It's been more than three years since Codemasters first debuted its Colin McRae Rally franchise on the original PlayStation, and in that time, the series has matured from a merely average racer to one of the most definitive names in the rally racing genre. The fourth installment in the series, Colin McRae Rally 04, is already out in Europe for the Xbox, PS2, and PC, and it will be making its US debut solely on the Xbox next month. We've spent some time playing a near-complete build of Rally 04 for the Xbox, and we're quite pleased with what we've seen so far.
The first thing we took note of when playing Colin McRae Rally 04 was how much more realistically the game handled when compared with previous entries in the series. Codemasters has tweaked the handling of the cars quite a bit, and the result feels extremely true to life. You'll notice a legitimate difference between how 2-wheel-drive and 4-wheel-drive cars handle. Taking turns at full speed provides some nice-looking slide-outs, unless, of course, you immediately apply opposite lock to turn out of the slide and make it around the turn. The feel of the tracks has also improved quite a bit, and you'll definitely notice both subtle and extreme differences in the way your car handles depending on whether you're traveling on an iced-over track, light or heavy gravel, or pure asphalt.
Colin McRae Rally 04 features 48 unique tracks located throughout eight countries: the USA, Japan, Greece, Australia, Finland, Spain, Sweden, and the UK. Twenty-one different cars will be available, ranging from the more traditional rally racing fare--such as the Subaru Impreza and Citroen Xsara--to more unique vehicular offerings, like a Ford Transit Rally Van and a Citroen 2CV Sahara. Gameplay options will be nicely varied. You'll have the opportunity to take part in a quick race, a stage race, a single rally, or a full championship season. The championship mode will contain a number of features to make your season more realistic. For instance, repairs during a season can take place only once every two races, and you'll have only an hour in which to repair your car. Each damaged section of your car is broken up into categories, and each category takes a certain amount of time to fix. While this is admittedly rather harsh, you can't argue with the realism. Additionally, you'll have the opportunity between rallies to test new, upgradable parts for your car on various test tracks.
Every mode in the game is for one to four players, except for the championship mode, which supports up to two players. You and a friend can actually represent different racing teams and compete against each another throughout the season. The game will also feature both single-screen and split-screen multiplayer racing throughout each mode. Colin McRae Rally 04 also features Xbox Live support, though not through direct competition. Rather, you will be able to match your best times against other players in leagues for every single track available in the game.
Visually, Colin McRae Rally 04 is looking very nice. Each of the car models in the game boasts quite a bit of detail, as well as some beautifully reflective surfaces. Of course, you can also wreck those beautifully reflective surfaces any time you like, and the damage modeling in the game gives you a wide variety of ways to royally screw up your car. As for the various tracks in Colin McRae Rally 04, they aren't quite as detailed as the cars, but they get the job done nicely. Each type of terrain looks just as it should. The background pieces, though decidedly lower in resolution when inspected up close, look excellent from a distance and represent their environment well. Effects such as dust clouds from your tires and varying types of weather are also looking very good, and they add a nice air of variety to their respective races.
The game's audio is also shaping up quite nicely. You'll hear the same style of electronic beats for the soundtrack as in previous installments and some solid codriver commentary from Derek Ringer, with the option to listen to other codrivers in multiple different languages. The in-race sound is where the game really shines, however, providing some great engine sounds, skid-outs, crashes, and especially cool-sounding effects when you're using the "in-cockpit" camera view.
After spending some time with Colin McRae Rally 04, we're pretty confident that the final version of the game won't disappoint fans of either the series or the sport. The realistic handling of the cars, excellent array of gameplay modes, and complementary visuals and sound ultimately make up an extremely solid rally racing package. Currently, Colin McRae Rally 04 is scheduled for release early next month, exclusively for the Xbox. We'll have a full review of the game upon its release.