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The Cutting Edge: Personal Technology | GAMERS' CORNER

'Midtown' Racer: Entertaining Drive Without the Body Count

July 15, 1999|AARON CURTISS

Despite earning a reputation as the poster child for excessive violence in video games, the "Carmageddon" series has the right idea: Make driving fun, in the same way that it's sometimes fun to grip the steering wheel and let out a scream from somewhere most of us keep tucked safely in the dark part of our psyches.

The problem with "Carmageddon" and its sequel is that this sort of automotive freedom comes from a place deeper and darker than the aforementioned scream. And it exacts a bloody toll on the digital pedestrians who inhabit the game.

Enter "Midtown Madness," Microsoft's forget-the-rules racer that even the most squeamish can play without having to wipe body parts off the windshield.

"Midtown Madness" unfolds on the streets of Chicago, and players can choose from three broad, equally entertaining game options.

The first is a traditional racer in which players follow a course past landmarks such as Wrigley Field and the Sears Tower. A hovering arrow keeps drivers on track.

The second--and my favorite--is a free driving mode with no rules. Players slip behind the wheel of a nice choice of cars--including a Volkswagen Beetle, a Cadillac Eldorado and a city bus--and tool around central Chicago.

How you play says a lot about you.

It's possible to follow all traffic rules and stop at intersections. Or drivers can run red lights, smash through the gates at Wrigley Field or take a nose dive into Lake Michigan.

Actions have consequences, though. I caused a pileup near Grant Park that left both lanes of traffic jammed for several minutes. One thing I could not do, though, was hurt any pedestrians. And I tried--although only for research purposes. Unlike their counterparts in "Carmageddon," pedestrians in "Midtown Madness" jump out of the way or press against buildings when drivers get too close.

The final mode is a variant of capture the flag in which players search for a gold bar, then whisk it to a hide-out without getting rammed by cops or other drivers.

In all modes, the control was smooth. I used Microsoft's Sidewinder Pro game pad and was able to zip swiftly through even the tight streets of Chinatown.

"Midtown Madness" requires a Pentium 166 with 32 megabytes of RAM and 300mb of available hard-drive space. Don't expect much at that level, however. Nice effects such as moving clouds with ground shadows require a much faster CPU and a graphics accelerator card.

'Might and Magic VII: For Blood and Honor'

The problem with sequels is that they rarely match the originality or the spark of the original. In video games that problem is often masked by fancy new graphics or play modes. The exception: Role-playing adventure games that take a strong core interface and thread it through a strong ongoing story.

The seventh installment in the "Might and Magic" series, "For Blood and Honor," succeeds because it launches players on a new adventure in the land of Erathia but retains the best features of past versions.

Players assemble a party and set off in search of treasure and fame. But as with all good adventure games, the stated mission at the beginning of "For Blood and Honor" is not the story players ultimately follow.

The game interface is as solid as it was in "Might and Magic VI," with character portraits displayed along the bottom, a map tucked in the top right corner and information and spells aligned along the right. The rest of the screen is consumed by a nice first-person play view that moves in real time.

Players who like the "Might and Magic" franchise won't be disappointed with this incarnation. And newcomers should be able to fall into the action after reading the 60-page manual for a description of the game's magic and interaction systems.

"Might and Magic VII" requires a Pentium 133 with at least 32mb of RAM and 375mb of hard-drive space.

'Street Fighter Alpha 3'

Players frightened by radical change should feel comfortable with "Street Fighter Alpha 3" for Sony PlayStation--a game that is everything its successors were, and very little more.

As long as side-view fighters remain popular, Capcom will continue to churn out "Street Fighter" after "Street Fighter." Don't get me wrong: This is a perfectly good fighter. The action screams. and players can choose from scads of characters with distinct fighting styles.

But the game's technical graces cannot overcome the feeling that "Street Fighter Alpha 3" is anything but more of the same old thing.

*

To comment on a column or to suggest games for review, send e-mail to aaron.curtiss@latimes.com.

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Essentials

Midtown Madness

* Platform: PC

* Publisher: Microsoft

* ESRB* rating: Everyone

* Price: $39.95

* Bottom line: "Carmageddon" without the blood

*

Might and Magic VII

* Platform: PC

* Publisher: New World Computing

* ESRB* rating: Teen

* Price: $39.95

* Bottom line: Familiar adventure

*

Street Fighter Alpha 3

* Platform: Sony PlayStation

* Publisher: Capcom

* ESRB* rating: Teen

* Price: $39.95

* Bottom line: The same, and not much more

*Entertainment Software Ratings Board

Next Week: "Ape Escape," "Descent 3" and "Superman"

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