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First Impressions: Colin McRae Rally 3

Kristan "Colin" Reed takes to the roads on Xbox

After selling 4.5 million copies with its two Rally titles, it's fairly obvious that Codemasters has got this genre sussed. And two years on, the level of expectation for the third in the series is understandably high, especially given that it's the first to appear on next gen consoles. Being lucky sods, we managed to get our sweaty paws on an Xbox preview copy, and it's shaping up nicely.

Kristan makes an early exit
A rare moment spent on the track
Er, imagine a 'crack' noise, coming from behind you, or something. Bloody captions.

While still an unfinished build, it's clear that Codies has got something special on its hands. Everything has been stripped out and received a major overhaul: firstly the cars look far more realistic, thanks to the huge jump in the polygon count - up from 800 in the last version to around 14,000, while the tracks are vastly improved, both in terms of variety, detail, terrain, and trackside detail.

This time, of course, you get to actually be Colin, which roughly translates that you get to race across eight global locations (Japan, Spain, USA, Sweden, Finland, Greece, Australia and UK) in his Ford Focus RS WRC, and occasionally entering the service area to tinker with just about any aspect of your car. Around 16 cars are available in total, each lavished with the same level of attention to detail. Mmmmm.

Of course, you don't have to go through the rigours of the Championship, and each course of each stage is selectable, where you can get some much needed practise in. And believe us, if you're as rubbish as I am at driving, you'll need plenty.

Steep learning curve

We say "much needed", as CMR3 is not a game that you will be able to succeed at right away. There's a steep learning curve, born out from the fact that our initial experiences were so poor that we were anything up to fifty seconds behind our nearest rival by the end of the race. Yep, we were regularly careering into trees, sliding down banks, and generally wiping out big style. Colin 3 is not a game for the faint of heart. This daddy relies on the gamer being a) patient b) a good driver and c) persistent. Without any of these three qualities, don't expect to be very good at this game.

Having said that, the Xbox version offers an exclusive four player split screen mode, so even if you're a bit rubbish against the computer, there is much fun to be had playing against your mates - something that PS2 owners will only be able to do against one friend, thanks to the inevitable 'technical restrictions'. (Although Shox managed four-player split screen on the PS2 very nicely, thank you). And while we're on a technical tip, we were slightly alarmed about the occasional appearance of pop-up on the horizon. It didn't exactly detract from the playing experience, but we trust that these issues will have been ironed out in the final stages on development.

From the couple of hours we spent in the company of the new Colin McRae, we were certainly impressed. The whole experience instantly feels more rounded than ever from the moment you set off. The handling is entirely convincing (although admittedly we've never driven a real rally car), and you really do feel like you have to drive properly, taking care at every corner. It's punishment, it really is.

Come out, you're surrounded

The 5.1 surround deserves a special mention too - never before has a driving game sounded so immersive. If you change your driving viewpoint, the sounds change to reflect your positioning, and it's well worth considering setting up your home cinema especially to play this game. It's that good. Every crunch and smash appears exactly where it should - especially when you play it in the in-car view.

And it's the in-car view that shows off the wonderful weather effects off. You've probably read all about the rain effects, and our verdict is 'believe the hype'. They're great, and your car even gets completely covered in filth in a convincing fashion. As for the damage modelling, it's not perhaps in the Burnout 2 league, but in this case it does make a real difference to the way your car controls. Suffice to say we knackered our Ford Focus up in nearly every race. Must. Practise. More.

If Codies can make allowances for novices (like us), and sort out the rather unforgiving difficulty of computer opponents there's very little anyone could fault this game for. Ok, it's not as instantly playable as the likes of Shox or Burnout 2, but if you like your driving games to offer brains, brawn and a long term challenge, then look no further. It definitely raises the bar for realism, but whether that's your bag will be down to your personal taste.

Check out our full review shortly before its October 25 release, by which time we'll hopefully be reasonably good at playing it…