Colin McRae Rally 04
Once upon a time there was a boy called Colin who liked cars. He liked them so much that when he grew up he drove them at high speed under strict competition conditions. Perhaps driven by rage at his unfortunate choice of name, he drove so fast that he was crowned Champion of the World. It didn't seem to make him happy though, as he permanently sported the countenance of a bulldog licking piss off a thistle. One day, a man from Codemasters gave him some money in return for using his name on a game. He might not have been entirely sure what that entailed, but Colin accepted it gratefully nevertheless. Some witnesses even report a semblance of a smile.
Five years on, Colin is still taking the money - rumoured to be up to a pound a copy - and the McRae Rally series has exceeded all expectations, consistently leaving its opponents in a cloud of and other cliches. And for what? A game that simulates driving round rural backwaters in a series of vulgarly decorated overpowered cars. Where's the fun in that?
The fun, of course, is in the ferocious challenge that it presents, clinging to variety of road surfaces in a frenzied attempt to shave crucial seconds off your time. Weaving through the backmarkers in a Grand Prix game or nudging opponents off the road in Generic Racer 2' may have its place, but in the hardcore world of professional rally driving, it's all about man, machine and glorious isolation.
Grist To The Mill
Except, of course, for the bloke barking in your ear every five seconds. McRae's name may adorn the box, but in practical terms it's all about the faceless drone sat next to you, the man with the map. For years, I that securely upholstered seat was occupied by Nicky Grist, iwhose nasal whine has infiltrated the minds of a generation of gamers. Spread the word, the Welshman is no more. Kicked to the kerb by McRae, in comes the splendidly-named Derek Ringer, his clipped Caledonian intonation providing a refreshing change after years of Grist.
Ringer was actually McRae's original co-driver back in the day. The pair are now reunited and it feels so good that the old in-game magic has been rekindled. And it's worth listening to what Ringer says, as failure to follow the pace notes will rapidly see you wrapped round a tree like so much yellow ribbon. To him his dues, the boy certainly knows his stuff, unerringly warning of such forthcoming hazards as trees, rocks and discarded Monster Munch packets.
Ringer's commitment must be reciprocated though, and abject concentration is required on the driver's part. Lapse into a fantasy world of your own imagination, and Ringer's voice becomes distant and undecipherable, much the same experience as watching a programme about home improvement. Mental strength is required, and while I managed to focus my thoughts on fashioning abstract observations for this review (and wondering what's for tea), fear for those of weaker mind.
What's The Point?
Even for the sound of thinking, there are times when you become acutely aware of the futility of the activity - driving a pretend car round a pretend track for hours on end - and it does briefly cross your mind that it might be a bit dull. When this happens, the best remedy is to bang the camera into cockpit view, at which point your stomach lurches like you're strapped into Alton Towers' finest. Every bump in the road becomes a perilous obstacle, and if you haven't much gaming experience, you could find yourself committing the cardinal sin of lurching around in your seat. As for the bumper-cam view, it may be favoured by the purists, but there's the nagging thought that if you're going to choose a nice-looking car, you might as well be able to see it.
And there are plenty of shiny cars to drool over. McRae 3 was rightly criticised due to the fact that to compete in a championship, you had to drive the Ford Focus, Colin's employer at the time. Now freed from his contract (or indeed any contract), there's an open field to choose from, with championships up for grabs in both the four-wheel and two-wheel drive categories. In the traditional fashion, success unlocks further vehicles, and there's enough vehicular titillation to whip the average Fast Car reader into an automotive frenzy.
As well as an array of contemporary rally cars, there are also a slew of classic '80s motors to unveil, many of which were withdrawn from active service due to the inordinate number of fatalities. It's a grim statistic, but they're fully drivable here, with the added bonus of being unlikely to cause decapitation. A few comedy' vehicles have also been thrown into the mix, such as perennial vegan-mobile the Citroen 2CV, and the favoured mode of transport for wolf-whistling Sun readers, the white Transit van (facts courtesy of Pigeonholes-R-Us). Neither is particularly suitable for off-road action, but they do provide a brief respite from the extremely dry nature of the game. However, you don't buy a Colin McRae game for laughs - just look at his face - and fans will be pleased to learn that it's still a deadly serious business.
What's Another Year?
