Colin McRae has been a regular guest on video game consoles for years now through the legendary rallying series that bears his name. What some racing fans may not know is that the off-road racing series has been a mainstay on the PC for just as long. Colin McRae Rally 2005, the franchise's latest iteration, plays just as well as its console cousin, with the additional advantage of some gorgeous graphics.
The driving model that fans of the series have come to depend on is still rock solid in the PC version of CMR 2005. The game chooses to err on the side of a driving simulation and isn't necessarily a simple pick-up-and-play experience. If this is your first experience with the series, expect to spend large amounts of time offtrack. This is rally racing, after all, where no road surface is taboo: smooth asphalt, muddy gravel, and even frozen ice are all an option.
The vehicles in CMR 2005, of which there are more than 30, have a tangible sense of weight that is especially noticeable when making jumps. There are no floaty physics here, as the cars require a tremendous amount of speed to get airborne before they quite literally slam to the ground when they land. The sense of suspension trauma is noticeable and thrilling, especially when using the game's cockpit view.
The best-known rally cars are all here--the Subaru Impreza WRX, the Lancer Evolution VIII, the Peugeot 206, and the Ford Focus, among others--but CMR 2005 also features a number of classic rally cars, including 2-wheel drive models such as the VW Polo, the Citroën Saxo, and the VW Golf GTi. Notably missing from the game's car list is the Toyota Corolla, a model that found a good deal of real-life rallying success in the late 1990s. Cars from disparate classes feel quite different from one another, as there is a great deal of performance difference between an Audi A3 and a Mini Cooper S. What's interesting in CMR 2005, though, is the diversity in handling between cars of the same performance class. The 2WD VW Polo, for instance, seems to have slower acceleration off the line than the MG ZR, which is also a 2WD.
Diverse car selection means little without a similar variety of tracks to drive on. CMR 2005 delivers here as well, with nine rally events available: UK, Sweden, Finland, Australia, Spain, Japan, Greece, USA, and the newly introduced German course. Each event includes eight drivable stages, and some events include an additional enclosed super special course. Unfortunately, the stage list in the PC version of the CMR 2005 is identical to that found in the console version of the game. It would have been nice to see some additional PC-only stages not found in the console version.
While the individual stages change from one version of CMR to the next, the characteristics of each rally event have remained true to life throughout the series. As in previous versions, the Finland rally event in CMR 2005 is blindingly quick, full of harrowing hairpin turns in dense forest, full-throttle gravel straights, and some of the most dramatic jumps in the world. Greece, on the other hand, is a test of endurance both for the driver and the car, with heavy gravel, narrow roads, and precipitous drop-offs.
CMR 2005 pulls off these tactile differences in track surfaces and conditions to great effect. The game realistically conveys the feel of each course with a convincing combination of vibration support (of which there is a wide range when using a gamepad) and excellent visual feedback in the handling of the car. The bumps and undulations found in stages, particularly those in Greece or the UK, are a perfect example. The bumps are most noticeable in one of the three first-person camera perspectives, where your car is tossed all over the course, especially at higher speeds. It can certainly make for a thrilling ride.
The only major complaint with the tracks is the relatively short length of each rally stage. Most stages in the game take between three to four minutes to complete. This is in stark contrast to some of the behemoth tracks real rally drivers face in competition, which generally average nine or more miles in length. For the PC version of CMR 2005 (arriving on DVD, no less), inclusion of tracks of this length would have been a welcome addition to the series.
Because conditions vary so widely between events, correct car setups are critical to your success as a rally driver. As in previous installments in the series, CMR 2005 lets you adjust a number of different aspects of your car before hitting the road, including tires (the choices of which change depending on the event), ride height, springs, antiroll bar, brake bias, steering, and gearbox. Each adjustment you make can have a dramatic effect on how your car performs once you're on the road. As such, it's important to make the right modification for the right situation.
Here is where CMR 2005 falls flat, however. Even though the game gives you preview information on the next two stages, the information presented is fairly threadbare, consisting mainly of length, weather conditions, time of day, the types of surfaces you will encounter on the road, and a zoomable map that outlines each sector of the stages. More information is often needed to make intelligent setup choices, especially regarding weather conditions, which can often change dramatically between stages. Similarly, drastic elevation changes (which often call for lower gearbox settings) are not noted at all. As a player, you are left to either memorize the stage's characteristics, or try to guess at the conditions based on what you know about the event locale in general.
While running stages, you can expect to see your car absorb damage. A damage indicator, located in the lower left corner of your screen, gives you color-coded damage information for every major portion of your car. There are two damage modes in CMR 2005: normal and advanced. Normal allows you to take plenty of chances with the car and still be able to make it through a stage relatively unscathed. Advanced damage is more unforgiving, even in light scrapes. That said, despite our best efforts, we were unable to completely kill a car, even with advanced damage activated.
