Earlier this year, Codemasters brought its most recent entry in the highly praised Colin McRae Rally racing series, Colin McRae Rally 04, to the US with apparent exclusivity on the Xbox. Initially, the game had been released on the Xbox, PS2, and PC in Europe, but for the game's North American retail release, Codemasters decided (for some reason) to just bring the Xbox version out. However, crafty PC driving fans with the gumption to investigate Codemasters' Web site soon learned that the PC version of the game could be acquired in North America--albeit exclusively through the Codemasters site and for a price that was more than twice the cost of the Xbox version's budget price tag. For what it's worth, however, the fact that the Xbox version of the game is as cheap as it is still remains something of an unexplained anomaly. Aside from this, though, the PC version's equally excellent driving gameplay, better graphics, and added, competitive online mode make the game every bit worth purchasing.
Colin McRae Rally 04 on the Xbox struck an incredibly fine balance between realistic and easily playable driving mechanics, and the PC version is no different. The game features four different car types, including four-wheel drive, two-wheel drive, Group B, and a bonus category. You will feel a pretty significant difference between the cars you play from different categories. For example, four-wheel drive cars are the much more traditional brand of rally racers; two-wheel drive vehicles are designed to be more like day-to-day cars that have been customized for rally purposes; and Group B cars are a notoriously fast bunch that were quite popular in rally racing during the 1980s but were eventually banned due to the many serious accidents they were involved in. When driving a two-wheel drive car or a Group B car, there is a very noticeable difference between them in both handling and speed. There are a little more than 20 cars in the game, and each and every one feels different and varied enough to make it enjoyable to drive time and time again.
Colin McRae 04 features support for all manner of controller types you could possibly want to use, be it a keyboard, an analog controller, or a driving wheel. The keyboard controls are probably the most unwieldy of the bunch, simply because the cars are so touchy when it comes to handling corners. Analog and driving-wheel controllers are probably your best bet, since we had the least-harrowing experiences trying to control our cars with these types of controllers. The driving-wheel method also gets a slight leg up on the analog method, because the game just feels much more realistic when using the wheel controller.
Adding to the realism of Colin McRae 04's driving mechanics are the game's array of tracks and the subsequent variations of terrain. Colin McRae 04 features races spread throughout eight different countries, ranging from the gravelly, dust-laden tracks of Australia, to the soppy, mud-bogged tracks of the UK, to the snow-covered tracks of Sweden. As such, it's up to you before each race to determine the setup for your car so that you can best acclimate yourself to the terrain in front of you. Terrain types on a track are displayed before a race by percentages, and you can alter details like your car's tire type, ride height, spring stiffness, and brake adjustment. Each of these details is quite important to how your car performs on a given track. Gravelly tracks require specific types of tires to prevent you from sliding all over the road, and likewise, setting your springs to a softer setting will also help your traction. You actually feel a legitimate difference between how your car handles on, say, light pea gravel versus heavy pea gravel, so it's not as though these settings are merely an arbitrary option. Although in several of the game's modes, you do have the option to simply race so that you don't have to worry about any of this. The game's championship mode requires you to learn the ropes of car setups, though, so you're better off learning how to properly configure your car.
Of course, if you're no good at figuring out the right combination of tires and spring settings required to keep your car on the track (or if you're just feeling wreck-happy), Colin McRae 04 gives you more than your fair share of ways to royally screw up your car. The damage modeling can be adjusted between two settings, and with it set to high, the damage really takes its toll. Bumpers, doors, and hoods shear off; windows shatter; tires explode; and rolling your car...well, let's just say it looks appropriately unpleasant. Now, of course, all of this damage will have an adverse effect on your ability to drive properly. In fact, most of the game's damage isn't even immediately visible but definitely takes a notable toll on your car. For instance, destroying your engine's cooling system results in terrible engine performance and even causes it to periodically shut off midway through a race. Though this might not be such a big detail when racing in a single race, when racing through a championship you're only able to repair your car once every two races. Additionally, you're only given an hour with which to repair your car, and each category of repair takes up a specific amount of that time. Going over the allotted time nets you a time penalty for the next race. However, if you're a capable enough racer, you should be able to navigate through the various rallies with only a reasonable amount of scathe.
