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Colin McRae Rally 3

Hands-On - this time it's personal

I love rallying. I really do. I watch it on TV, I try to make the pilgrimage to watch it in the slushy mud of various UK stages now and then, and I drive a Ford Focus. I thought that Colin McRae Rally 2 was the finest rally game on any platform at the time of its release, and based on preview code I've been sinking my teeth into for the last few weeks, I think Colin McRae Rally 3 is the best rally game at the moment.

The Ford team gets to work on the car after I beat it senseless

The real drive

Instead of racing facelessly through a series of checkpoints in a range of vehicles, Colin McRae Rally 3 really does put you in the shoes of McRae, and demands that you fulfil a three-year contract to win various championships for the Ford Rallye Sport team. The developer is focusing on visual and technical detail that surpasses the opposition and sticks to authenticity over the arcadey stylings of something like TOCA Race Driver. In line with this vision, the 2002 Ford Focus RS WRC is fully weighted and looks and functions authentically, from the advertising and curves on the chassis to the engine bay size and brake disc alignment.

Codemasters is hoping to build an atmosphere of actually being part of a championship rally team, and this requires the utmost authenticity. Performance set-ups, for example, provided along with a car transporter's worth of detailed information and data by Ford, can be adjusted and tweaked to your heart's content and cover every inch of the car. Data from Ford has been used to define the game's car physics along with its actual design, so CM3 is effectively a Focus simulator, and a Ford Rallye Sport simulator to boot - with McRae and co-driver Nicky Grist fully animated and alert. If you collide with something, Nicky even gropes for the roll cage to steady himself when he's not busy reading off pace notes, and McRae visibly uses the steering wheels, pedals and handbrake.

Further to the career mode, which will form the centre of the game, players can play with three 4WD and four 2WD cars all built to the same standard as the Focus. These include a Mitsubishi Lancer EVO 7, a Subaru Impreza WRX 44S, a Ford Puma Rally and even a Citroen Xsara Kit Car, along with several more as well as all the usual classic and bonus cars.

Don't like the Focus? Fine, drive something else, like a Saxo

Muddy peaks

It's been a long time since the last Colin McRae game, a fact reflected in the Focus' polygon count - up to 14,000 in CM3 from 800 in the previous release on PSone - and the visuals have grown in more than just resolution. As I've said, the detail extends far beyond what you can actually see at any given time, but what you can see is nothing short of beautiful. The championship covers Japan, Spain, the USA, Sweden, Finland, Greece, Australia and the UK, across tarmac, gravel, dirt and muddy rain-soaked surfaces, and the realisation of each is impeccable, right down to the weather effects. Rain tips down at various rates, pooling on the windscreen and streaking upwards, and snow parts gently as you slice through it.

Trackside detail is at its all-time best for the series, with multiple layers of foliage realised without the flat, lifeless model of the previous two games. Courses are huge and with detailed textures and clever design taking them across train lines, through intricate valleys and across snowy hills, it's a mission to keep your eyes on the road and not on the spectacle. The Focus muddies up with each slop of dirt, and kicks up its fair share to boot, taking advantage of some lovely particle effects.

And the cars, though they won't ever catastrophically explode, will fracture and fragment as you kick them around the courses, especially if you fail to keep various rocks, trees and other aspects of scenery out of the way. You'll sacrifice a precious rally stage to fix your car if it gets bent too far out of shape, and with bumpers that itch to escape their attachment to the chassis and windows that want, nay, demand to be shattered, this means that CM3 is quite a substantial undertaking and a devilishly tricky one at times, but this is the idea - it's a Ford Rallye Sport season, and those are tough! At the moment, the balance is just about right, and although the sensation of speed is perhaps a little intangible, the rest of the package looks, feels and plays properly.

Easy, right?

One could argue that the game is a bit rough around the edges at the moment, with a list of bugs, hangs and glitches still remaining and fairly evident, but a lot of the time between this version of the game and the release date will have been spent tweaking and adjusting to make sure the game is every bit as authentic and entertaining as it should be. Now less than a month away, it's about time you dusted off that steering wheel and plugged in those pedals.