Codemasters returns to the back roads and two-tracks with this "2005" addition to its flagship rally racing series. In an RPG-influenced "Career Challenge" mode, this year's Colin McRae game has players working their way up the circuits from behind the wheels of classic two-wheel drive, super two-wheel drive, four-wheel drive, and super-four-wheel drive class automobiles. The game features more than 30 different vehicles total, including models by Alfa Romeo, Mitsubishi, Peugeot, Toyota, and Volkswagen. Races are set in nine international locations.
When it comes to driving games, there are two essential types: arcade demolition derbies that leave one hand to fend for beer and cheesy puffs, and hardcore replications of real-world physics. Colin McRae Rally 2005 is of the latter species: a relatively unforgiving yet smartly designed simulation of off-road hill-humping, mud-chucking, gravel-flinging racing with the best-looking visuals on any system, hands down.
If you're not familiar with the genre, rally racing retains some of the grassroots spirit the mega-corporate auto events lack. Rally cars are specially designed street-legal vehicles raced independently against a timer along on- and off-road tracks with a co-driver reading pace notes for upcoming sections of the course (to assist the driver in taking hills and turns at optimal speeds and vectors). Rally championships are divided into a series of stages, and winners are determined according to overall combined best times.
Colin McRae Rally 2005 takes the best features of its earlier incarnations and raises the vehicle tally to 30, from the Toyota Celica GT-FOUR and Mitsubishi Lancer Evo VIII to the Alfa Romeo 147 GTA and VW Beetle RSi (my picks for absentees include the Porsche 911 and Toyota Corolla). Each vehicle handles differently but with marked attention to realistic proportionality, thus the 2WD Peugeot 205 shreds on straightaways but can't handle quick turns with the muscularity of the 4WD Subaru Impreza WRX. There are no arbitrarily "poor" performers here, but merely better and worse vehicle types for certain courses as well as driving styles.
In addition to taking the helm as Colin McRae himself in the classic championship mode, there's a new career option that drops you into different locales for each stage of a race. In career mode, you can take on 23 different events ranging from championships to cups and supercups, as well as drive a variety of car classes; performing well earns career points that eventually unlock special events and rally cars.
The courses themselves will be a wake-up call for traditional racers new to rally racing, ranging from wet asphalt and loose gravel to potholed dirt roads and treacherous snow-packed pulse-pounders. There are now nine international locations (a new German rally is included with Australia, Finland, Greece, Japan, Spain, Sweden, USA, and UK), each modeled with realistic attention to locale topography. There are eight stages per event, but the length of each leaves something to be desired, running dramatically shorter than most real-life rally courses. The series needs more stage and track diversity, with at least an option to run a few longer 10-15 minute jogs (a typical C2-class rally can take up to 30 minutes per stage!) compared to the average 3-4 minute sprints in Colin McRae Rally 2005.
There's plenty to do between stages, and Colin McRae Rally 2005 has a service area chock full of options. Tires, ride height, springs, anti-roll, brakes, steering, and gearbox can all be tweaked to balance traction, chassis stability, suspension, and speed. While these have a notable affect on your driving experience, the game does a mediocre to poor job of modeling damage effects in either the normal or advanced difficulty modes. Try as long and hard as you like, it is simply impossible to wreck a car in Colin McRae Rally 2005, though the damage effects (spider-web cracks in windshields, hoods flying off, leaves falling from trees on impact) are certainly lovely. That a car can still sprint at high speeds after ramming a tree at 50 mph (50 times in a row) is highly disappointing given the level of realism elsewhere.
What ultimately makes the Colin McRae Rally series a boon for simulation enthusiasts and rally racing fans is its unsentimental driving model. Forget anti-gravity leaps and forgiving limp-inertia turns -- when a car tops a jump in Colin McRae Rally 2005, the sense of metal and rubber flung into free-fall is utterly tangible, and the walloping "thunk" the suspension makes on ground contact reverberates from your ears to your fingers. It's tightly integrated physics and sound design, and Colin McRae Rally 2005 has it in spades. This is one extremely fine-looking and sounding game, and while you'll need a higher end video card to crank the detail and anti-aliasing up, how sweet it is to be whipping through the Australian outback with sunlight glinting off glass as red-tinged dust gradually films over your high-gloss paint job.
There are multiple views to choose from, including a nail-biting hood cam that's not as useful as the traditional, elevated behind-the-car angle. Sounds are generally useful and modeled correct to orientation, but a few of the engines (notably the Citroen Xsara) sounded a bit thin and compressed. Otherwise, the game looks and sounds fantastic, your default co-driver (Nicky Grist) is articulate and easy to understand when reading pace notes, and there's even a nifty visual effect that blurs the screen slightly during crashes.
So how do you do multiplayer LAN and online play given the sport's solo roots? Simple: ghost cars. While you in effect still race solo against a clock, you have the option of viewing your opponents as luminous multi-colored vehicles. Coupled with a real-time overhead map, online play is great fun, though the ghost cars themselves tend to be more distracting than helpful due to lagged visual updating even at excellent broadband speeds. Online play also unfortunately discards most of the offline features like leaderboards between stages and service bay vehicle customization.
Rally racers, start you wallets, because this is the best version of Colin McRae Rally available and well worth your holiday coin. My wish list for future iterations includes night racing, variable per-stage weather, working in-car gauges, and crowds that aren't 2D pancakes, but I can't say I've played a more satisfying racing game all year.
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