Colin McRae Rally 2.0
There isn't a car driver on the planet who hasn't driven across snow, wet grass, down a dusty track or up their mate's gravel driveway and wondered what it'd be like to leap on the throttle, saw at the wheel and give the car a damn good lashing.
And it's this innate rallying instinct that games developers have been exploiting for several years, with countless different titles for every format from home consoles to cabinets in seafront arcades. After the huge success of Colin McRae Rally on the PC and PlayStation, Codemasters have upped the budget for the sequel and promise to retain all the elements that made the first game a best-seller. With over 1.5 million units shipped in Europe and Japan, plus a number one chart slot in 26 countries, the McRae name has been one of the most lucrative motorsport franchises yet and they're keen to preserve its status.
The 30-strong team of developers at Codemasters HQ have breathed on the original game's graphics engine, and the preliminary screenshots you see here are testimony to that fact. Visually, the new game is rather arresting. There are now considerably more polygons hopping round the screen at any given moment, allowing the cars and countryside to be rendered with as few jagged lines as possible, as well as a new reflection mapping technique that gives objects a glossy sheen. Although mirror-like bodywork is somewhat incongruous in a rally game, the cars should become dirtier and dirtier as the stages progress.
There's also the promise of a quantum leap in frame rate and perceived velocity - partly due to a rewrite of the graphics code, partly due to the omnipresence of fast processors and 3D accelerator cards -to give an altogether more exciting ride. Considering that inappropriate speed forms the backbone of the entire motorsport, this can only be a good thing. Anyone who's ever watched a backseat view as Messrs McRae, Makinnen and Sainz hurtle through one of the cliff-edge stages will know just how exhilarating rallying can be.
As well as looking a lot faster and more realistic, the backdrops and scenery have been assembled from photographic masters taken all around the globe. So, when you're sliding through the drizzling rain of Kielder Forest in Cumbria or scooting along the parched roads of Cordoba, what you see is actually there. That said, Codemasters are keen to point out that, although we're all distracted by buffed and glossy paintwork, they've been doing most of the work under the bonnet: tweaking this, tuning that, and bashing all the other stuff with a wrench. There's a wealth of new features and content, together with a revised race structure. In terms of gameplay, new dynamics and driving styles are currently on the factory floor - but Codemasters aren't giving away any details, the rotters.
What is definite is that the upcoming title will spotlight the Ford team, now that Colin has left Subaru. Gone is the barking mad impreza and in comes the Focus hatchback that your mum uses for her weekly run to Salisbury's. Although not quite as extravagant as the Japanese rocket, it's actually every bit as rapid - and so every bit as competitive. If TOCA 2 is anything to go by, Codemasters are fully capable of producing strong sequels. This can only mean that Colin McRae 2 looks like setting the PC rally game standard all over again.
Download Colin McRae Rally 2.0
There have been many contenders to the rallying crown since Colin McRae was released a couple of years ago, but none of them have come close, either in terms of feel or sales. It's no surprise then that the red carpet has already been hoovered, foam-cleaned and laid out in expectation of Codemasters' sequel. The new engine makes sure that the graphics have been given a complete makeover and, in combination with a new and more realistic physics engine, you can watch your car fall to pieces better than ever before. Bumpers will rattle along the ground after you bash into a particularly ill-placed tree and windows will show more cracks than the Queen Mother's face. There are new angles to watch the finished races through and enough other bells and whistles to make it a worthy addition to your four-wheeled collection. Remember, Colin doesn't tolerate driving virgins and, unless you play it on softy arcade mode, you'll need to put in plenty of practice before you finish a race intact. If you think you've got what it takes (a steering wheel and loads of patience), then mark down December 1 on your calendar.
Almost universally regarded as the benchmark rallying game since its release, the original Colin McRae Rally ms born into a world largely devoid of such quality offroad thrills. The goalposts have moved somewhat since then though, and this respectably timed upgrade is flanked by a number of decent rival titles. The situation hasn't yet got as out of hand as that afflicting the Formula One genre, but the budding rally game purchaser is still faced with a mildly bewildering choice. Does he go for the extremely authentic Rally Championship? Should he plump for the eager-to-please Rally Masters? Or will the arcade-oriented V-Rally 2 suffice?
