars. The vehicles available aren't particularly inspiring and your options are further limited by the unbalanced attributes of certain cars. Speedier racers lack the durability necessary to survive a race and the bigger models lack the speed required to finish ahead. Muscle cars like the Cadillac El Dorado or the Ford Mustang GT end up being the only practical choices. This also defeats the purpose of unlocking the game's "secret" cars since they are functionally inept to race with. Another problem with Midtown Madness is its shortsightedness. There aren't any compelling racing modes to encourage a lengthy tournament nor a career feature. I found myself racing not for the thrill of competition, but rather to unlock cars. However, while these are notable flaws, none of them are considerably major and can all be easily overlooked thanks to the game's capable visuals, exceptional sound, varied multi-player options, and (most of all) the wonderful freshness Midtown Madness brings back to the driving sim genre.