We're not sure why Codemasters still insists it invented the Rally game, but there it is, bold as brass in the Colin McRae Rally 04 press blurb. Dubious claims aside, it's without question the most successful Rally series ever, but after last year's comparatively lacklustre effort; we weren't remotely excited about the prospect of a quickfire number four. That was until we sat down and played the thing.
The 80 per cent complete Xbox build we hold in our hands is basically the game Codies should have released last year, with a bewildering array of modes, features and neat tweaks that go a long way to restoring the series to its rightful place on the winner's podium.
Before we launch into a whistle stop tour of the game's many features, the most glaringly obvious enhancements are in the audio/visual departments. Last year's Xbox version certainly played as well as you'd expect, but was utterly let down by a truly unremarkable graphics engine which looked faintly embarrassing next to DICE's Xbox-only Rallisport Challenge.
Vile and blocky no more
Thankfully, the vile blocky scenery and poor texturing witnessed less than a year ago in CMR 3 has been overhauled with a sprightly new engine which capably renders each of the eight rally locations (UK, Sweden, USA, Finland, Australia, Spain, Greece and Japan) with the degree of care, attention and variety that makes you actually want to see what's coming next.
As you'd expect, every stage throws up a mixture of challenging conditions that can change unexpectedly from one section to the next. Nothing new there, but the markedly improved visuals go a long way to properly highlighting these transitions. No matter what course we checked out, we were consistently impressed, and when you consider the UK course features muddy forests, gravel hills, tunnels and windy country roads often in the space of a mile, it makes for a captivating driving experience.
With just about every type of weather and driving condition covered at some stage or other, all alive with believable incidental detail, and with barely any pop-up to speak of, it's good to see Codemasters improving on this area so dramatically. The team still hasn't managed to make the crowd look remotely convincing, but one day, eh?
One area that has finally been properly addressed is the ability to drive outside of the confines of the track, often with disastrous consequences. On the other hand the lack of a 'tube' based environment allows for some often risky shortcut manoeuvres and the occasional spectacular dive off a cliff edge if you're not careful. Helpfully, you're almost instantly respawned onto the track, which always keeps you in with a shout of a decent finish - saving all those hair-tearing restarts.
As we mentioned, the audio has also had a tremendous overhaul, and Xbox owners are in for a treat if blessed with the required 5.1 surround kit. The game comes with three camera settings (behind car, dashboard and bumper cam), and the noise you hear varies accordingly. Most impressively, the dashboard position really does sound like the inside of a straining car, with every lump and bump of the track crunching through the suspension. On top of that, if you happen to catch a rock with the left back end of your car, the sickening smash emanates from your rear left speak in accordance. Predictably there's no music (save for the front end), but it's a merciful release in all honesty, and we can only applaud Codies' decision to keep things pure in this respect.
Although it wasn't working in our preview build, Xbox owners will also be able to upload their track times to Live, adding a new dimension of competition to the package. Multiplayer wise, CMR4 has a plethora of modes, albeit sadly restricted to offline play. Four player head to head split screen mode allows players to race either against the clock or against each other (just two player simultaneously on the PS2, predictably, although there is the option to race alternately on both systems). The popular Ghost cars have also made a welcome return, thankfully.
Championship mode, however, features a co-op mode that enables players to either team up and race for the same constructor, or against one another. While this all sounds great we can only hope Codies considers full Live play after seeing what Bizarre Creations is up to with Gotham 2. Truly it would make the game even more essential than it appears to be already; come on Microsoft, there's a big bag of cash with Codemasters' name on it.
Kristan Reed in 'getting good at Colin McRae' shock
The preview build houses just one of the eight championship stages (USA), along with one track from each of the other seven, so we at least managed to have a concerted session in advance of the finished article arriving sometime over the next three weeks or so. At this stage, the time balancing seems much fairer than in the past, and we were capable of a few first and second place finishes within a few attempts - something that we recall wasn't the case in previous somewhat hardcore editions of the game.
After every second stage you get the chance to make vital repairs to your undoubtedly battered car, which is a straightforward process of allocating repair time to numerous areas, such as body work, tyres, turbo and so on. If you earn them you can even bolt on upgrades or fine tune every area of the car you could possibly imagine. Not for us, but no doubt impressive for those who truly understand the nature of rally driving. Even if you don't, every change you make is explained concisely and simply to let you know what effect the tweak will have. So simple even we understood (mostly).
The finished version promises so many options and modes it almost makes our fingers bleed having to type them out, and we don't even want to imagine the blood, sweat and tears we'll shed trying to play through them all.
Gary Numan said
Where to start? Deep breath. In terms of cars there's "over 20" (i.e. 21), comprised of five 4WDs, five 2WDs, four Group Bs (i.e. banned 80s boy racer cars), and seven bonus cars comprised from various odds and sods including the Ford Transit and the Citroen 2CV, which should be amusing if nothing else. Just nine cars are unlocked from the beginning, with the rest earned through good performances in the exhausting Championship mode, which forms the rock of the single player campaign in the game. Oh, and each are driveable in Auto, Semi Auto and Manual transmission, and really committed rally wannabes can tweak tyres, brakes, steering, gear ratio, ride height, springs and anti-roll settings, not to mention the ability to toggle the damage settings between Normal and Heavy. Phew. This kind of player will no doubt want to unlock the Expert Championship, something we can't see ourselves ever managing!
If you don't fancy the slog of the Championship, you can always head for Rally mode and enter one the individual courses, which feature not only the eight country based stages, but also some themed made up stages including Jumptastic, Tarmac, Gravelfest, as well as space for two custom rallies which enables players to create their own dream courses from the various stages of the eight featured courses.
Each of the eight main courses is comprised of six stages, while determined players will also be able to unlock four Super Special stages and some classic CMR 1 stages, remodelled especially. That's well over 50 stages, which should take some beating judging by our early experiences.
Sensitive and responsive
The old 'pivot' based handling model has finally been ditched in favour of a heavier "more professional and realistic" system, and at this early stage we'd be inclined to say it's a revelation, making the ride a far more convincing experience; both more sensitive and more responsive, and generally speaking more fun. Given that we've really only dipped our toes into the game, it's too early to say how the cars handle across the various classes, but so far, so good.
Wrapping it up for now, even the damage modelling has had an overhaul, and while it's hardly troubling the Burnout 2 school of flying body parts, the knocks you incur have a far more realistic and genuinely appreciable effect on the way the car drives, even if the actual effect on the car isn't that visually noticeable. The sound, however, certainly is apparent, with bashed wheels resulting in horrible rumbling noises, and brakes squeaking in protest.
It's safe to say Codies is on the right track this time with CMR4, after the minor disappointment of version 3.0, and with no real competition appearing on the horizon for some time yet on the Xbox, there's only going to be one rally game worth owning this year. What Sony's effort turns out like remains to be seen, but it'll have to go some to match this.