Xbox Live has played host to a number of good-quality games since its launch and Midtown Madness 3 is one of Microsoft's big games this summer. The series has a big following from its days on the PC and is now in the hands of Dice, the developers of the excellent Rallisport Challenge for Xbox and PC. With a lot of expectation on their shoulders, have they delivered the definitive Xbox Live experience or is it another Microsoft Game Studios disaster?

In appearance there are a lot of similarities to both Grand Theft Auto and Midnight Club 2, but Midtown Madness 3 is a very different game. Unlike GTA, the game is entirely vehicular-based, and it isn't focused on high-powered performance cars like Midnight Club 2. The game is more akin to Crazy Taxi, but with a much broader range of game modes and missions. Set over two fully-modelled cities, Paris and Washington D.C., the game has a lot to offer.

The main single-player game puts you in the role of an undercover cop working in Paris or Washington D.C. Each city has seven jobs, with the Paris jobs revolving around a famous race car driver and the Washington D.C. jobs centering on the film-maker brothers, Stephano and Michael Tortellini. These jobs range from Crazy Taxi-style deliveries to mad jump challenges, and each job is made up of a number of missions. To progress to the next job, three of the missions must be completed. A lot of the missions are great fun and completing them will unlock new vehicles, but alone they don't make the game a worthwhile purchase.

The key to unlocking new vehicles is to play the Blitz and Checkpoint races. Blitz mode puts you up against the clock as you try to get through all the checkpoints within a set time. Checkpoint races put you up against competitors, with the winner being the first person to hit all the checkpoints (in any order). Progressing through these modes will unlock vehicles, with the best one requiring you to complete all that the single-player game has to offer. Also, littered throughout each city are custom paint jobs for your cars. You can pick these up in any single-player mode, but cruise mode lets you explore the cities without any time or mode constraints.

While the single-player missions are fun for a while, the online play is what the game is all about. Supporting eight players in all the online modes, this is the most fun Xbox Live game currently available, and one that everyone should be able to enjoy. On top of the Checkpoint and Cruise modes - already available in the single-player modes - there are four multiplayer games. "Capture the Gold" is a team game, very much like Capture the Flag. Gold is placed somewhere in the city and you have to pick it up and return it to your team depot. On the way, the other team can steal it from you, and the team with the most cash when the time runs out wins. "Tag" is just like you expect it to be. Someone is made "it" and they have to tag someone else to make them "it". The person that is "it" when the timer runs out is out of the game and a new round is started. The final person to remain is the winner. "Hunter" is an extended version of "Tag". At the start of the game one player is a cop car who has to hunt down the other players. If the cop car tags another player, they too become a cop car who joins the existing cop. The last player who isn't caught wins. The final mode is "Stayaway". Unlike "Tag", the goal of this game is to be "it" for the most time before the time runs out. This puts the other players after the player that is "it" and creates some crazy chase action. While all these modes are fun, "Capture the Gold" takes some time to get the hang of, and all the games are only as much fun as the people you play with. This is the same for all online games, but once you get in with a good group of players you can play for hours at a time. Each of these modes can be played in the whole city or in enclosed sections. The multiplayer-only modes really benefit from an enclosed area, as the cities are far too big to make an eight-player mode fun, and this is a sensible addition by the developers.

All the multiplayer games can be played over system link and four-player split-screen play, but online play over Xbox Live combines the convenience of split-screen with the fun of system link, making it the best way to play multiplayer. As with most Xbox Live games, people host their own games so it is important to stick to games that have good speed ratings. This will limit lag and make the games much more fun to play. The game also has downloadable content support, but what this will be is unknown at this point. New cars, new game modes? Whatever it turns out to be, downloadable content is always a good thing.

Visually, the game is a very mixed bag. The cities are massive and have been modelled brilliantly, but the draw distance could have been better: you can see buildings gradually appearing in the distance out of the hazy fog. The car models are very good and look great in some afternoon light. Unfortunately the cars shadow isn't always present, giving the car the appearance of floating rather than driving along the road. The host of the game can alter weather conditions and the time of day, but it is best to play in good weather. Poor weather conditions not only make driving hard, they also make the whole game look flat and very dull. If you stick to playing in bright sunshine, everything looks much nicer and the cars handle better, making the game a lot more fun to play. The framerate is steady both in online and offline play, only dropping significantly when the screen is filled with other players. When compared to the best on the Xbox the game falls a little short, but there isn't an open-ended city racer available that looks better.

The game handles collisions very well. The physics engine emphasises arcade fun over realism and it works brilliantly. Hit a curb at high speed and you may go on two wheels as you round a corner. Flick the back end of a car while travelling at high speeds and you'll send it spinning, but you'll stay in control. Hit a lamppost and see it fly, rather than have your car written off. Some people may whinge about this lack of realism but it keeps the game moving fast which is what you want while playing. Both the city and vehicles have a good damage model, with bumpers and bonnets falling off cars and shop windows smashing after a car rams into the shop front. This damage is again more cosmetic than truly damaging so not to hamper the game play, but if you damage your car enough it will break down - this, however, takes a lot of doing.

City sounds are great, particularly if you have the hardware to support Dolby Digital. Sirens and engine sounds can be heard from all around and make the game feel alive. In Hunter mode when you are playing as a police car remember to turn the siren off, or you give your position away far too easily. Custom soundtrack support is present, as in nearly all Microsoft Game Studio titles, but it hasn't be implemented that well. The interface for adding songs is a bit simplistic and there seems to be a bug that repeats the same song over and over instead of moving on to another track. This does get quite annoying, as there is no way to move to another track from within the game. The game's voice acting is slightly tongue-in-cheek to keep in tone with the game, but it is a little over the top and comes over as a bit juvenile.

Make no mistake. The single player game is fun, but doesn't warrant a purchase. However, the same game on Xbox Live is the most entertaining game available for the service and will eat away your time for months to come. If you don't have Xbox Live, go and get it to make the most of what is one of the online games of the year.