Colin McRae Rally 3 Preview

We go hands-on with Colin McRae Rally 3, a racing game that will attempt to strike a balance between realism and all-out action.

Recently, console game players have enjoyed a wealth of top-quality rally racing games. Sadly, things haven't been quite so good for fans of PC rally racing. Outside of last year's Rallisport Challenge (originally released on the Xbox), PC gamers have often had to turn to games released two or three years ago to find a really good depiction of this thrilling sport. Hopefully things will look better this summer when Codemasters releases Colin McRae Rally 3 for the PC. It certainly bodes well that the game comes from a popular rally racing series, and that the console version has already enjoyed critical acclaim.

Colin McRae racing in his Ford Focus.

True to its name, the game will star Colin McRae, the famed "Flying Scotsman." McRae has been thrilling fans all over the world for years now with his daring driving style. He was the youngest driver to win a World Rally Championship title, and he's already chalked up a whopping 25 World Rally wins.

The early version of the game we played was far from complete, so we were unable to try out many of the game's major features, including the championship mode. The console versions of the game are a good indication of what we can expect from the championship mode, which will let you play only as McRae, and only during his days with the Ford team--despite the fact that he's now with Citroën. This means you'll be driving his Ford Focus RS World Rally car throughout each championship run. As you progress through the championship, you'll get to unlock new parts for the Ford Focus, and you'll also unlock new stages and different cars that you can then access in a quick race mode.

The fact that the championship mode is so focused may seem a bit limiting, but Codemasters hopes that the game will let you "really connect with the feeling of being McRae...and work with codriver Nicky Grist, and the Ford team as a whole." According to Mark Whitaker, director of Ford Racing, Codemasters was granted "unprecedented" access to the Ford team, which should hopefully ensure that the Ford Focus car looks and handles realistically in the game.

Racing across the fields of the UK.
Outside of the championship mode, you'll also get to race through single stages for some quick action. Overall, you'll find 56 stages in eight countries: Spain, the UK, Greece, the USA, Japan, Sweden, Australia, and Finland. Most of these stages were unavailable in the version we played, but the tracks we tried out looked impressive in terms of variety, not to mention the challenges they offered. You'll be roaring up hills, powersliding through hairpin turns in dense forests, blasting across asphalt roads that suddenly turn into muddy dirt tracks, and much more. Bad weather doesn't stop real-world rally drivers, and that should hold true in Colin McRae Rally 3. Along with mastering the varied terrain to achieve a top time, you'll also be battling the elements, such as rain, fog, sleet, and snow.

Following a trend in rally game design, the stages we saw were fictionalized yet meant to convey the feel of real rally stages throughout the world. They were also quite short. The ones we got to play could be finished in a couple of minutes--quite a contrast to some rally games, like the classic Mobil 1 Rally Championship, which had you driving for 15 or 20 minutes at a stretch across meticulous re-creations of real stages. The short stages in Colin McRae Rally 3 might come as something of a disappointment to fans of real rally racing, since the sport is known for its grueling tests of endurance and concentration. Nevertheless, they should let you sneak in a race or two without requiring you to set aside a big block of time to play. We certainly found some of the stages we played exciting, regardless of how long they lasted, so that bodes well for the final game.

The Flying Scotsman Returns

From what we've seen of Colin McRae Rally 3, it looks like the game will likely strike a good balance between realism and all-out action. The developers have spoken highly of the game's detailed physics, and different road surfaces certainly do seem to have real effects on car handling. To make the most of the difficult terrain, you'll be able to tweak different elements of your car's suspension, engine, and chassis, though your race engineers will offer you solid default setups for each stage if you'd prefer not to delve into the mechanical details. In addition, the game will support force feedback controllers, though we were unable to test that feature in the version we played. You'll also be able to play with a keyboard, though a wheel-and-pedal setup is of course preferable.

Damage is modeled visually in intricate detail.

One of Codemasters' top priorities in developing Colin McRae Rally 3 is damage modeling. From what we saw, this modeling is quite relaxed compared with the real world. But then again, in the real world, a "fender bender" at 30mph can put your car out of action, so slamming into a tree at 90mph in a diminutive rally car would, realistically, put an end to more than just the race. It's unlikely that most players would really want that level of realism in a game. At any rate, the damage your car sustains will indeed affect its different components, slowing you down or putting you out of the running.

What was really impressive in the version we played was the way the game models damage visually. In addition to showing the accumulated mud and dust from the roads, your car can end up with all kinds of dents, gashes, and holes. Windows will crack, doors will fly open and flap in the breeze, and bumpers and side panels will get ripped off and clatter across the road. Your car will also kick up showers of sparks when you scrape your fender across stone walls or metal guardrails.

In fact, the visuals overall look fairly impressive. The Ford Focus car model is made up of 13,000 polygons, for example, not to mention a variety of moving parts and a detailed interior. The other cars in the game, like the Mitsubishi Lancer Evo VII, Subaru Impreza WRX (44S), and Citroën Xsara (McRae's current real-life ride), look equally attractive. Even the drivers sport unusual levels of detail and convincing animations.

Of course, one of the biggest appeals of rally racing is the exotic, widely diverse locales where the races are held. In Colin McRae Rally 3, you should find all kinds of attractive landscapes, from verdant farmlands in the UK, to snowy roads in Sweden, to gloomy forests in Japan. The game also has many small details that stand out. The varied road surfaces all feature their own unique looks, with finely detailed textures making cracked asphalt, for example, look real enough to reach out and touch. Roadside buildings range from little farm sheds to towering aqueducts. At scenic bends in the road, race fans will crowd to watch the action, though unfortunately, these fans were only flat bitmap images, not 3D polygonal characters.

Some of the game's atmospheric effects look particularly good. As you roar down the dry dirt roads of Greece, dust billows up all around your car. When using the car's interior view in wetter climes, you'll see rain bead on the windshield, with water droplets being pushed upward across the glass by the fast airflow around the car. You'll even see the windshield wipers push the water aside realistically--an impressive little touch.

Realistic weather effects should draw you into the game.
Actually, more than the visuals, it was the game’s vivid and powerful sound effects that caught our attention. Rally cars might not look like much from the outside, but they’re fast and powerful. If the beta we played is any indication, the engine noises should certainly make you feel like you’ve got a real beast on your hands. The sounds of the suspension jouncing over all the bumps in the road seemed unusually realistic, too, drawing us into the action.

Certainly much of the game still needs to be tweaked and polished at this stage, particularly to meet the PC audience’s exacting expectations. The game could really benefit from a proper mouse-driven interface, for instance, instead of the console-style interface we saw. Still, our beta of Colin McRae Rally 3 showed a lot of promise, and this is definitely a game for rally fans to keep an eye on.

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