As for new stuff, the game is somewhat limited by the genre, as the developers don't really have the option to strap some rocket launcher to the bonnet. There is an online element, but obviously at the time of writing it wasn't up and running. (We'll be taking a look as soon as the game goes on sale.) Otherwise, it's a case of evolution not revolution, and with Rally 3 released less than a year ago, many of the subtleties will be lost to the untrained eye. Much of the tweaking has gone into the handling, with the car now reacting to the road surface more realistically, rather than behaving as an amorphous blob. Of course, the handling is what has always elevated the series above the mire, and it's as exquisite as ever here, with the numerous road surfaces reacting accordingly with your choice of tyre and set-up.
As for under the bonnet shenanigans, it's kept to a minimum - even the most mechanically inept buffoon should be able to get by. Each championship rally is preceded by a Shakedown, whereby you get to hammer the car round a section of track in order to see if the handling is to your liking.
You can then tamper with various aspects of the car's set up, but it's a slippery slope to clamber on to. Once you start tweaking, there's always a sense of nameless dread that you've set something up wrong, or that a slightly different alignment would make a difference. It's almost too much to bear, and the safest option is probably to stick with the default settings.
The Damage Done
As the rules of rallying stipulate, repairs can be carried out on your car after every other stage, so it's a good idea not to utterly destroy it from the off as you'll find yourself limping round in disgrace later on. That said, it's worth giving it at least one good thrashing simply to see the damage model in full glorious effect. Shattered glass, crumpled bodywork and wobbly wheels are all in full effect, with black smoke billowing from the crippled engine. And our favourite bit? The moment when the bonnet dislodges itself from its moorings and simply flies over your head -that makes us feel giddy.
Of course much of this will be familiar to owners of the previous incarnation, and with graphical advancements slowly reaching something of a plateau, the layman would struggle to tell the two games apart. In fact Colin McRae 2 still looks passable on a decent machine. The original game might look a bit shabby were we to dig it out, but essentially, the core gameplay experience' remains identical over half a decade on. That's what fans of the series clearly want though, and 04 delivers more of the same in reasonably spectacular style. With a shitload of tracks and cars there's almost unlimited playtime to be had, and it's a game that you could dip into indefinitely.
However, we find that it's a game that you binge on rather than establish a long-term relationship with. The same happened with McRae 3, leading to a week of wide-eyed nausea before being tossed into the cupboard of doom. The cycle was repeated when 04 came out on console, leading to many a late night in front of the telly. And now Colin has returned to stalk the PC, causing many fevered hours of staring into the middle distance while stabbing at the keyboard or turning the wheel.
Ultimately, if you've played any of the previous McRae Rally games, you'll know exactly what you're getting here: intense rally action that pisses all over the rest from an extremely great height. And with Richard Burns Rally currently looking like a PSone game, it looks like McRae has got a lot of piss left in him.
Download Colin McRae Rally 04
- PC compatible
- Operating systems: Windows 10/Windows 8/Windows 7/2000/Vista/WinXP
Picture the scene - a beautiful evergreen forest surrounds you, the tall trees reaching majestically into the sky. A dusty track leads between the trees and you listen with delight to the sounds of the woodland around you. But then the silence is shattered by the sound of a tuned car engine spitting decidedly non-environmentally-safe flames. Yes, this isn't one for nature lovers, but the petrol-head extravaganza that is Colin McRae Rally 04.
He might not be doing too well in the WRC, but the game named after him goes from strength to strength and this, its fourth outing, is the best so far. In this demo, you get to slide around three stages from the USA to Japan and Finland. The Citroen Xsara is the only car you can drive, but it's good enough for Sebastian Loeb. He's won the Swedish rally with the Citroen, putting him and the manufacturer at the forefront of the WRC standings - so no blaming your poor driving skills on the car...
You can take full control over all car settings, with everything from suspension stiffness to gearing being adjustable. Of course, if you can't tell your suspension arm from your elbow, you can opt for the safe option of default settings. The key, as with all rally driving games, is to master the art of sideways driving. Rally 04 copes with it superbly, letting you oversteer all the way to the finishing line.
Like many other activities such as jogging, revising for exams and hand-to-gland combat, it's debatable whether racing games are best enjoyed alone or with others. Some go for the crowded tracks and pristine technology of F1. Others prefer to muck in with the rally drivers, where it's the pure thrill of you against the track and the clock.
And on PC or console, there's been none better at recreating the mud-caked world of rally driving than the Colin McRae Rally series. With its legendary handling and brilliantly visualised real-life courses and cars, Colin McRae has been nigh on untouchable in its field for over five years. If you've sampled the previous bouts of mud wrestling featuring cuddly Colin, no doubt you're keen to know what's new in this fourth incarnation. And the first thing any veteran will notice is that you're no longer restricted to driving in McRae's long-cherished Ford Focus, as his contract with Ford has expired. Now, you can rev up in several cars right from the off.
