Codemasters' response was to concentrate the CMR experience further, enabling players to experience the game as though McRae themselves - one car (Focus RS WRC), a three-year contract with the Ford team, eight countries. Aside from being one of the bravest structural decisions such a popular franchise has undertaken, it afforded the team the ability to pour all efforts into recreating an exceptionally detailed model of the central vehicle (with damage system to match).
It also proved divisive, of course - not everyone liked the idea of being offered no campaign option but to take on the role of McRae, regardless of the improvements in handling (although the central pivot point-based dynamic felt more obvious, partly as a result of general driving game advancements of the time) or how masterful the level of atmosphere this made possible (supported in no small part by standard-setting sound effects).
Colin McRae Rally 04 (2003)
PC (2004), PS2, Xbox
An increasingly crowded scene now incorporating two (soon to be three) WRC titles and technically brilliant newcomer RalliSport Challenge saw Codemasters switch to a yearly production cycle as well as a move towards the more mainstream approach favoured by its rivals.
CMR 04 also marked a return to a more traditional structure of multiple championships, play modes and vehicles (Sony's official licence prevented WRC cars from inclusion but Codemasters found 20-odd suitable replacements). The contrast with the straightforward essence of CMR3 was sufficiently great to ignore the worryingly short 11-month gap between the two games, but the acclaim this latest McRae outing received was also justified. CMR 04 offered arguably the finest rally-based handling model seen on console at the time and, as ever, was backed by a leading audio package and damage system.
CMR purists may have resented the tweaked difficulty curve but even the shortest test drive would have ensured they couldn't fail to notice that every aspect of the substantial CMR 04 package, no matter how subtle, appeared honed to an remarkable degree. For some, this remains the definitive pre-DiRT Colin McRae experience.
Colin McRae Rally 2005 (2004)
N-Gage, PC, PS2, PSP, Xbox
It seems impolite to criticise a series that has delivered excellent gaming moments as consistently as Codemasters' McRae titles, but it is entirely possible to have too much of a good thing. CMR 2005, released in the year that McRae found himself out of the WRC and went off to play at the Dakar Rally and 24 Hours of Le Mans, proved one more CMR game too soon.
Although undeniably accomplished, it proved difficult to differentiate from CMR 04. Yes, there was the obvious inclusion of online modes, the content was boosted and there were the usual, expected improvements in visuals, damage model and other such details but in the context of the series too underwhelming to recommend it to owners of the game's predecessor. CMR 2005 would serve as one of the more convincing arguments against a yearly production cycle for driving games - thankfully the industry, not just Codemasters, would take note.
Colin McRae Rally: DiRT (2007)
PC, PS3, Xbox 360
After a deserved - and much-needed - sabbatical, the McRae brand burst back into action with DiRT, a gloriously revitalised and fresh new direction for the series. Having clearly thought long and hard about what to do with the franchise, Codemasters wisely realised that McRae's continued disassociation with the WRC, as well as that sport's recent tendency to get weaker by the season, offered a degree of freedom the games hadn't dared enjoy.
The resulting feast of varied off-road activity may differ wildly from, and was evidently constructed to appeal to a wider audience than its predecessors but it retained the essence of McRae's all-or-nothing approach to motorsport competition. A new game engine, no doubt combined with a reinvigorated development team, ensured one of the finest rally driving models ever conceived and a level of graphical prowess finally in line with the Race Driver titles (Codemasters' other brand of racing experiences having previously consistently beaten the McRae games technically).
The expected success of its imminent sequel may yet confine it to history but, like the remarkable talent whose name adorns the series, DiRT's role in setting the standard for others to follow while supercharging a franchise that looked in danger of stalling should not be forgotten.
Colin McRae Rally: DiRT 2 is due out for DS, PS3, PSP, Xbox 360, Wii on 11th September, with a PC version to follow. Check out our review elsewhere.