Midnight Club 3

While the world marvels at the tightly-honed realism of the latest Gran Turismo instalment, Rockstar is about to hit back with another one of those fast and crazy arcade racers that throw away the restrictions of real life physical laws and just concentrate on fun. Eye-bleeding, face-lifting fun.

Featuring 65 licensed cars, 10 different motorcycles spanning standard bikes and choppers, and officially licensed parts and car designs, Midnight Club 3 is a game of two halves.

On one hand you have blisteringly fast racing, right from the off (even the crappy motors you're forced to endure before you have the cash for something decent move at a satisfying speed).

On the other hand you have literally hours - possibly days - to lose designing and modifying your perfect car. Or if not perfect then definitely ironic.

When affluent enough, you'll be able to whimsically change an extensive array of features on your car.

To start with, you can change the wheel rims and their size; the tyres and their size; the height of your car; the colour of your car; the colour of the exhaust nitro boost; the front body shape; the rear body shape; the underside neons; the side of your car; your car's pattern; and number plate.

Not forgetting the window stickers (rear window and front); car body stickers; window tint; the suspension; hydraulics; air bags; the bonnet; and all of the boring stuff that goes on under the bonnet that affects performance. And that's not all of it.

If you're not really interested in cars outside the safe tax and insurance-free videogame realm, and are starting to become a little afraid at the thought of having to understand how to customise your car, don't.

Any autophobe who's ever appreciated the hilarious results achieved on MTV's premier budget burner Pimp My Ride will find the customisation within Midnight Club 3 almost as entertaining.

There really is a Pimp My Ride level of optimisation on offer here. You can take any conservative road car, one that your mum wouldn't look out of place driving to Sainsbury's, and change it into the sleekest, or most hilariously ironic, beast of a car.

It's really quite easy and is genuinely fun and absorbing to do. Even if you don't harbour a real-life urge to do the same to a real-life car.

Spending a decent amount of time creating a 'phat ride' you can be proud of is also a high priority for those planning to venture online. There you can store 32 cars, all of which can be pitted against other similarly motivated ride-pimping enthusiasts.

The level of depth in the detail, coupled with the sheer number of options available to you, means it's unlikely anyone you meet online will have a car that looks the same as yours.

You can even add those tacky personalised stickers, championed by Capri-owning couples of the late '70s/early '80s, to the top of your car's windscreen. The potential is tremendous and deserves, nay demands, to be explored.

So, with the ability to customise and write on your car, your online presence will truly be known. People you meet will remember your car and will be able to pick you out in any race. Your car is your identity.

The way the actual racing works is pretty much like before. In single-player career mode you drive merrily around the open city environment, looking for people to race (who are conveniently marked on your map as blue triangles). When you manage to find someone, you follow them to the starting grid where you then proceed to race for cash (and sometimes cars too).

Unlike in Midnight Club 2, where you could only progress through the game by winning races, here you get cash for finishing anywhere in the top three. This conveniently allows you to save cash for decent mods and build up to better cars, even when you're not coming first.

On the subject of progression, you're not forced to spend overly lengthy periods of time restricted to the same city either.

Three large urban mazes are available - Atlanta, Detroit and San Diego and, as you begin to play through the initial city, it doesn't take long for races elsewhere to open up. This is a good thing as it allows the game to stay varied, keeping things interesting and nullifying any feeling of restriction.

To help your progression through races, cars are blessed with odd magical abilities in addition to a potentially hilarious appearance. All cars feature nitro boosts as before, however they now have an extra ability based on the vehicle type.

Muscle cars, for instance, have Roar. When activated, this ability parts whatever traffic happens to be immediately in front of you in a Moses vs the Red Sea style.

Zone is another favourite usually proffered by bikes, although some cars have it also. Zone requires the player to avoid vehicles and when activated slows everything down in a bullet time manner, allowing you more precision on tight, busy corners.

Another ability we enjoyed was Agro. Mostly used by big trucks, this feature is built up by actually clipping scenery and smashing cars - basically driving like a complete arse - and allows you to actually throw cars and other vehicles out of your way while racing.

If all of this sounds quite mental that's because it is. The game is fast, as open as you'd expect from a Midnight Club game and requires the utmost concentration.

From the time you start a race to the moment you finish it, the game doesn't let you breathe for a moment. The action doesn't seem as tight as Burnout 3 but, from what we played, it's much wilder.

Cars and bikes handle better, corners are easier to identify and basically everything's designed to allow you to concentrate on actually racing the game, instead of having to battle against it.

Another aspect to note is the checkpoints. You are no longer required to drive through them: as long as you're near enough, and taking the correct road, it counts.

As a single-player game this already rocks, even though the code we played wasn't finished. And we can't wait to get online.

For those of you still unsure, remember: you don't have to be the sort of person who likes to spend an evening parked-up in a Sainsbury's car park, along with your similarly foolish Nova-owning mates, to like this.

Xbox movies:

  • PS2 movies:

  • Midnight Club 3 will be released for PS2 and Xbox on 15 April. A PSP version will follow later in the year