As you start whipping the various courses and championships, you'll open up more of the 23 officially licensed cars, taking in models in the four-wheel and two-wheel drive categories, as well as some of the now banned Group B 1980s road monsters and a few other bonus models. We can also reveal that the number of different tyre types is up from last year's ten to a total of 19, with 34 different road surfaces to contend with too.
If you're an old hand at Rally, once out on the road you'll start to notice that not only is the handling even more gruellingly realistic and taxing (see boxout overleaf), but things also look more slick and detailed. Arguably, there's no better way to show off a top-end graphics card than with a good racing game. Watching someone cane a Subaru round the hills of West Wales on CM04 with the resolution cranked up supports this more than ever.
Stupendous lighting effects mearr every panel, pane and decal of your gleaming motor reflects - until you reach the finish line, by which time the whole thing will doubtless be plastered in mud. The sun gleams on the black ice, the trees, thick with vegetation, sway gently with the wind. Even if it is difficult to take it in as you gun down a straight at 100mph. On top of this, if you're one of those to whom cars are like a kind of pornography, a special mode lets you ogle the painstakingly modelled vehicles from practically every angle, opening the doors and peering up the exhaust pipe. And while there can be little as excruciating as watching a novice prang his way round a course, unable to resist taking every tree and wall head-on, the superb damage modelling makes such a sight a spectacle rather than a chore.
Windscreens crack then shatter, bumpers, panels, doors and even wheels get knackered and start falling off. Given a sufficient level of ineptitude, what crosses the finish line can bear as much resemblance to the polished showroom model as Jo Brand does to Gwyneth Paltrow. Totally trash your motor in the full championship mode, however, and as in real life, you only get the chance for an overhaul every two races.
Ghost In The Machine
Unsurprisingly, given the nature of rally, there's been no multiplayer modes in previous games to speak of. That's all set to change with CM04 though, as a bunch of online and LAN options now means up to eight players can try and out-rev each other through stages or entire rallies.
"But it's a travesty to have more than one car on the road at a time in a rally game," you cry. Never fear, as opposing drivers will appear as ghost cars, though how our Colin would react to a spectral Petter Solberg overtaking him on a tight bend is anyone's guess.
Otherwise, you can expect to race through the usual assortment of entire championships, rallies and individual stages in the same eight countries as before. In between races in the main mode you'll also be offered special challenges where you have to evaluate new and experimental equipment. Complete the challenge and you earn the part in question - be it an engine or some tyres-which all goes towards improving your vehicle's performance for future races.
There's little doubt that Colin McRae Rally 04 is going to be a quality product. Whether it offers enough to entice owners of CM03 is another question. Stay tuned for a review next issue.
The Superb Handling Has Always Made Colin Mcrae Games Stand Out, And For Rally04 It's Been Tweaked Even More
Flinging those finely tuned racers round hairpins and over hillocks is a seat-of-the pants experience in CM games, and CM04 has done nothing to dilute this gritty handling trademark. Instead, the latest outing manages to ratchet things to even greater levels of evocative realism.
Previously, you could practically feel the tyres grappling with the treacherous surfaces, but now you can take 'practically' and change it to 'actually'. For CM04, the developer has done away with the 'steering aid', which up to now meant the car's handling was determined around a central pivot point. This has now been removed, meaning each tyre's grip on the surface is treated individually, making the whole thing even more like taming a wild beast.
While you might not be able to put your finger on this being the change when playing CM04, if you're a fan of the series, you'll notice immediately that the way the car skids, skews and lurches around is that little bit more gratifying. With a decent steering wheel (preferably with pedals), blasting round CM04's superb-looking courses promises to be a very pleasant drive indeed.
Colin McRae Rally 04 is, without a doubt, the best rally game available on the PC - but it's a lonely business, with just your co-driver for company. But, while the main thrust of the game might be all about shaving seconds off your stage times, there's a multiplayer component as well, and this demo enables you to fire up a game on a LAN or over the Internet, and take on up to eight different players.
You're not actually racing with your opponents - they just appear as ghost cars without m any collision detection - but the thrill of the chase is still there. It's also a good way of comparing yourself to other drivers, to see where you're losing or gaining time over your ghostly opponents.