When you've got a benchmark product, everyone tries to knock you off your pedestal, and Codemasters has certainly come in under heavy pressure in the past year with the likes of RalliSport Challenge and World Rally Championship (and soon Activision's Rally Fusion) all providing more than adequate alternatives. So with Colin McRae Rally 3 being Codie's first rally title on the next gen systems it has a big point to prove - namely that it still rules the genre.
The emphasis this time around is that you get to 'be' the man himself, with the main crux of the game built around driving the 2002 Ford Focus RS WRC as Colin McRae in a championship season against 15 other competitors, who each drive their own authentically modelled car.
And it's authenticity that CMR prides itself on, with Colin McRae and (now ex) co-driver Nicky Grist both helping out in the development process to ensure that crucial elements such as the pace notes and the handling are as close to reality as possible. Of course, 99.9% of anyone playing this game will have no idea what a true Rally experience really feels like, so we'll have to take their word for it on that one.
It's certainly easy enough to admire the attention to detail lavished on the various cars within the game. Accordingly, the polygon count has risen to around the 14,000 mark, giving the developers room to really model every aspect of the car - even down to the interior - and it doesn't take more than a glance to see that the results are beautiful. The tangible difference between cars such as the Mitsubishi Lancer EVO 7, the Subaru Impreza WRX 44S, and the Citroen Xsara Kit Car, is certainly lost on most of us here at Eurogamer, but for the car fetishists among you, you'll be well catered for with plenty of hidden surprises to unlock too.
Just be good looking
With this in mind, it's a shame, then, that the same attention to detail doesn't appear to have been lavished on the tracks. From an eye candy point of view - on the Xbox - you'd certainly expect a whole lot more than CMR3 delivers. It's not that it's ugly, because it clearly isn't, but it suffers next to the highly underrated, and 'only on Xbox' (and, cough, PC) title RalliSport Challenge. Firstly, the problem of scenery pop up hasn't been entirely eradicated; certain bits of scenery such as the many trees that populate the trackside just look dated and cardboard cutout-esque. Jaggies are also rife, and the whole look of it is just plainly unsatisfying for a next gen product.
Frankly, side by side, RalliSport kicks CMR3's arse in the looks department, and in every area you could think of. We suspect it's a case of the product's PS2 state being a higher priority; an understandable commercial decision, but nonetheless its disappointing to see a machine as powerful as the Xbox not being pushed as hard as it can.
Before we move on from the visuals, CMR3 does have its saving graces - firstly the weather effects (rain and snow) are absolutely fantastic. The only problem is that the only way to see them is to play from the dashboard viewpoint - which makes keeping the car on the road an absolute lottery. It's a great effect that no one can use. And to round off, it's worth pointing out that after a few hours in the company of CMR3, you'll soon start to forget that it's not the best looking game out there, but become more enamoured with its numerous gameplay charms.
Gameplay modes are kept to a sensible, tried and tested minimum: there's the obligatory single race mode (which in effect trebles up as a time attack and practice mode). Single race supports up to four players split screen (only up to two on PS2), and gives players the choice of any (currently unlocked) tracks from eight countries (Japan, Spain, USA, Sweden, Finland, Greece, Australia and the UK).
Just one track from each country is available initially, with the exception of Australia, which has all six of its main tracks unlocked. Still, 13 tracks is more than enough to choose from in the game's early stages, and it's a nice touch that you can check out all the different locales before you have to endure the blood and sweat of the lengthy Championship mode.
Ominously, when you do get round to starting a season, the difficulty levels are 'Normal', 'Hard' and 'Very Hard'. It's almost an admission that there are no easy races in CMR3, so gamers who like to get straight into their racing games may want to think about the challenge that lies ahead.
Your first season as Colin sees you racing a fairly comprehensive set of races: across six countries, with seven races in each - six stages across two days, followed by a final one on one race set in a stadium. Each race has four checkpoints, and you are able to monitor how far off (or on) the pace you are as you progress through each race.
In true CMR style you can make small performance gains by optimising and adjusting just about any part of the car you could possibly want to - including brakes, chassis, suspension, gearbox, tyres, and steering. There really are a bewildering number of configurations that will affect the way your car performs out there on the track. You get the option of doing this before every race, although fortunately for those of us who'd rather not get our hands greasy, the game's defaults will get you by nicely, too.
The real deciding factor on the driving experience is the driving conditions. These vary wildly depending on weather, time of day and, of course, your locale, but they can even change dramatically on any given track, with a sudden switch from tarmac to gravel all too easy to notice.
It's here that familiarity will help get you through each race, with plenty of evil sections capable of catching unprepared drivers out. But while initial forays may seem a little daunting when you're careering all over the track and diving off cliffs, once you've got the absolutely superb handling nailed, and start driving properly it all slots into place.
But if you do come a cropper, there are some superb damage effects to marvel at. The actual physical damage model isn't tremendously impressive (Burnout 2 certainly leads the field in this respect), but with so many areas of the car open to damage, the effects on the handling of the car can be severe - even to the point where your gearbox will mess up, you wheels will wobble, or even fall off. Bad driving is most definitely not rewarded, but it's fun seeing just how much carnage you can deliver on your car!
Playing on normal difficulty, the more experienced players will breeze through the first championship season in a couple of hours. It's certainly made easier by the fact that your competitors tend to mess up even more than you do, so you'll find that a steady stream of second or third places won't affect your charge to glory all that much. But what this first easy-ish season does do is unlock a ton of extras that enhance the game's pick up and play element.
To begin with this facet of the game is slightly limited in that the vast majority of the available tracks (and there are at least 56 in total) remain locked until you've played them in the Championship mode. Likewise, playing in this mode unlocks a variety of car parts (making it easier to control your car on certain tracks), and even better cars.
And with the excellent, and nippy split screen mode, the more cool extras you've unlocked, the more fun the game's 'arcade' charms become. It's just a shame Codies didn't include a mode that allows you to race against other CPU cars - as there's only so much fun you can get from racing alone. It would have added a whole new dimension to the game, and with all the competition out there, we can scarcely believe they overlooked this.
To sum up, Colin McRae Rally 3 has everything for the discerning driving fan. It's handling, damage system, and realistic feel is untouchable, without ever allowing it to get in the way of being a fun game. If it weren't for the lacklustre visuals, this would get an even more enthusiastic response - but if the looks don't bother you, then CMR3 is pretty much an essential purchase for Rally fans, and well worth checking out even if you're not.