During our recent visit to Codemasters' invitation-only booth at ECTS we were able to test-drive the PlayStation 2 and Xbox versions of Colin McRae Rally 04. The versions of the game on display were close to complete and, based on the time we spent with them, represent a significant improvement on Colin McRae Rally 3.
One of the major improvements in the game this year is that rather than being forced to drive as McRae, you're now able to choose one of a handful of rally cars right from the start. All the cars available initially are in the 4WD class, but as you progress through the game, you'll also unlock vehicles in the 2WD, Group B, and bonus categories. With our selection made, we got under way on one of the game's Greece stages and immediately noticed that the handling of the cars is a lot more realistic than in previous Colin McRae games. One of the effects of the cars no longer only rotating on a single point when you corner is that when you attempt to take a tight corner at speed, you invariably find yourself turning the steering wheel hard in the opposite direction that you're traveling. Applying opposite lock on fast corners isn't only realistic, but is also incredibly satisfying when you get it right--as are most things now that the game has essentially been made more difficult to handle.
The racing in Colin McRae Rally 04, as in real life, is still based entirely on timed stages rather than any kind of head-to-head competition, and even in the game's split-screen multiplayer mode it's actually impossible to collide with other cars, as they appear in ghost form. Ghost cars are also used to good effect in the single-player game, replaying the fastest player-recorded time on any given stage so you always have a good idea of whether or not you're on track to set a new personal best.
When things aren't going according to plan, and you crash the car, Colin McRae Rally 04 really comes into its own with some of the most detailed damage models we've seen in a racing game to date. Panels deform, bumpers trail behind the car, windows smash, and if you drive badly enough you might even find yourself racing minus a wheel or two. It seems a little tough that your car can only be repaired after every two races when you're competing in a full rally championship, but it's true to life, and if the worst happens you really just have to bite the bullet and retire from the competition.
The gameplay in the PS2 and Xbox versions of Colin McRae Rally 04 was impossible to tell apart, and although the scenery in the Xbox version of the game was a little more detailed, the graphics in the PS2 version of the game were doing a great job of keeping up with those on the Xbox. Colin McRae Rally 04 is currently scheduled for release later this year. For more information, check out our previous coverage of the game.