Only about a year-and-a-half after Gran Turismo came out and proved that recreating the realistic driving experience could not only bring unprecedented success to the genre, but also be a whole lot of fun, a little known publisher by the name of Codemasters introduced one of the first realistic simulations of rally-style racing, dubbed Colin McRae Rally. It was heralded for its true-to-life gameplay and control, and now just two years later, the series has made it's first mark into the next-gen, coming into it's third iteration with Colin McRae Rally 3.
Like previous entries in the series, the goal of the game is simply to create the most realistic and intense rally racing simulation available. In living up to the high standard previously set by itself, it succeeds wholeheartedly. CMR3 immerses you like very few games in the genre can claim to. It absolutely demands your complete and total focus for every race, pursuing the very best you can achieve each time, and requiring the utmost concentration to tackle every forthcoming turn or corner. You are Colin McRae - simulation of the very mindset.
The game's primary mode (Championship) takes that note and runs with it. Playing as McRae (and assisted by his co-driver Nicky Grist), you take his signature Ford Focus throughout over one hundred real-world courses in eighteen countries, to win the World Rally Championship. Unless you're a rally buff, it'll take a while to get used to how the game is set up and how the progression takes place. This isn't your typical racer in which dozens of courses are strewn about for you to pick and choose where you want to go. It in fact plays like a series of events, which leads you from one race to the next.
For each country, there are two days of competition. On the first day, you start with a shakedown segment, where you prepare for the courses to come. During the segment, you can view the breakdown of the next three tracks (which details terrain and weather conditions, as well as a preview of the track layout), and armchair mechanics can take part in dozens of specific tuning options for the Ford Focus (such as suspension, gearbox ratio, break pads, transmission, etc.) in anticipation for the next course. To further perfect your setup, you're provided with a telemetry tool. The tool is used to provide detailed information about your car's performance after you've completed a test run. The data is then used to compare setups, determining how each of your hand tunings affects performance. However, if you're one who can't tell the difference between the gas and the brake, you're shouldn't be scared away too easily, as the game automatically fits your car to each course fairly accurately.
After the shakedown portion of the day, you're off to the races, and are faced with three consecutive courses. Finishing the tracks brings you to the second day, and another shakedown (which gives you the same options, as well as fixes any damage you had received in the previous three races), followed by yet three more tracks. After finishing in those tracks, you face off in the last course of the particular country: a one-on-one race (in which you compete against the highest-ranked competing racer in an interlaced two-track arena). After finishing each country, you're then scored according to how you placed in each race, and the score is recorded in a leader board which compares each racer's score for each country. After completing each country in the season, you're ranked by total score, and then move on to the next season.
With the rules out of the way, let's get into what makes Colin McRae what it is: the gameplay. To put it simply, this title controls like a dream. The precision in which you glide and slide your car around each corner is flawless, and after just a few races the physics will quickly fit like a glove, becoming almost second nature. The cooperation between gassing and breaking, letting go of the break and drifting, all combine in perfect harmony and concert as you manipulate each without hesitation. An invigorating feeling if ever a videogame could give it, this is.
Each terrain type also poses a very, very different experience. As the natural progression of the game throws you into each new environment (after finishing each country), you'll slowly learn how to take a turn with a variety of different environmental factors, such a rain, sleet, or snow, tarmac or dirt, mud or sand, each with a highly diverse feel. Not only does it make for more challenging gameplay, but the differences in terrain really go a long way in taking away the usual prolonged monotony found in most racers.
Colin 3 also features an assortment of single- and multiplayer modes, accommodating up to four players. Stages Mode allows you to choose any stage you had previously raced on during Championship mode, pick any car you've unlocked (also via Championship mode) and any weather condition you'd like, and then have at it. You're also able to choose between split-screen play and alternating play, so if you're like me and don't like playing a quarter of the screen, you have an in-game version of "Pass the Controller" at your fingertips.
Now in its first next-gen installment, aside from playing better than ever, the series looks better than ever as well. The most obvious upgrade lies in the car models, which are now extremely high poly, and feature all of the next-gen enhancements - real time reflections, dynamic shadows, realistic exhaust, and head and tail lights. The cars even change to reflect the terrain over the course of a race, from picking up dust and dirt to a fresh coat of snow and mud. The environments generally look great as well, thanks to the very high-resolution picture that makes the low-res textures look much better to the naked eye. Complementing the high-res, is the game's excellent framerate, which stays constantly high throughout.
There are some (slight) downfalls, however. First, though they are now a staple in the genre, are the 2D, almost cardboard-like, inanimate crowd standees. If you've ever played a racing game, you know what I'm talking about - those little guys on the sidelines that look as if you scanned a photo of someone into the game, and turned it into a 10-pixel-by-10-pixel texture. While you're obviously not going to be looking at them very long during a race, these things really need to go; they just make a whole picture look out of place. Also worth mentioning are the trees, which are similarly ripped right out of the racing genre cliché book. You know the kind - a bunch of ugly 2D textures thrown around in a circle to "simulate" how a tree looks. Yucky.
On the sound side, CMR3 again excels, however. The effects are all very realistic, and sound just like you would imagine. All of the environments feature their own sets of sound effects as well, so sloshing down a wet street sounds totally different than sliding down a dusty turn. The soundtrack can't really be commented on too much, because well, there isn't one. Aside from some cool techno-ish intro and menu tunes, there really is no score to speak of in-game. Not that it's a bad thing though. Certainly not. It's actually done deliberately, adding to the intensity of each race.
Deserving of its own paragraph, and the other reason for no soundtrack, is Nicky Grist, Colin McRae's real-life co-driver, and your co-driver in the game. Not only is he extremely helpful, calling out pace notes on the fly (which range from the difficulty of the next turn to the gear you should be in to whether there are obstacles in the way, among plenty of other information), he also does his job very accurately - overcoming a common gripe among the genre. After coming to grips with Nicky's lovely accent, you'll likely be relying on his calls just as much as your own instincts.
All in all, Colin 3 is without a doubt a worthy successor to an already excellent series. There is no equal in terms of realistic rally racing. The control is perfect, the physics are perfect. The game is utterly addictive, and incredibly fun, and despite not packing the sheer technical merit of some other racers, the underlying gameplay tears most competitors to shreds, spits them out, and kicks them while they're down.
· · · Andy