As strange as it may seem, there have been more games released in the United States that focus on rally racing than there have been games about NASCAR, which is by far the country's most popular motorsport. It's not difficult to understand why some racing fans might be put off by rally racing. Drivers race against the clock, not each other, and it involves taking a perfectly good car across completely unfamiliar roads that are in horrible condition. Regardless of how alien this might seem, rally racing games are quickly gaining popularity in the US, despite the stature of the real-world sport they depict, and as we've seen with Gran Turismo 3: A-Spec, Rallisport Challenge, and World Rally Championship, these games have done a more phenomenal job of capturing the essence of rally racing with every successive release. That trend shows no signs of slowing down--certainly not with the impending release of Colin McRae Rally 3 for the PlayStation 2, Xbox, GameCube, and PC. Currently in development at Codemasters UK, the game is scheduled for release in time for the holiday season, and judging from what we've seen during our time with the latest Xbox build, Colin McRae Rally 3 is poised to raise the bar in the rally racing genre.
As you can probably surmise from its name, Colin McRae Rally 3 places you in the shoes of famed Scottish driver Colin McRae and tasks you with winning the overall rally championship by earning the greatest number of points across the game's many international circuits. This championship mode is a slight departure from those featured in similar games. Specifically, you'll be able to play only as McRae himself, and not as any of the other WRC drivers like Carlos Sainz or Petter Solberg. That also means that, as far as the championship mode is concerned, you'll be able to drive only McRae and teammate Nicky Grist's Ford Cosworth Focus. What's more, the championship itself consists of several seasons, not just one. As McRae, your goal is to earn contracts from wealthy sponsors. Needless to say, the better you race, the more sponsorship offers you'll receive. The designers at Codemasters UK say it's possible to win the championship in a single season, but only the most proficient players will come close to doing so. Normally, it'll take you two to three seasons to rack up enough points to be crowned the champion.
This championship path will take you through a number of different countries, some of which are part of the actual World Rally Championship circuit and some of which the real-world sport doesn't really compete in. Fans of rally racing will undoubtedly appreciate courses like Australia, Sweden, Finland, Great Britain, and Spain, while tracks in Japan and the USA will make for a welcome break from the traditional roster of events that are found in almost every modern-day rally game. As in the real thing, each of these events is broken down into several stages and usually takes place over the course of several days. Each of these stages is subsequently broken down into four or five legs, and you're timed on how fast you can negotiate the twists, turns, bumps, and jumps from one leg to the next. After every three stages, you'll come across a setup area that allows you to make changes to your car's handling if you feel the need to do so. The setup area will also allow you to repair any damage that your car has sustained during the three previous stages, and it's this seemingly insignificant feature that will really set Colin McRae Rally 3 apart from the competition.
In the past, some rally racing games have had damage modeling, while some have simply opted to skip showing any car damage at all. Those games that do show some kind of damage on your car have handled this feature in different ways--sometimes the damage was purely cosmetic, as was the case with Rallisport Challenge, and at other times it actually affected your car's performance, like in World Rally Championship. No racing game, however, rally or otherwise, has the precise level of damage modeling that you'll find in Colin McRae Rally 3. To put it simply, the game's physics are outstanding, even in our incomplete build. Your car will bounce over rough terrain in exactly the same way you'd expect a real vehicle to, the suspension animates realistically, tires without traction will pull your car in their direction, and the driver and navigator bounce around the cockpit in sync with the car's momentum. All these impressive displays of physics translate over to the way your car sustains damage very nicely. Slide your tail end into a tree, and you'll knock your rear bumper loose in the precise location of your collision. Roll your car, and you'll scratch up your roof and crack the rear window. You can even shred your tires if you keep driving off the main course, in which case you'll be forced to limp to the finish line while driving on your rims. Your car can sustain damage in literally dozens of areas, including the wheels, tires, brakes, transmission, engine block, and chassis, and while some of the damage is purely cosmetic--like a loose door hinge or a broken hood latch--most of the damage will have a negative effect on your car's performance.
While your first priority is beating the clock, you'll also have to exercise some restraint while weaving around the tracks. You'll only be able to fix your car's damage after the third stage of any given race, so if you sustain too much damage early on, you'll remain handicapped until you get to the setup area. Once there, though, you'll be able to do more than just repair damage--you can also fine-tune a number of your car's components to your liking. Obviously, you can change your tire compound to one that best suits the track surface you'll be driving on, but you can also adjust your gear ratio, your suspension stiffness, your brake balance, and your steering sensitivity. You can even select from three different chassis and opt to enable launch control in order to minimize wheel spin during the start of the race. This latter option will probably only shave a second or two off your final time, but in a race against the clock, every second counts.
Needless to say, there'll be more to Colin McRae Rally 3 than just the championship mode. Like almost all racing games, this one will also have a quick race mode of sorts that'll let you drive on any stage of any course that you've unlocked in the championship mode. The appealing part of this mode will be the fact that you won't be stuck with just the Ford Focus but will also have access to the Subaru WRX STi, the Mitsubishi Lancer EVO VII, and the Citroen Xsara. The build we have is currently limited to these four cars, and it's not known whether the final game will have the others cars that race in the World Rally Championship, like the Peugot 206, Hyundai Accent, and Skoda Octavia. Regardless, all the cars that are currently available are completely varied in their handling, performance, and sound. And as you can tell from these screenshots, each of the cars is extremely detailed and looks remarkably like its real-world counterpart. You'll even be able to make out the interiors--five-point harnesses, roll cages, instrument panels, and sequential shifters are all quite visible--of all the cars. Likewise, the environments themselves are fairly varied, ranging from the dusty dirt roads in the Australian outback to the rain-soaked roads of the Japanese countryside.
There's still a lot to see in Colin McRae Rally 3. Unfortunately, the build we have has only a single championship course and a handful of quick race stages. And while we have a good idea of what to expect once the final game ships, we're left hungering for more. Thankfully, we won't have to wait too much longer. Codemasters UK is currently putting the finishing touches on the game, and all four versions of Colin McRae Rally 3 are expected to be on store shelves before the start of winter. We'll have more on this promising rally racing game as its release date approaches, but until then, take a look at the latest batch of screenshots and movies that we've taken from our build.