Colin McRae Rally 2005 includes several gameplay modes to choose from: a challenge mode, in which you can race individual stages or full multiple-stage rallies; a championship mode; an all-new career mode; and an online racing mode. Championship mode allows you to take on the persona of the Flying Scot himself, Colin McRae, as you fight for the world championship. During the season, you'll also get the opportunity to test new parts for your car, such as advanced brakes or an improved gearbox. These tests are essentially minigames and they are generally the same as those found in Colin McRae Rally 4. The improved ceramic braking system test, for example, requires you to run a course in Spain, which includes stopping in a series of designated areas, within a predetermined span of time.
CMR 2005's career mode is essentially a beefed-up version of the championship mode with a few new twists. You're still competing on rally courses but, instead of running events from the same locale, you will travel to different locales for each stage of the race. In between, you'll repair your ride as usual in preparation for the next stage. By earning points in career mode, you can unlock additional career events as well as the game's many unlockable rally cars.
Hardcore rally fans have often wondered how a rally game would handle online play. After all, actual rally driving is a relatively solitary event. Colin McRae Rally 2005's solution for online and LAN multiplayer rallying is unique, achieving head-to-head competition with a clever variation on the arcade racing convention of multiple cars on the same course. You can race against up to eight other players online, but the twist is that your online competitors are displayed as brightly colored ghost cars. Despite the vivid color palette, the ghost cars aren't distracting. When they fade in brightness it means that they are closer to you. There is virtually no slowdown when playing online, even with a full complement of eight racers. This is the good news. The bad news is that many of the features found in the offline game are no-shows online. Things like car setups, service-area repairs between stages (even when running full rallies), and between-stage leaderboards are all missing.
There are several control options found in the PC version of CMR 2005, including keyboard, joystick, and wheel support. As you might expect, if you have the option to go with an analog controller or wheel, do so. Driving a PC racer with keyboard controls is about as effective as typing an e-mail with your car's steering wheel. We tried the game using both the Logitech RumblePad 2 gamepad and a Thrustmaster Enzo Ferrari Racing Wheel and found both options to work well. The racing wheel on default settings was not nearly sensitive enough for our tastes. However, CMR 2005 gives you the ability to easily adjust both dead zone and "saturation" settings for analog steering and acceleration controls. With a bit of tweaking, we were able to get the wheel working fairly well with the game.
We did encounter some strange control issues when navigating the menus in CMR 2005. When using either the gamepad or the wheel, we were also able to use the keyboard for navigating some, but not all, menus. When performing car repairs or setup changes, for example, we were unable to use the keyboard to make adjustments. Instead, we were forced to use the gamepad or wheel to navigate the menus and make alterations. This means you might find yourself switching between the keyboard and a controller to navigate menus, which can be annoying.
Graphically, the Colin McRae series keeps making strides. With its graphical detail settings at their highest, the PC version of CMR 2005 looks truly remarkable. One of the most dramatic graphical touches is a blurred-vision effect used when sustaining heavy crashes. The more dramatic the crash, the longer and more pronounced the effect. The color palette in CMR 2005 is gorgeous as well, depicting dramatic lighting differences in morning and afternoon races. The lighting effects, particularly sunlight, are the best ever seen in the series. Other touches, such as trees gently swaying in the breeze before you start off on a course, or leaves falling around you car after you bump into a tree, add a sense of life to your surroundings.
There are some seams in the textures, but you generally have to be at a full stop to notice them. Cool effects, such as sparks flying off the car when scraping against a metal bridge railing, are especially dramatic in the game's replay mode, which captures the intensity of each drive well. Ranging from long views above the car to handheld-style side-of-the-road shots, the multiple camera angles mean you'll find yourself enjoying the view after particularly daring drives. Lack of camera control and no way to save your replays is disappointing, however.
From a sound standpoint, CMR 2005 doesn't boast a huge palette. What it does, however, it does right. The only music found in the game is the techno-style tune accompanying the menus. The most common sounds in the game are the roar of your engine and the dulcet tones of your codriver Nicky Grist reading his detailed pace notes. The various sounds of the car sliding through the different road surfaces--squealing on abrasive tarmac, rustling through unpacked snow, swishing across loose gravel--are top-notch and really add to the immersiveness of the driving experience. These environmental sounds differ depending on your current camera option. Engine revs, which sound muffled and restrained while using the cockpit view, for example, are sharp and impressively loud when using the hood or bumper point of view. Crowd noise seems improved in the PC version of CMR 2005 as well; you can clearly hear their sideline cheers as you burn past them in your car.
Colin McRae Rally 2005 for the PC is another satisfying entry in the racing series, which has found commercial success in America despite the country's indifference toward the sport it portrays. With realistic physics, approachable yet challenging driving controls, and a convincing atmosphere, the PC version of CMR 2005 should not be overlooked. While it doesn't do enough to improve on some of the console version's shortcomings, it is still a fulfilling and well-executed racing game that deserves a place in every off-road racing fan's library.