Colin McRae Rally 3 Review

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Publisher: Codemasters
Developer: Codemasters

Platforms: PC, Xbox and PlayStation 2
Reviewed on Xbox

Take on the role of renowned rally racer Colin McRae and tear up the international rally racing circuit with co-driver Nicky Grist and the whole Ford team. Take on the world in Career mode to play through a series of true-to-life racing seasons or pick a car and a single track for some one-off racing. When you're done embarrassing AI opponents, take some time to humiliate a friend in multiplayer mode. No really. That's what friends are for. Leave the concrete oval behind for a little while and get sloppy in the twists, turns, mud, rain, gravel and snow of the professional rally racing circuit.

Rob de los Reyes

Starkly beautiful, almost antiseptically clean, Colin McRae Rally 3 is something to behold. The development team at Codemasters seems to have decided to do two or three things extremely well and leave the rest for another game. If indeed that was the plan, it was executed to the letter. Colin McRae Rally 3 is on the whole an exceptionally attractive game. It also plays as an exceptionally realistic simulation of a particular type of auto racing that, for whatever reason, seems not to generate much too much notice in the United States. Why American eyes prefer the sight of NASCAR's 20 identical cars making an extended left turn to the brutal twists and turns of rally racing is beyond me. But gamers are gamers. Even those inclined to name their firstborn "Dale" with no regard to gender are like to find something in Colin McRae Rally 3 to set their mullets a-flutter. This is a professional racing simulation with plenty of detail for those who know to look for it. That strict attention to realism may cost Colin McRae Rally 3 some replay value at the back end, but it makes for a heck of a ride while it lasts.

Colin McRae Rally 3 begins where every racer must – with the cars. Although in Career mode you'll be locked into the Ford Focus driven by the real-life Colin McRae and his co-driver Nicky Grist, the Stages mode let's you get behind the wheel of any of the cars you have managed to unlock. Each is superbly modeled both in its initial, shiny glory and through the accretion of damage while racing (the screenshots don't do it justice – you'll have to see it in motion). Mud spatters, snow sticks and water splashes as you race along the torturous tracks scattered worldwide. Although racing is much simpler when played from the third-person "follow" view, the first-person "cockpit" view is a treat not to be missed. Although first-person views are perennially challenged by the inability to simulate peripheral vision or the feel of driving by the seat of your pants, Colin McRae Rally 3 pulls out every available stop to produce an authentic driving experience. The cockpits of each car are authentically detailed and offer substantially different views. The effects of heavy snow and rain on the windshield are just plain cool. It's still just a game, but the sense of "you are there" is powerfully delivered.

As with the graphics, so too the audio – precise and minimalist. There is no heavy metal or techno soundtrack. Once you're in the game proper, two sounds predominate: your co-driver spewing navigation code and the hum of your engine straining to perform. Assuming you choose English as your default language, you'll get the actual Nicky Grist offering shorthand descriptions of the road ahead. The absence of music is almost deafening in its silence, but in light of the wild changes of direction and speed involved in rally racing, you'll be glad for the ability to hear both Grist and your engine without distraction.

Other sharp and sometimes surprising touches abound. In between races, you'll have a chance to tweak your car with a selection of parts. This particular menu comes in the form of an x-ray view of the car with the relevant portion highlighted as you move around. It's pure "bells and whistles," but welcome all the same. Upper level game menus are presented in the manner of an ESPN (or rather its British equivalent) display and crawl. The white-on-black menu options are striking, as with other elements, for their artistic minimalism. That running minimalist theme goes awry only once in the absence of people in the starting areas and the insertion of horribly ugly two-dimensional cut-outs of people interspersed along the courses. Those people are important since, without them, it's too easy for this particular game to become an abstraction.

Part of that is simply the nature of rally racing. You do not race against other opponents on a track simultaneously. Rather, you race one at a time with each team looking for that one opportunity to take the track a tenth of a second faster than the other teams. In career mode, individual stages add up to complete races which in turn add up to a complete racing season. Given the cumulative structure, the pressure is always on not just to beat an individual race time, but to race every track perfectly.

Which is perhaps where a little arcade flavor might have been worth some consideration. In career mode, there are no second chances. When a race is done (for better, worse or disaster) you don't have the opportunity for a "do-over." That kind of punishing realism would be a shade more palatable if your performance in career mode weren't tied to the unlocking of new cars. On top of that, you have only limited control of the difficulty settings in career mode. Perfectionists are forced to give up their neurotic chase for maximization or, more likely, to exit from a race the second they know they've lost three or more seconds. Once you're involved in the latter, Colin McRae Rally 3 is no longer a simulation, it's a game again. Better perhaps to be up-front about the "game" part rather than punish the player for trying to eke out a come-from-behind victory.

Still, there's something to be said for the tension that comes from judging your performance in fractions of a second, as well as for the you-against-the-world feeling of racing on a track all by yourself. The inability to take a clean "do-over" at the end of a stage may push you to (occasionally boring) conservatism, but at least you can let loose in Stages mode. The trouble is that merely racing against the clock costs the game a variable that might add replay value. When it's just you and the track, you can learn the track. When you beat it, you've beaten it. Whatever your reviewer's opinion of NASCAR racing as a whole, it's not hard to see how the presence of other cars on the track makes for an excellent gameplay variable.

Perhaps the purest of the purists will be able to tease out subtle thrills from repeated play of the two game modes on offer – certainly Colin McRae Rally 3 is detailed enough to offer subtlety. But the less dedicated may eventually miss the variety found in other racing games. Fortunately, that "eventually" is likely many hours after purchase. Raw beauty, tight gameplay and the different-ness of Colin McRae Rally 3 all add up to a superlative racing game. And, purist appeal or no, those elements are each accessible to the less single-minded gamer. The love affair may not last for years, but there's more than enough here to make for an intense summer fling.

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This page contains a single entry by Editor published on April 30, 2003 7:58 PM.

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