Reviewed: May 8, 2003
Released: April 15, 2003
Thereís never been a shortage of racing games for any console, but rally racing is an often overlooked sub-category of racing that is seldom touched on, at least as a dedicated title. Of all the systems, the PS2 certainly has the most rally racing titles to choose from; the rally modes in Gran Turismo 3 A-Spec are nearly worthy of their own title. Bursting onto the racing scene in a cloud of dust, challenging all other racing games and setting the bar to new heights is Colin McRae Rally 3.
The name, Colin McRae is pretty much synonymous with the sport of rally racing, so just having his name associated with this project lends an extra level of credibility to this third installment in a surprisingly successful series or racing games. This is the third game in the series and veterans of previous Colin McRae games will instantly noticed some stripped down content. Even so, there is still an amazing rally game that brings all the thrills and challenges of offroad racing to your PS2.
Combining excellent visuals, amazing physics, and car damage that puts Burnout to shame, CMR3 is one of the most challenging and realistic driving simulations you can play on your PS2. That alone may turn off many gamers who are looking for a more visceral racing experience, but there is something else to consider when determining if CMR3 is the game for you.
Rally racing is a lonely sport. In CMR3 you are racing a clock and only a clock. The lack of any other presence on the lengthy stretches of track can make for an often boring or uneventful racing experience. You wonít be racing through clouds of dust trying to pass the leader on a straightaway or edging him out on that next turn. You simply drive along listening to the calls of your navigator, sliding around turns, missing trees and rocks, and watching the occasional split-timer to see how far ahead or behind you are from the leader.
Assuming you can get past the solitude and sim-like seriousness of this racing experience you are going to be in for a real treat. Colin McRae 3 offers so much more than any other single racing game and even manages to make significant improvements on the last Colin McRae game that appeared on the PSX and PC back in 2000. While we all expect next-gen improvements given the three-year span between releases, CMR3 really shines in every way possible.
The physics engine is truly remarkable. Every car handles in its own unique way and it tightly integrated into your game controller whether you are using a gamepad or a wheel. I played both ways and found that my MadCatz MC2 offered some excellent handling and gave me a much greater sim-like experience; especially when counter-steering as I slid around those tight turns.
There is a definite feel of weight and momentum associated with these cars. You will quickly learn that these speedy little racers catch realistic air off of jumps and slide around turns with tires spinning kicking up dirt and dust. Youíll learn about traction and the lack of it the first time you slide into a tree or boulder. Youíll learn to study each track and pick tires and perform other car setup functions specific to the upcoming segment of track. But most of all you learn how to follow directions.
While itís quite possible to learn every turn and memorize every track, keep in mind these courses are huge and linear. You wonít be repeating laps so it becomes critical to listen to and heed the warnings of your navigator. He will call out upcoming turns, crests, and obstacles. He also gives you useful info such as if a rock or tree requires you to adjust your racing line through the next curve. The first time he told me to ďstay insideĒ and I swung wide I went nose-first into a giant boulder and lost half my front-end.
That leads to my next section on car damage. While racing games are only now starting to feature somewhat realistic damage, CMR3 blows them all away with pieces and parts of the cars that deform, break, crack, dangle, and drag. After hitting a tree my hood started flying up each time I crested a hill. After one significant jump the entire hood ripped off and now I could see a various moving engine parts working just on the other side of the windshieldÖuntil I hit that boulder and my windshield blew out in a shattering of glass. When I limped across the checkpoint line my fenders and hood were gone revealing the car frame beneath and my front bumper was dangling from only one side bouncing with the leftover momentum of my car.
While you can change your car set between each track segment you can only repair your car at the end of each dayís racing. This means you need to take care of your car as best you can, especially during the early stages or you will find yourself unable to even compete with the other more cautious computer opponents. As far as car setup, you can tweak more things than most gamers might be used to in a console racer. You can alter your brakes, gearbox, chassis, engine, suspension, and even the steering. There are several settings for each category and the computer does a pretty good job of making a default selection for you, so you could conceivably never tweak your car and likely win if you are skillful enough at driving.
You can test drive each section of track and then review an elaborate display of information found in the telemetry section. This is a complicated line graph display that you can then use with the power analyzer to help you tweak your car settings. Again, this is all superfluous stuff for gear-heads to tinker with but you really donít need any of it to win races.
The tracks are quite realistic which unfortunately translates to some often boring and repetitive scenery. Trees start to look alike and boulders, rivers, grass, and dirty stretches of tarmac all start to blend together after a dozen races. You get to compete in eight countries such as Sweden, Australia, Greece, Spain, Japan, and others. Each country offers a six-stage rally followed by a challenge race where you actually get to see another car on the track, or at least itís dust cloud. Thatís a total of 56 races that you can probably finish off in 20-25 hours.
There is an amazing sensation of speed while playing CMR3, thanks partly to the fluid 60fps but mainly due to some excellent camera views. You have two cockpit views (one with hood only and one with dashboard and windshield) and a chase view. As with most racing games I found the chase view a bit over-sensitive and difficult to control. Itís nice to see yourself making that perfect power slide from behind the car, but it ďfeelsĒ better doing it from behind the wheel. Besides, thatís what replays are for.
