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Colin McRae Rally 04

Kristan's a confirmed rally-driving fiend.

Once the undisputed king of the Rally driving genre, Codemasters came in for a fair bit of flak with last year's slightly disappointing Colin McRae Rally 3. Although the core gameplay was still undoubtedly strong enough to please the faithful, some were disappointed about only being able to drive a Ford Focus, and the company found its flagship product desperately wanting in graphical terms, slipping behind Sony's WRC II on the PS2, and being firmly trounced by DICE's more arcade oriented entrant RalliSport Challenge on the Xbox.

Unusually, the Brit publisher has climbed off the canvas with a quickfire version 4.0 that it hopes will keep the flame burning, and presumably stave off these relative newcomers from stealing any more of its thunder. Fortunately Codies appears to have addressed at least some of the issues that many fans had with the last version.

But I Don't Wanna Be Colin

Those who have seen the series progress from its original inception will welcome the fact that you don't have to 'be' Colin anymore, and can choose to play in one of 21 cars, across four distinctly different classes, in a variety of modes encompassing Championship, Stages, and Rally, each with offline multiplayer varieties - two-player split screen on PS2 and four-player on Xbox. Times can be uploaded to an Xbox Live scoreboard, but those dreaming of online rallying will have to wait for RalliSport Challenge 2. With the news that Pro Race Driver 2 will have full Xbox Live support, this strikes us as a major disappointment. Ah well.

We all hoped and expected that CMR's 128-bit entry would result in gloriously lifelike environments, but last year's effort was well and truly humbled by RSC, and the legacy of its PS2 origins was painfully apparent with cardboard cut-out scenery, pop-up and a lack of texturing. This time around, Codies has clearly improved the graphics engine no end, and some of the stages are truly gorgeous. The UK stage in particular has such a stunning variety that it's not only a pleasure to race, but merely spectating is a joy. Having now played through all 48 stages, it's fair to say there's not a weak link among them, with a great deal of attention to detail, clever design and a rock solid frame rate allowing Codies to make the game the seat of the pants experience you expect.

As many of you have already pointed out, it's still by no means perfect. The texturing still leaves something to be desired when you get up close, and the legacy of cardboard cut-out trees and bushes still persists. As a visual experience it still can't hold a candle to RSC, and having just seen RSC2 at X03, Codies still has plenty of catching up to do in this department, but basing its appeal purely on the visuals alone would be gross stupidity.

Smack My Ditch Up

The cars, for example, couldn't really be much better. Not only is each and every one modelled with a splendid level of detail, the damage model is possibly the best we've ever seen. Sure, Burnout 2's were more spectacular, but in CMR04, every scrape and prang you make has a discernable effect, not only visually, but often dramatically altering the way the car handles. Almost every section of the car comes in for some seriously harsh treatment at some point or other, and attempting to save your car from a pounding is half the battle as each course tests you to the limit.

As ever, Codies has got the handling absolutely spot on. We're extremely dubious whether CMR04 really has had its "stabilisers" taken off, as the Warwickshire publisher claims, but it's a model which certainly works in the context of the game. In reality it still basically feels as though the car is steering around a central pivot point, but it's is so beautifully responsive and responds dramatically between different car types, classes and the surfaces you're driving on. After playing this for hours on end, and then switching to Project Gotham Racing 2, we honestly couldn't wait to get back to playing this, if that gives you any idea how compelling CMR04 is as a driving experience. The handling is in a league of its own, and before long you'll not really give a hoot if the bushes look less convincing that RSC's. Just feel the quality.

Another major improvement this time around is the interaction with trackside objects. Previously it seemed as if you could cause a complete stop, or worse flip your car over, if you hit as much as a pebble. In CMR04, these terrifically annoying incidents happen quite rarely, although we did still manage to find a few indestructible shrubs now and then. On the whole, though, the ability to take proper short cuts at your peril through ditches and often between trees makes for hair-raising gambles as you hurtle successfully through various death traps at 90mph.

Balancing Act

For us, possibly the wisest tweak is the balancing of the gameplay, which with a bit of practice ought to see players able to compete with Colin and co. within the matter of an hour or so. Previously the barriers to entry seemed to be set inexplicably high; this time around even newcomers to the game will soon find themselves able to get stuck in relatively quickly without being made to feel like they're being put through hell to get there. That's not to say it's been made too easy, because we've seen more than a few people fail dismally to get to grips with it [cheers mate -Tom]. Closer to the mark is that Codies has made the handling feel more responsive and natural. Once you adapt to the subtlety of the new style, it stands you in good stead for the rest of the game.

Accessibility isn't something you associate with a Rally simulator, with all the tinkering you can do to get the most out of your car, but somehow Codies have made the whole process of repairs, upgrades and changes far easier to stomach for those who don't care for the intricate detail. For example, during the Championship you'll be given the opportunity to repair your ailing car after every second race. With 60 minutes to carry out repairs, you're informed which areas of your car have incurred damage, and how long the repair will take - as well as a short explanation of what benefit there will be for carrying out the work.

In short, the repairs process is extremely quick, simple, and after the first time it become second nature to check how much punishment your car has taken - simply because you'll really notice the difference if you choose to not bother undertaking the repairing, in terms of lower speed, sluggish handling, poor braking and so on.

Losing Our Religion

On top of that, the game occasionally advises you to set your vehicle up in accordance to the demands of the course. As gamers with ostensibly arcade leanings, this is basically against our religion, but again, Codies has set the process up so simply that almost invisibly, and without shame you begin to pay attention to the surface conditions in advance of the race so you can make the necessary changes to your set up. You'd expect the game would configure your car up optimally by default, but oh boy it doesn't. By merely making a few tiny tweaks (such as selecting the right tyres) you can perform minor miracles out on the track, rather than constantly sliding miserably into yet another tree and coming last. By basically making the correct assumption that we're not all petrolheads, Codies is opening up the game to a potentially much bigger audience.

For the more advanced, masochistic player, however, there's also a plethora of settings that will enable them to punish themselves as much as they like, will both the two and four-wheel Championships available in an advanced mode, while an Expert Championship is there to unlock should you find the regular one too easy (which experienced players undoubtedly will).

One of CMR04's charms is the numerous unlockables available, with some amusing extra vehicles to rally in including the Citroen 2CV, Ford Transit van, the 70s style Ford Escort, as well as whole pile of upgrades that can be bolted on after the completion of some challenging Test scenarios between each stage of the Championship.

Even if you get bored of the existing Championship, CMR04 allows players to design their own custom versions comprised of their favourite stages from the 48 available. Throw in the welcome presence of co-op multiplayer in the championship, as well as the obligatory split screen and the only things missing are online play, and perhaps some of DICE's innovative ideas (and its graphics engine, naturally).

It's Good To Play Together?

Out of the two versions, the Xbox wins out by virtue of its much cleaner graphics and excellent Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound support (verses the PS2's Dolby Surround support). Both have widescreen support (unlike CMR3), but ultimately, to play, they're pretty much functionally identical. On the PS2 it's an easy decision to make, and is now our favourite rally game on the platform, but it's a harder call for Xbox owners; not only is the excellent RSC available at half the price, but RSC2 is just five months away and will have the draw of Live support. If you're not bothered about online play, and can forgive a few scenic flaws, then it's hard to think of a single good reason why you shouldn't own this.

8 / 10

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