Full Review: Watch out for the trees! ::splat::
Despite the relative lack of popularity for the sport of rally racing in America, game companies continue to release them into the market. It essentially started with the arcade classic Sega Rally Championship, and since then publishers have tried their hands multiple times to deliver great rally games, despite anemic sales. The amazing thing is, almost every rally game has ended up being spectacular or just a lot of fun to play.
One of the most revered series of rally games is the Colin McRae Rally series - and for good reason. The original 2 CMR games, released on the PlayStation, were critically acclaimed for the realism and attention to detail that rally fans require in a rally sim. Despite these rave reviews, sales weren't measuring up, despite hope that rally games could be come the next Gran Turismo innovation. Even with bad sales, CMR publisher/developer Codemasters went back to work with Colin McRae Rally 3, and made sure to push the limits of the PlayStation 2 while doing it.
With that in mind, it's unfortunate that Colin McRae Rally 3 is, in essence, a ?broken? game ? though at the end of the day, superior in theory to the other PS2 rally titles. So many, many things are done masterfully, and if it wasn't for the couple unfortunate flaws that can drag the game down into the depths of utter frustration, you'd be looking at the rally racing masterpiece - one that could never be touched. As such, it's a flawed masterpiece ? an amazing work of art that doesn't do everything right; but what it does right is simply the best damn implementation of it in any rally game, ever.
CMR 3 is split into three main playmodes ? a single rally affair with other cars (for both single, and multiplayer), a time trial for checking out the different tracks, and of course, a Championship mode. The Championship mode is simply awesome, but it has a fatal flaw that really ruins replay value. See, you can only race in Championship mode as the star of the game, Colin McRae, and only race as his car, the Ford Focus Rally edition. Sure, it's a multiple season affair, but you cannot, at all, use a different driver or a different car. This is absolutely unacceptable ? this isn't the 16-bit era where it was just cool to be able to race as a real driver; nowadays we need a lot more meat with our side dish of Jello. As wonderful as this game is when you get down to the brass tacks of gameplay, this oversight is really unfortunate. Many have insisted there's a code to unlock this feature, but as is, nobody has ever found it ? and why the hell would you bury something that should be available by default in some cryptic code?
Despite all that, Championship mode is still required to unlock many of the extra features of the game (as it should be). Throughout the 3 seasons of rally championship racing, you unlock new tires (tyres for our British friends), some parts to adjust your car, new cars to race in other rally modes (not only does this game not let you use other cars, it just plays the role of a big cocktease tempting you with these fancy cars that you can't even use in a meaningful gameplay mode), and also unlock new tracks to compete on, as a way to test out the circuits before racing them for real.
For those unfamiliar to rally racing, it goes a little like this. Instead of a race where all the cars go at each other like NASCAR or F-1, rally racing is done in turns, and for good reason, really. Racing one at a time, you go through some incredibly narrow and harrowing ?tracks?, mostly consisting of dirt, mud, snow, and occasionally some tarmac (that's pavement for the rest of you), and consisting of some scary-assed turns and difficult navigating. And it's all time-based; if you have the best total time on all the sectors of a course, you win the race (it is possible to win no sectors, yet win the overall race; it's all about consistency) In other words, it requires full attention of not only a driver, but also his co-driver. Yes, in rally racing, you also have a co-driver, who surveys the track beforehand, then maps out the twists and turns, and tells the driver how easy or challenging the portion of the track is. In Colin McRae Rally 3, this is all done to the letter, and done perfectly to boot. It's almost stunning how well Codemasters captured the spirit of rally racing, in almost every single possible way.
As such, CMR 3 lacks one thing that usually makes or breaks a racing game ? artificial intelligence. There are no opponents to race, with the exception of the super special stage at the end of each rally, which is a 1 on 1 duel on a stadium track of sorts. Besides that, there is nothing at all resembling AI ? and even then, those races are simple because the AI is not that hot. Instead, the challenge is based more upon beating the times of computer opponents, and navigating the treacherous tracks.
And treacherous tracks they are. One area of racing games that I think is routinely ignored is the track designs, as the more generic they are, the less exciting the game becomes. Thankfully, Codemasters realized this and created rally tracks that are as terrifying as they are challenging. Rarely does a racer require every drop of your attention span, but CMR 3 does. It grips you and constantly desires your full attention, and it will just punish you if you don't. There's never, ever, a dull moment on these tracks ? and while some are easier than others (Spain is pretty easy, as it's all on pavement, but if you race England I promise you will master the art of the four letter word if you haven't yet), all the tracks bring something to the table that will challenge you.
What makes the tracks stand out even more is how Codemasters implemented the many intangibles into unique ways. The different surfaces feel completely different than others; a muddy track is much slicker to travel on than a dry dirt track, and a snowy track is almost impossible to go full speed on, as you'll just slip and slide out of control. On the other hand, the cars handle like they're on rails if you're on dry pavement; which is why so few of these tracks have much tarmac to race on. Just too easy. At first it's not easy to notice these surface changes, but once you go from surface to surface on a track that has it (a few go from tarmac to dirt, and the difference is huge), you'll notice it immediately. As a result, CMR 3 forces you to learn different racing styles and adjust to difficult terrain. Marvelous.
