Despite the fact that rallying probably ranks alongside beach volleyball and lawn-mower racing when it comes to television coverage in the US, we've seen a steady stream of rally games over the past few years. They've ranged in quality from the excellent Mobil 1 British Rally Championship and Rally Championship, to the more mediocre Sega Rally Championship and Boss Rally, to out-and-out silly games like South Park Rally. Now, more than 18 months after its release in Europe, US gamers finally get a chance to put Colin McRae Rally through its paces. Though it's among the world's best-selling and most widely played rally sims, you'll probably come away feeling that it really wasn't worth the wait after all.
Part of the disappointment can be attributed to the game's dated technology and the recent release of the superb Mobil 1 Rally Championship. But the lion's share of the blame goes to questionable design decisions, a skimpy manual with little background information, and an intermitent crash bug that's most likely related to the lack of any updates to make the sim compatible with today's video cards and processors.
Rallying is basically a race against the clock over a series of courses known as stages. Opponents don't race at the same time but instead take off from the start line in one-minute intervals. And the courses are some of the most brutal you'll find in racing: The routes are riddled with bumps and ditches, they frequently cross streams and creeks, and they are often hemmed in by massive banks or potentially dangerous trees. Add in the vagaries of snow, ice, and rain, and you've got the makings of some of the most intense gear-slamming, mud-slinging, power-sliding races ever devised.
Unlike other rally simulations, Colin McRae Rally doesn't attempt to re-create a specific real-life event like the Network Q Rally or Mobil 1 British Rally Championship. Instead, it's based loosely on the World Rally Championship, a series of 14 individual rallies scattered across the globe from China to Argentina. Colin McRae Rally features eight of those rallies: New Zealand, Greece, Monte Carlo, Australia, Sweden, Corsica, Indonesia, and the United Kingdom. Fourteen cars are included in the game from real-life rally teams like Ford, Subaru, Mitsubishi, Toyota, Renault, Seat, Volkswagen, Audi, and more.
Even if it isn't based entirely on an authentic event, the variety of courses and cars would seem to be a good foundation on which to build a great rallying sim. It certainly helps that you get to compete against real-life drivers like McRae himself, one of the sport's top talents and easily its most well-known personality, as well as many others. But it doesn't do a lot of good to cram all these features into a game if they're hidden from the user or if no effort is made to bring rally newcomers up to speed on a motorsport they're interested in but know little about.
For example, if you're unfamiliar with rallying, you'd never know that your competitors in Colin McRae Rally are actually supposed to be computer-controlled versions of real-life drivers. All it would take is a snapshot and a short biography and racing history to let rallying greenhorns know that yes, these are real drivers, and yes, they're good. Then there are the cars themselves: Besides the game's almost complete lack of technical specs for each ride, only eight cars are available when you first begin. Adjusting the difficulty setting trims the car selection down even further. Why would choosing a higher difficulty level rob you of the ability to drive the cars listed in the novice class? Worst of all, the only way to gain access to the additional cars is to take home the first-place trophy in a full championship season.The same problem applies to the various rallies themselves. Until you compete in a championship season and finish sixth or higher after the first two rallies in New Zealand and Greece, only two of the eight events are open as individual rallies. In time-trial mode, you can check out all the stages of the first two and only the first stage of two others in Monte Carlo and Australia. Why even include an individual rally mode or time trials for stages if you're going to prevent players from using them until they compete in the championship mode? Even the rallies are but a shadow of their real-life counterparts: The stages have been truncated into bite-size nuggets, many of which can be run in less than a quarter of the time required to finish in real life.
One of the more unique aspects of real-life rallying is that you're only allotted a limited amount of time at various points along the course to make repairs to your car. Unfortunately, this aspect of the real-life motorsport doesn't translate properly to the game. Whether it's because the stages are so short or the damage model so forgiving, the bottom line is that you'll probably never be forced to choose between one repair or another because of time constraints. With 60 minutes allotted at the repair areas, only the worst drivers could possibly take enough damage to use it all up and still be left with a damaged component. About all you need to keep an eye on is your tire type, to ensure that you have the right tires for the terrain that lies ahead.
The recent Mobil 1 Rally Championship features 14 car components that can take damage and four setup options that cover steering sensitivity, brake balance, suspension height, and suspension stiffness. On the other hand, Colin McRae Rally has only five components to repair and five setup options; it lists tires under car setup because apparently there isn't enough racing to lead to significant tire wear, even if you don't change them after completing several stages. The lack of body-repair options is especially odd, considering how often you'll find yourself slamming sideways into fences, brick walls, trees, and large rocks.
Since Colin McRae Rally has been available in Europe for a while, the graphics in the game don't stack up to what you'll find in the latest sims. But though the game is fairly old, its visuals don't actually detract from the action. If you have a supported 3D accelerator, you'll see realistic and convincing terrain that has bystanders and even the occasional cow or goat perched on a hillside. And an added benefit of the not-quite-cutting-edge graphics is that you can expect smooth performance even if you don't own the fastest CPU or 3D accelerator.
Ultimately, Colin McRae Rally delivers a good racing experience though it manages to irritate in so many little ways. The action it delivers is pure, intense, and thrilling. A tutorial narrated by McRae will help beginners learn basic rallying techniques, but even if you bypass the tutorial and jump right into a championship, you'll find that mastering your vehicle comes almost naturally in Colin McRae Rally. Your codriver's instructions are dead-on accurate as to what sort of curves and obstacles lie ahead, and paying close attention to what you're being told will drastically improve your performance. Even so, it'd be nice if the codriver actually told you how far ahead curves and obstacles were.
As much fun as Colin McRae Rally can be, it's still disappointing that Codemasters decided to hide so much of what the game has to offer. Colin McRae Rally might be enough to satisfy fans that are moderately interested in rallying, but for those with an appetite for the real thing, it'll only leave them hungry for more.