If rally racing is your thing, you're almost certainly curious to find out if Codemasters' latest Colin McRae-endorsed racer is on a par with Microsoft's Rallisport Challenge, which recently celebrated its first birthday. In truth, Colin McRae Rally 3 isn't necessarily a game that should replace Rallisport Challenge in your collection, but it's definitely one that deserves a space right alongside it. Codemasters' offering is much more realistic than the competition and is also very easy on the eyes, but it offers very little in the way of gameplay options and can occasionally prove frustrating because it makes you overly dependent on the instructions of codriver Nicky Grist.
Colin McRae Rally 3 features only single event and championship modes, and since most of the 58 different stages in the game need to be unlocked in a championship, it's not really worth arranging a rally session with friends until you've completed at least a few of the game's two-day rally events. Perhaps in an attempt to replicate the role-playing elements of Pro Race Driver in some way, or maybe just because Codemasters worked more closely with Ford than with any of the other car manufacturers featured in the game, the championship mode in Colin McRae Rally 3 can be played only from behind the wheel of McRae's Ford Focus. This lack of choice could perhaps have been forgiven if the game had actually done something to make players feel like they were wearing the coveralls of Scotland's champion driver, but in truth the championship mode doesn't actually do anything other than offer fairly generic setup screens between rally days. Make no mistake--the three-season championship mode is superbly challenging. It's just that the ability to play it as someone other than Colin McRae would've greatly improved the mode's replay value, particularly since progressing through each season unlocks additional parts for your Ford Focus and new cars for use in the single event mode.
On the whole, the parts that are unlocked as you progress through a season are items that will prove useful in the next rally, and while your mechanics will automatically provide you with a decent setup before you start each day, it's possible to make changes yourself. The setup options are varied enough that you'll notice a difference in performance if you take advantage of the "shakedown" test-drive option before actually racing, but it's unfortunate that Codemasters didn't see fit to include descriptions of the parts and their effects in order to make the setup screen accessible to players without a knowledge of cars.
A single season in the game's championship mode consists of a series of two-day rallies, each made up of six conventional stages and a super special stage in which you get to race head-to-head with one of your rivals in a stadium of sorts. What makes the two-day events particularly challenging is the fact that, even though you're completing seven individual stages, you get only two chances to make repairs and alterations to your car. Because any damage you sustain adversely affects your car's handling, there are times when you might make a conscious decision to ease off the gas in order to avoid damage that could prove costly in subsequent races. Winning the first two stages on a given day will, of course, give you a little time to spare when it comes to the final race of the day, but if your car is a wreck before you even get off the starting line, it's unlikely that your lead will be wide enough once all your times are added together. Like the visual damage in the game, the effects on handling are initially quite subtle--almost to the point that the only reason you notice them is because the sound of your engine is altered slightly. You can bet that your race times will suffer dramatically even if the handling doesn't, though, so succeeding in the game's championship mode can really feel like a balancing act as you attempt to achieve the fastest times you can without risking damage. The damage and subsequent repairs in the game definitely add an extra edge to the competition, and since the three seasons included in the championship mode all get progressively harder and feature a slightly altered selection of rallies, there's no reason you can't enjoy playing through the championship mode more than once.
The handling of the cars in Colin McRae Rally 3 strikes a near-perfect balance between realism and gameplay by combining impressively realistic car physics and handling with a control scheme that makes drifting around corners as much fun as it should be and recovering from the occasional mishap part of the fun rather than a chore. Whether you're racing on the dry gravel tracks of Australia, the snow-covered roads of Sweden, or one of the other rallies that fall somewhere in between, the courses and the way in which your car reacts to them are wholly believable. It's easy enough to navigate the many and varied courses without sustaining a lot of damage, but doing so at speed is sufficiently challenging that every perfectly taken corner feels like an achievement.
Helping you navigate each course safely is your codriver who, for the most part, does an extremely good job of letting you know what kind of corners you're approaching and which gear you should attempt to take them in. The codriver is aided by optional arrow symbols that appear at the top of the screen, but unfortunately even this isn't always enough to prevent the course layouts from being confusing. There's nothing more frustrating than racing the bulk of a stage nearly perfectly, only to see your lead disappear as a result of a wrong turn at a junction, but this will indeed happen on occasion until you learn the courses for yourself. This is made more frustrating by the fact that, in the championship mode, your progress is automatically saved after every stage--meaning that one minor slipup, perhaps as a result of questionable advice from your codriver, can ruin your chances of winning an entire rally.
Graphically, Colin McRae Rally 3 is one of the most realistic-looking games to appear on the Xbox to date. Each of the car models in the game is incredibly detailed both outside and in, and the way mud and dust build up on the bodywork as you get further into a stage is very convincing. The damage your car sustains in wrecks is also very, very cool. The stages themselves--which are inventions of Codemasters set in Australia, Finland, Greece, Japan, North America, Spain, Sweden, and the United Kingdom--look equally impressive, although the fact that you'll often race six stages in the same country at a time means that the scenery can feel very repetitive after a couple of stages. The presentation of the menu and option screens definitely lets the visual side of the game down, but since there are very few options for you to configure, you won't be spending much time with them anyway.
Colin McRae Rally 3 offers some of the most enjoyable and realistic rally racing on any platform to date--it's just a shame that the game's options are so limiting. Real rally competitions might not allow fields of cars to compete head-to-head with each other in an environment that allows contact between them, but as Rallisport Challenge demonstrated last year, that's not necessarily reason enough to all but exclude the option from a video game. Colin McRae Rally is certainly one of the best rally games on the Xbox right now, but with its dearth of gameplay options, it's difficult not to question the game's lifespan--particularly if you're likely to be playing the game alone rather than with friends.