Racing fans no doubt appreciate NASCAR Thunder's ability to replicate the dynamics of ''drafting'' a stock car going 180 mph, or how realistically the IndyCar Series re-creates every bump and dip of the Nashville Superspeedway. But I'll be honest, these drive-straight-and-turn-left titles give me the adrenaline rush of a traffic jam. With all due respect to race-car champs, my idea of drive time is Bullitt-ing a Mustang GT through the hilly streets of San Francisco, or gunning a Pontiac through the concrete canyons of New York City. Herewith are three games for armchair drivers who feel the need for speed when watching any TV commercial with the advisory ''Professional driver on a closed course. Do not attempt.''
Even the most inexperienced driver knows the most basic rule of the road: Avoid oncoming traffic. But it might be hard to resist the thrill of barreling down the wrong side of the freeway after a few minutes with Burnout 2: Point of Impact, in which players gain power-ups not by hitting but by narrowly missing other vehicles. Of course, given this daredevil proposition, collisions are bound to occur -- and when they do, the game cuts to crash sequences so flinchingly realistic that you'll be nervously looking for an airbag. (There's even a separate Crash mode, the goal of which is to cause the biggest pileup possible. Cool.) There's no story line, but Burnout 2 is one of those games that's actually better for the lack of it.
Midnight Club II, an illegal-street-racer title whose crazy speeds leave 2 Fast 2 Furious as a speck in its rearview mirror, has more underground appeal. Here, you troll the streets of Paris, Tokyo, and Los Angeles seeking opponents on the underground street-race circuit. Whether playing against the clock or attempting to beat the other drivers in checkpoint contests, memorizing the maps and finding the many shortcuts is crucial. Even after three practice rounds, a near-flawless run is required to place first. The cities are based in reality, and most runs take place in the dead of night, which gives the twinkling lights of the Eiffel Tower a 160-mph je ne sais quoi.
Midtown Madness 3 is best described as a dumbed-down Midnight Club with a bad soundtrack. Although there are five game modes, most of Madness is spent chauffeuring a famous race-car driver in Paris (what is it about French roads?) or a pair of filmmakers on the streets of Washington, D.C. (Hey, we don't write this stuff -- we just review it.) All the action boils down to a series of checkpoints where players pick up and drop off passengers, newspapers, money -- and yes, it all looks the same after a few races. Madness' online contests via the Xbox Live have potential, but I can't see how even adding a padded bucket seat could compensate for the generally sluggish controls. As urban street racers go, Midtown Madness should have its license revoked. Burnout 2: A Midnight Club II: B+ Midtown Madness 3: D