Colin McRae Rally series has been the king of the rally genre. But does 2004's edition still rule the roast? One of the things you'll immediately notice is that CMR04 isn't as big a step up from it's predecessor as CMR3 was. For a start, although the graphics are certainly more detailed, crisper and altogether gleam more, they don't seem significantly different. They provide a high level of quality, with excellent animations ("right down to individual blades of grass moving in the wind" claims Codemasters), and amazing graphical effects, such as the usual gravel, snow, sand, and mud. Weather effects, such as rain, are also there to add to the game's atmosphere. It's all pretty amazing, but you can't help feeling you saw most of it in last year's edition, and that it's just been given a new glossy coat of paint.
So is CMR04 just a simple rehash? Not at all, because where it has improved, it counts significantly. Codemasters have listened to the criticisms of last year's edition to provide us with the ultimate rally simulation. One of the best improvements is in response to CMR3's biggest downfall - the Championship mode. Last year you could only be Colin McRae, traveling along in his Ford Focus. It provided a unique feel to the game, as you progressed through a career as a real rally driver, but it meant that the game was greatly limited; after all, as the main mode in the game, it essentially meant you played the game in just one car, whether you liked that car or not. This year things are different - you can now choose any team from the various licensed car manufactures, ranging from Colin's new Citroen, to the classic favorite, the Subaru (where the series began, incidentally). After picking your game, setting your name and nationality, you're away to begin a rally championship. Fans of the real FIA WRC will notice that CMR04 doesn't feature the real stages; a big loss, surely? Well, unless you're a purist, you're more likely to just be interested on the action on track, and how this reacts with the different environments. And CMR04 certainly doesn't let down here; providing custom tracks in the most condition-varied 8 countries out of the WRC-supported 16. This means, for example, you get to experience ice in Finland, sand in Australia, and rain and mud in Britain. The Championship itself is also split in four; it eases you in with the 2WD (two wheel drive) cars at first, before moving you on to the more traditional 4WD cars, and then straps you in with the Class B vehicles; cars which were banned in 1986 because their unrestricted nature meant they were far too dangerous, and when taking to them in the game, you'll realize why. For those who can manage 4WD mode with heavy damage on (in the advanced mode) then an extra challenge awaits you in the Expert Championship. Here you can only race from the cockpit view, and have to win the championship with everything up against you. Winning is an impressive feat, and you can let the world know with the special code you obtain on completion that you can submit to Codemasters' website.
In between championship races there are mini-games available allowing you to unlock equipment for your car, such as a better suspension. To obtain the items you have to complete a challenge in a time limit, and then it becomes available for you to add at the garage. The game certainly makes your work for your bonuses! As well as championship, CMR04 packs in a few other modes. Firstly is Rally, where you can actually compile your own 6-stage rally using a range of tracks from the 8 countries. Then there's Stages, which allow you to try out any track from all the countries, and there's also Quick Race, which will pick a country, stage and car for you, and get you straight into the action. Interestingly, there's no offline "Multiplayer" mode, but there IS offline multiplayer functionality. 2-4 player options have been cleverly integrated into the other modes. In Championship up to 2 players can compete, taking turns to navigate the stages, while in Rally, Stages and Quick Race you have a choice. You can either have up to four players split-screen racing (where you can see each other separated by a barrier in a Super Special Stage, or you are ghosts to each other in an ordinary Special Stage) or you can have up to four players taking turns. The game's other main new inclusion is the new Network mode, which allows you to play with up to 7 other players online or on a LAN in either a full Rally, or individual Stages - with your opponents appearing as ghosts like offline play. It's a great inclusion, and certainly something which should have made it into CMR3.
If you're wondering whether Codemasters have ruined the great gameplay experience, then put your worries aside, as Codemasters have made improvements, but they're for the better. There are no drastic changes in place, but the key one is that cars are no longer balanced on a single central point, instead each wheel acts individually, which means allowing just one wheel to slip into deeper snow can slow you down ever so slightly, providing for a great deal of realism (and asking for more in terms of skill) without compromising on the fun factor.
Graphically, the series has always been impressive. The lack of AI or other vehicles on the track has always allowed the game to focus on providing a high level of detail, both in the vehicles, and the surroundings. CMR04 is no exception, and as you'd expect from a sequel, it improves on it's predecessor, providing an even higher level of detail, and taking advantage of the latest graphics cards in order to clearly outstrip the console versions in terms of looks. Damage too, is very well modeled, but unfortunately it is let down by surroundings which still don't react; ramming your car into a tree will cause damage to your vehicle, but the tree remains unharmed. The same is true for walls, and gates, and just about everything except that floppy orange plastic gating which you can flatten. The weather effects, though, have both an impact on the gameplay itself (your car will slide on ice and mud, of example), and provides for some amazing graphical effects. Rain is particularly impressive, especially when it makes contact with your windscreen (take a look from the dashboard view to see this), and it will also build up on the ground, filling ditching and making parts of the track rather treacherous. CMR04 is certainly one of the most visually pleasing racing games on the PC.
Colin McRae Rally 04 may not have the WRC license of its PS2 rival, WRC3, but it beats it in the core area of gameplay, providing both the most enjoyable Colin McRae game to date, and the best rally game around at the moment.
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Colin McRae Rally 2005, Colin McRae Rally 3, Colin McRae Rally 2, Colin McRae Rally, F1 Challenge '99-'02, Cross Racing Championship 2005, TOCA Race Driver 3, Need for Speed, The: Special Edition
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