The other thing is the damage model. While it's obviously a graphical touch, it also makes a huge difference when racing. If you can't keep on the road, or keep hitting walls or trees and other off-track hazards (no deer in this game though, unlike V-Rally 3), the car starts to degrade, be it visually or in terms of handling. If the brakes are blown out, it's much, much harder to stop. If you screw up the alignment, the cars will pull to the direction you f'd it up. If you flub up the transmission, it's harder to accelerate and hit top speed. If you lose the hood?well you just lose the hood. And worst off, if you do it early in the race, you can't fix it until you reach a repair station, after 3 sectors of the course. If you completely ruin your car, you have to drop out and live to fight another day. And this too, is just amazing in realism, as it is relentless in a refusal to set a handicap or margin for error ? something that only gets smaller as you move up in difficulty level. If you don't learn how to manage the car, tracks, or listen to the co-driver's instructions, you won't be able to handle the extreme difficulty. In other words, you best be dedicated to playing if you want to beat a merciless game like this one.
All is not totally perfect though ? once again, the broken elements come into play. For the most part, this is a perfectly tuned and polished game, but one thing really bothers me, and that's the interaction with the off-track hazards. Unfortunately, unless you're a perfect gamer, you will sometimes misjudge a turn and wind up hitting something. It's tough to avoid unless you're a master. Usually, this involves trees. Now, I haven't driven my car into a tree at high speeds lately (I used to participate with my friends and all, but that was peer pressure and I'm past that stage), but if you do smack a tree head-on, usually you wind up with an engine on your lap, or at least the car becomes a tree-car. Of course, CMR 3 can't do this, as it would just be way too brutal, but they could have easily come up with something better. Instead, hitting a tree, or even a teeny rock just results in a game of off-road pinball, bouncing back and forth trying to get out of the mess and back on the track. Worse off, the collision detection of it is a tad off, as you can just barely brush against an object and flip around like you got nailed by a fully loaded semi-truck. It has this way about it, of just taking you right out of the game, and in many cases, out of the race. It might be a teeny flaw, but in a game where the racing engine is so perfect, it stands out as the fatal flaw that could ruin someone's enjoyment of the game ? since nobody likes to barely touch a rock and have the car act like it ran into an invisible wall.
Colin McRae Rally 3 is definitely an outstanding looking PS2 racer. As mentioned, the damage model is outstanding in terms of the gameplay, and also looks great as well. Each car itself is modeled exactly like the real thing, in incredible detail. But the thing that stands out is how the cars are affected by elements. Not only does visible damage appear by means of bumpers hanging off the car, or doors being opened up after a bad turn (and then closed by the driver or co-driver), and even the amusing hood blow'd off animation, but when racing on the tracks, the cars take elemental damage. Dirt, mud, and snow all begin to build up on the car as you race, and only gets cleaned off at the repair stations. It doesn't just appear out of nowhere either, it gradually builds up as you race along the tracks. Sure, it was first done in games like Rallisport Challenge on the Xbox, but no matter, it's outstanding in CMR 3 as well.
Roadside detail is loaded with touches like well-animated trees and good reflections from the water, and in cases when it's raining or snowing, it stands out as exceptionally realistic. It's one of those kind of games that throws all the great graphical touches in your face, rather than wow with irrelevant roadside wowing (though it's nice looking if you have the time to look at it ? remember, pay attention at all times, or you'll play pinball with the trees like me), unlike a few other racing games that can remain nameless. The best part is, each track is unique and fitting to the country you're racing in ? the England track is rainy and muddy, and the Greece track is like a hot desert. Variety isn't a problem here.
In rally games, things are different in terms of audio, compared to other racing games. There is no music, and minimal, natural sound effects as it should be. Instead, the audio is essentially a one-man show ? and that man is Nicky Grist who at the time was Colin McRae's real co-driver (apparently they split, I haven't watched WRC on Speedvision lately to know for sure though). Grist analyzed all the tracks included, and wrote exhaustive, comprehensive pace notes on each one for maximum realism. Grist also serves as your co-driver, lending his voice to the game, no matter what car or track you're racing.
The other sounds revolve around ambience ? from the fans that inhabit the tracks (and unlike real life, people don't get run over and killed by an errant rally car ? this ain't Grand Theft Auto, you know!), who cheer you driving by or taking off from the starting point. Of course, engine noises and other car-based effects are mixed in, and these are nice, if not necessarily unique. Playing so many rally games over the years, you get used to hearing the farting muffler and exhaust, and the sound of tires flying across tough surfaces. It still does its job, though.
Despite the few incredibly annoying flaws in Colin McRae Rally 3, there's no question that this is THE ultimate in rally racing ? but it could have been better, and will be eventually surpassed. If it wasn't for the small problem with off-track shenanigans involving trees, rocks, and other roadside deterrents, and the painful lack of depth in the Championship mode, CMR 3 would be completely perfect. As is though, CMR 3 is easily the best handling, most challenging, and most demanding rally racer since Colin McRae Rally 2.0. Despite its flaws, it's still the best PS2 rally racer around ? until hopefully Colin McRae Rally 4 blows it away.