The answer to all of the above is now a great big 'No' (bottomless pockets and a sick rally obsession notwithstanding). Colin McRae is back, and has majestically retained the crown. That's McRae, the game, obviously, as the actual driver has long since sullied his title hopes, his prospects not helped when he inadvertently careered off the road in Corsica. It took over an hour to extricate McRae and codriver Nicky Grist from the twisted wreckage of their $350,000 Ford Focus, and McRae underwent a three-hour operation to repair a shattered cheekbone. The taciturn Scot now has a metal plate screwed under his left eye like some kind of bionic man. A terrible business clearly, but it makes you wonder what Codemasters would have done had McRae actually been killed. Withdrawn the game as a mark of respect? Or maybe rushed it out in a commemorative coffin-shaped box?
We'll probably never know. What we do know is that the game is here, and it's a belter. You might not be able to launch the car down a precipice and cause reparable damage to your face, but you can do pretty much everything else.
In addition to the hardcore 'proper' rally stages, an all-new arcade mode allows you to take on up to five other opponents in a simplistic championship.
Simplistic it might be, but simple it isn't, and several hours of frantic driving are required to open up further stages. This is merely an hors d'oeuvre though. The real action is to be had in the rally championship, ploughing a lone furrow through the backwaters of Finland, Sweden, Italy, France, Australia, Kenya, Greece and the United Kingdom, each throwing up unique environmental hazards. It's a daunting prospect, but one that is never less than compulsive. Much like the original, Colin McRae Rally 2.0 manages to be instantly accessible without ever making any concessions. The Novice level shouldn't provide too many problems, but the step up to Intermediate is marked, and it soon becomes apparent that you're in for the long haul. As for Expert, only professional rally drivers need apply.
Obvious as it seems, it's the handling of the cars that provides the key to the game's success. It's exquisitely modelled, with every nuance of the road surface translated through the wheels and into your fingers. The varying settings make a huge difference, and specific techniques are required to master tarmac, mud, gravel and even snow, each of which can be further affected by adverse weather conditions.
There is simply no getting around the fact that you have to drive properly. Attempting to plough through sections by bouncing off the sides at full speed just won't wash. Split-second braking allied to adroit manoeuvring is required, and your co-driver (again voiced by McRae stalwart Nicky Grist) becomes an essential part of the game. To succeed, the car has to be pushed to the absolute limit and you can sense when you're putting in a good time, not least when you forget to breathe.
Should you plough off the road (and you will), the penance takes the form of more than a few lost seconds. A detailed damage model sees the car deteriorate convincingly, with shattered windows, buckled bonnets, cracked spoilers and trailing bumpers all adversely affecting handling. Not to mention the impairment of gearbox, steering, and brakes, to name but a few. Restricted repairs can be made between every other stage, and this presents a dilemma. Going hell for leather in the first stage could result in barely being able to crawl around the second.
The key is to find the perfect balance between risk and caution. This can only be achieved by being absolutely on the money all the time. Concentration is paramount, and taking your eye off the ball for a second can be fatal. To the untrained mind, this might not sound like a lot of fun, but the perverse pleasure is in constantly pushing yourself to the limit so that you can make things even harder for yourself. That's essentially the crux of gaming, of which Colin McRae 2.0 is a finely honed example.
Waaaaaid-a-minute though. Wasn't this out on PlayStation last June? True, and if you want to recreate that experience, you can turn the detail right down and smear the monitor with Vaseline. The PC really does the graphics justice, enabling you to read the cars' number plates and see more than 6ft into the distance. Excellent use of light and shadow has been made, and with the morning sun glinting through a Finnish forest at dawn, hell, it's almost romantic.
That's enough of that kind of talk though. More importantly, it's a superb driving experience that will last you months, if not years. While the real Colin McRae flounders (he finished The Rally of Great Britain upside-down), the game that carries his name goes from strength to strength, providing a rare example of a franchise that is arguably more well known than its endorsee. Whereas the dour Scotsman could walk in here largely unnoticed, there's simply no ignoring this game.
Having swapped his Subaru for a Ford Focus, the year 2000 will herald the return of the Me, the dour Scotsman again lending his name to this highly anticipated sequel. Widely considered a benchmark for rally games on the PC, the original Colin McRae Rally is still a supremely playable affair, with only the occasionally lacklustre graphics giving away its age. Naturally, this will be addressed in McRae 2, as Codemasters are promising a refined graphics engine which allows for greater depth of detail and speed of movement, with cars looking far more realistic due to a significantly higher polygon count. They've also been given a paint job in the shape of a new reflection-mapping technique, which gives the cars a sleeker effect. The scenery will also benefit from the new engine and uses photographic references from each of the countries featured. It looks great, and frankly, it's hard to see how they can go wrong.