Rally racing might be one of the most competitive sub-genres in videogames, but even so, Codemasters' Colin McRae Rally 04
has got to be at or near the top of any serious list of contenders. Exclusive to Xbox in North America, Colin McRae 4 comes in as a 19.99 budget title that could very well be one of the best values on any system. The game may be offered at a reduced rate, but all of the marvelous rally racing physics, splendid graphics and authenticity you'll remember from past Colin McRae games is still here. Even with Microsoft's own Rallisport Challenge 2
just around the corner, Xbox-owning rally racing fans who aren't obsessed with online play may have to give McRae 04 a serious look.
You get real rally vehicles, including SUVs from Mitsubishi and Land Rover, that take on dirt and damage like wildebeests in your favorite PBS special. The fact that you can go from a racing games where the automakers are to paranoid to let the developer create so much as a dent on their precious vehicles to a rally racer where you can smash the crap out of Fords, Subarus and Peugeot is just so satisfying that may not want to play another high-browed street racer again. The fact that you can incapacitate your car and possibly not even be able to fix it back to 100% health when the race is over, will thrill you at first and piss you off later when you're cursing your own lack of skill and inability to race.
The particle effects for smoke, water, rocks and other tidbits you'll be kicking up wouldn't be as impressive if McRae 04 didn't have that famous physics system that has your vehicle rocking, powersliding and ricocheting around tracks so believably. The sense of speed and feeling that you're barely in control of your ride are crucial parts of a rally game and this is the series that taught us that standard.
When you get into the game's outstanding Championship Mode where you can tweak the tuning of your car to match the terrain and driving conditions, you'll actually appreciate the slight differences in tire types, suspension stiffness and gear ratios should you change them. And you certainly should. In Championship Mode you have to plan ahead as you progress through the eight rally locations around the world. Each race has multiple stages, each with unique terrain features and dangers. Tuning your car becomes more than just tinkering since you don't want to handicap yourself on one stage just to give yourself and advantage on the next one. Utilizing the Shakedown option to give your ride a test run under similar racing conditions is far more valuable here than it is in most other racing games that encourage you to take a practice lap or two. You'll be kicking yourself if you make your suspension too stiff so that you're always oversteering and trying to correct yourself. Or taking things a step further you can try to stiffen up the suspension so you're fast on the straightaways on Stage 1, but you may want to adjust your steering so you get the response you want when you hit the second stage. Managing your vehicle settings beyond just the next race and keeping your car in good working order help bring novices into the world of rally racing. The box for McRae 04 has the familiar orange stripe across the top hyping its Xbox Live functionality but you won't be competing against other rally fans around the world in this one, at least not directly. You can post your racing times onto Xbox Live scoreboards, but that's about as far as the online competition will go.
Using minigames to award players with new car parts to keep them competitive as you progress through the Championship Mode is an example of how it's all about the realistic rally racing gameplay. Why just give you the new shocks when the game can have you earn them by "testing" them for the manufacturer and clearing 20 foot hops in less than a minute? Once you get 'em, you've got 'em forever and like we saw with tuning system, you'll feel the difference with the new gear in your ride.
One of the built in limitations of rally games is the fact that you're only getting one car on the track at a time. This means that the rest of the game had better be absolutely stunning and free of any framerate problems. McRae 04 meets both of those requirements in our opinion. Most racing games can feel empty and sterile, but in this rally racing game the sense of speed and beauty of the environment do their parts to keep things interesting.
There are no cross-poly trees are other shortcuts in McRae 04. You can see the characters riding in the cockpit, maneuvering the steering wheel and being thrown about as the vehicle's chassis and body bounce and separate realistically. Waggling antennae, subtle windshield cracks, flapping fenders and vibrating tailpipes are the little bits of animation that will have your jaw on the floor as you run through McRae 04. First because they're there and then because they're so well done.
We've already touched on the particle effects but the clouds of dust and roadspray you'll kick up during your races in this game are wonderful. It's what one should expect from this type of game and you get it here.
We'll admit that we've spend years ignoring Colin McRae's co-driver Derek Ringer and still got through previous games in decent shape, but his constant yammering is well done and an important part of the rally racing experience. Once you learn to decipher the codes of what he's saying "5 easy left into a 3 sharp right" you'll know that you've got some quick steering and pedal work ahead and have a better appreciation for what it's like to be real rally driver.
The engine sounds and little sound effects that go hand in hand with the particle effects are all well done and are yet another reason you'll be getting into the world of rally racing. Different gravel types and the way your tires interact with them all sound unique.
We're disappointed that there's no option for custom soundtracks in McRae 04 however. It should be a staple of every racing game by now and without 'em you're stuck with good old euro-tech-pop for hours on end.
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