Speaking of the championship mode... Like most everything else in Colin McRae 04, it's gotten a nice upgrade over Colin McRae Rally 3's championship mode. Unlike the last game, you now have the option of choosing from any of the game's available cars to race with in this mode, instead of being relegated simply to racing as Colin McRae himself. Depending on which car you choose, you'll become a part of that car manufacturer's racing team, so you'll attempt to earn points for both yourself and your team as you blaze through a series of six-race, two-day rally events. As you play, you'll also take part in special one-on-one competitions against an opponent in an arena-like race, and you'll have the opportunity to earn new parts for your car by testing them yourself. Parts-testing takes place between countries, and you can earn items like upgraded brakes, snow and gravel tires, and gear boxes. Each test is like a minigame of sorts, where, for instance, when testing new brakes, you must speed through a course and stop within a specifically marked area of a track. Similarly, when testing new tires, you have to slide a sufficient amount to properly gauge the tires' ability to handle strain. This addition to the mode definitely adds a nice air of variety to the otherwise straightforward championship.
In terms of remaining gameplay modes, the rest of Colin McRae 04 is made up of standard quick race, single course, and single rally modes. The quick race is just a random car and track that's selected for you, which gets you into a competition as expediently as possible. Single course lets you run a time trial through any of the game's available courses. As for single rally, any of the championship mode rallies are available in a single sitting here, in addition to a few customized rallies and a couple of slots for you to create your own customized rallies. In surprise contrast to the Xbox version of the game's only online functionality coming in the way of online scoreboards, the PC version of the game features full, competitive network play online or via a LAN. You can actually compete against up to seven other racers via this mode (albeit only against ghost cars rather than full, damageable cars). Why the Xbox version didn't have this is a bit perplexing, especially considering how well the mode turned out. No lag of any type was ever apparent during any of the games we played, and the entire interface was extremely easy to navigate through so that we could get into a game to race.
While the Xbox version of Colin McRae 04 looked pretty great, the PC version is quite a drastic improvement. The car models, which were highly detailed on the Xbox, look even better now. Each car features highly reflective surfaces and an excellent amount of detail. And as you drive through each course, you'll see progressive amounts of dirt, mud, snow, and what have you build up on each car. As mentioned before, the damage modeling is also pretty top-notch, so nearly every wreck shows off some really impressive breakage. The tracks also look better and appear more detailed here as well, with better textures, significantly improved weather effects, and generally better-looking set pieces (such as background foliage and buildings). In terms of textures, all the track and background textures look very good from afar, but when examined up close, you'll definitely notice that they're not particularly high in resolution. Additionally, you'll see a few cases of tiling here and there as well. The scant few glitches from the Xbox version, such as the occasionally clipping camera and the slightly off-kilter crash physics, seem to have made their ways to the PC version as well. But as before, however, these glitches are extremely few and far between and are only barely worth mentioning.
Colin McRae 04 also sounds really great. Colin McRae's longtime navigator, Derek Ringer, once again makes an appearance in this year's title, and his dialogue is pretty much what you would expect. The game also features navigator dialogue in multiple other languages as well. There's very little soundtrack to speak of in Colin McRae 04, save for in the game's various menu screens, but what's there serves as decent background fodder. Where the game really shines, however, is in terms of its in-game sound effects. When in the standard camera view, everything sounds really good. Every car's engine sounds different, slide-outs and crashes are just what they should be, and the sounds of the car simply bouncing around and skidding around corners are excellent. To top it all off, when you switch to the "in the cockpit" camera view, you get a whole new take on the game's sound presentation. Everything feels much more immersive, and all the effects definitely give you much more of a feeling that you're really inside the car. Occasionally, we did note a few slightly off-sounding engine noises, as well as a few lacking background sound effects in certain spots. However, to balance out these slight issues, the game features support for Creative's EAX 4.0 advanced HD surround sound. If you have a card that can support these effects, you owe it to yourself to turn it on, because it really does sound pretty incredible. Unfortunately, there are only a select few Audigy model cards that allow for it currently.
When it comes right down to it, the PC version of Colin McRae Rally 04 pretty much takes the title of best version available; however, this distinction is not quite as cut-and-dried as it may seem. The fact is, the PC version of the game will cost you around $30 more than the Xbox version (when you factor in the required shipping charges), and for that extra $30, you're really only getting the competitive online mode and better graphics, comparatively. Of course, this weighing of price versus features really only matters if you own both an Xbox and a PC. If all you care about is the PC version, then you absolutely should not hesitate to get Colin McRae Rally 04, because there aren't any PC rally racing games that are better than Colin McRae Rally 04--and there aren't many better driving games of any type, for that matter.