As deep as the simulation is, the presentation is a bit lacking in that you only have two modes, Championship and Stages. Championship lets you compete as Colin in his Ford Focus for a three-year championship career. As you win races you unlock additional cars but due to the sim-nature of the game you cannot use them. Colin only drives the Focus and therefore so do you. The Stages mode allows you to race the various stages from the Championship season and it is here where you can experiment with the nearly dozen other vehicles found in this game. You can also engage in up to four-player challenges, either in split-screen racing or time trial modes where you compete for the best time.
Admittedly, this isnít the most feature-rich racing game out there, but it does offer a serious if not somewhat narrow view of one particular aspect of the sport through the eyes of its most famous driver. It would have been nice to round out the gameplay with some additional modes or events like the Ice or Uphill racing found in RalliSport Challenge or even an arcade mode that actually let you race against other cars. But in the end I would rather have a highly polished racer that focuses on one area rather than trying to do it all and failing across the board.
This is one of the few games where the content doesnít do the engine justice. You have what is arguably one of the prettiest racing games out there and you are resigned to look at the same winding dirt roads flanked with trees, rocks and random greenery. Sure, you might occasionally break free from these boring tracks to capture a quick glimpse of a stunning mountain vista or splash through a river, but for the most part, everything is pretty dull, dirty, and boring.
The presentation is flawless from the opening movie with techno theme music to the minimal menu interface that scrolls along the bottom of the screen. There are some very nice cutscenes that flesh out the rally experience. You will see competitors leaving the starting line at timed intervals along with racing officials and fans milling about the checkpoints. Between races you get a nice overhead view of the car with indicators showing the various damage to your car.
The car setup screens are truly state-of-the art and breathtaking in their own right. You get these transparent views of your car than zoom in to detailed schematics of the part of the car you are tinkering with. This is high-dollar, high-end presentation graphics that the guys at Ford might actually use in a corporate meeting. Once you make your selection you see your pit crew working feverishly on your car changing tires, adjusting brakes, working under the hood. Itís these subtle details that really create a convincing rally racing experience.
Iíve already covered the amazing damage engine that can totally devastate your car turning it from the pride of the Ford Motor Company into something you might find in the local junkyard. Damage aside, the cars also acquire a realistic level of dust, dirt, and mud so even if you do manage to bring your car back dent-free it is still going to look ďusedĒ. When your car is clean and damage-free it looks great, created from thousands of polygons - more than any other car model in any other racing game currently available.
While still very impressive for the PS2, Colin McRae Rally 3 on the Xbox still manages of offer some slightly better particle effects, lighting, reflections, and an overall higher resolution. Other than these minor "effects" the PS2 version is a nearly perfect port from the Xbox.
Rally racing doesnít stop for the weather and CMR3 features some of the best weather effects you will find in any racing game to date. These are further enhanced when you choose to race from the cockpit-view where you will see wipers clearing off rain or snow in real-time. Your view is realistically limited to just the areas your wipers can reach so the rest of your windshield is obscured with snow or distorting raindrops.
Weather affects the tracks, both during and after the actual event. Rain and snow accumulate on the tracks creating new traction issues along with kicking up water when you splash through puddles. The sun creates realistic shadows and will quite literally blind you with lens flares and whiteouts if you end up driving into the setting sun. Even when you steer away from the sun it takes a brief moment for your vision to return to normal. Itís all totally realistic and compliments the seriousness of this simulation.
The only thing left to discuss is the replays, which simply arenít that rewarding or fun to watch unless you want to relive that spectacular crash or see yourself sliding through that perfect turn. With no other cars on the track there just arenít that many exciting moments to watch over again.
Codemasters has wisely chosen not to go to the expense of licensing the obligatory line-up of rock, grunge, or metal tunes to distract your racing experience. Instead, you get a highly addictive techno track during the opening movie montage and that same theme plays during the menus and non-racing parts of the game.
Once you get behind the wheel itís just you, your navigator and some of the best car noises you could ever want in a racing simulation. You can literally hear every subtle sound your car makes ranging from the engine whines to the shifting gears in your transmission and even that cool sound the turbo charger makes that sends a shiver down my spine. You hear tires grinding, slipping, and grabbing for traction on dirt, gravel, or tarmac and the first time you hit something the crash effects will stop your heart. You hear metal crumple and groan as it tears away, there is the thud of the hood as it flies up then rips off. The windshield, side and rear windows all crack and break apart with various levels of convincing destruction.
The speech is great with your navigator clearly rattling off each and every upcoming turn, crest, obstacle, and surface change. Even though you are given symbols indicating these course changes itís still nice to hear a friendly voice in an otherwise very lonely game.
Colin McRae 3 is a difficult game to win. By design, you must accept your finishing position and continue on to the next stage unless you are prepared to restart your entire career. This means that you may have to settle for a second or even a third place finish (gasp!), but when a game is this challenging and this real, you probably wonít mind if you donít finish first each and every race.
Expect 20-25 hours of racing to get through the Championship mode. This estimate will vary based on how much you tinker with the car, perform test runs, and work with the telemetry information. If you simply dive right into the racing you can speed your way through this title in under 15 hours.
Colin McRae Rally 3 is definitely a niche game targeted to a specific group of racing fans, mainly hardcore rally racers. With its ultra-realistic driving and damage model combined with a distinct lack of game modes and content, this may not be the game for everyone.
The solitary nature of rally racing may turn off the more traditional racing crowd, but anyone looking for a serious racing sim, look no further. CMR3 rivals anything you can play on the PC or any of the other consoles with perfect physics and a stunning audio/visual presentation that puts you behind the wheel and in the racing suit of the undisputed leader of the sport, Colin McRae.