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Colin McRae Rally (PC) Review

Background Info

Screens (6)
The console version of this game has a very cute ad campaign, with a young Colin taking the family car and hurling it around the countryside while the father stands in front of the house shouting his name. But is the game up to the advertising? And how does it compare to Mobil 1 Rally Championship, which I raved about in this space earlier?

Presentation/Graphics : 75
The visuals in this game are up to the usual standards of games today but aren't really anything special. This may be a case of being spoiled by Rally Championship, but there is a sameness about the backgrounds that I found disappointing. All the woods look alike. All the dusty terrain looks alike. All the snowy terrain looks alike. And as a result, the game lacks the gee-whiz factor of the other game where it seemed that you never knew what wonders you'd encounter around the next bend. Especially poor was the nighttime driving where the headlights in the game were so dim that I had to turn off all the room lights just to be able to have some idea of what was ahead of me.

Presentation/Audio : 85
The sounds in the game are notably good – and there is none of the usual irritating music that is the bane of many games today. Engine sounds are realistic with even the backfires accurately simulated. You can hear the scrunch of the gravel and the squeal of tires on the tarmac as you round the curves. More environmental sounds would have been nice, but that's a minor detail.

Interface/Options : 70
First off, I couldn't get this game to install properly. According to the instructions, with a wheel and pedals, you are supposed to set the game for analog controls, but in that setting, for some reason, my accelerator and brakes were always reversed. Even when I reversed the inputs in the setup panel, the brake was always on the right and the gas on the left. When set to digital, the pedals were correct, but a lot of the control went with it, as it seemed that these inputs were either fully on or fully off with very little in between. I'll blame this on one of my pet peeves – a game not having integral control calibration and instead using the information from the Windows joystick setup, which is notoriously untrustworthy.

Other than this problem, the game was easy to set up. All selections are on a single, self-explanatory screen.

Gameplay : 65
Keeping in mind that I was unable to properly set the controls for the game, I wasn't very impressed with the feel of this game. It just seemed as if there were not enough interactions between the car and the environment; like the car had a pin through its center and was pivoting on that axis instead of being steered. This is difficult to put into words, but those of us who play racing games regularly learn to sense the point where a car is on the edge of traction. When a game gets that right, it's a joy to play, but if the physics don't provide that sensation, it's just frustrating. It seemed like I was always either too slow or too fast through the turns, and there was virtually no difference in feel between the two which led to quite a few trips into the trees.

Gameplay takes one of four forms:

    Rally School: The player learns the basic techniques necessary to play the game driving in circles and figure-8s around cones and finally venturing into some sample stages with the voice of Colin McRae providing commentary. According to him, I was always too slow.

    Time Trial: A single rally stage against the clock. This option is available for either one or two players or over a network.

    Rally: A single event from the season consisting of six or seven separate stages. Again, this is available for one or two players or network play.

    Championship: The entire season of eight events, each consisting of six or seven stages for a single player only.

A problem is that there are only a limited number of venues available to race when a player starts out. In rally mode, the only setting available is New Zealand. In Time Trial mode, there is one stage each from several rallies. On the back of the manual for the game is a number to call for “cheat codes,” which I guess would include codes to make all the tracks available, but I believe the option to practice all the tracks is something which should be there as a part of the regular game.

The player chooses from either novice or intermediate difficulty – advanced only becomes available with experience – and seven cars. At the novice level are the front wheel drive Volkswagen Golf, Skoda Felicia and Seat Ibiza. At the intermediate level are the four-wheel drive Subaru Impreza, Ford Escort, Mitsubishi Lancer and Toyota Corolla. To me, it seemed that the Golf and Lancer were the best cars in their respective classes. The latter is peculiar since McRae was driving a Subaru last season and that car is splashed all over the box graphics. Incidentally, a new version of this game is scheduled for release in the very near future that was probably hastened by McRae's switch to Ford this season.

Mechanical settings for the cars can be adjusted from stage to stage and repairs made. Adjustments include tires, suspension, brakes, steering and gear ratio. Damage can occur to electrical, handling, brakes, engine and gearbox. But the cars seem immune to impact damage. I smashed into trees at ridiculous speeds and went on with no apparent effect. In one particularly notorious case, I ramped up an embankment in Greece and managed to strike a tree a glancing blow that set the car spinning like a top through the air. When I returned to earth, I slid sideways for quite some distance without slowing down at all and just continued as if nothing had happened.

As in Rally Championship, there are voice and visual indicators of upcoming turns, the difference being that in this game, no distance is given to the turn, which is valuable information to know. The game designers love hiding turns right after crests in the road which made them invisible until the very last moment.

On-screen displays include stage position, split time comparison, stage progress, gear selection, tach, speed and current and split times. Unlike Rally Championship, these displays could not be turned off, which gave a very arcade feel to the driving experience. There are five views from which to choose: behind car (near and far), fender, hood and headcam. I started out using the behind car near view but it was hard to get a feel for the road from that angle and I ended up using the fender view. This is really a bumper cam since it seems to be on the car's centerline rather than a fender.

Another major difference between these two games is that the stages in Colin McRae Rally are much shorter. The longest stage is about 5 kilometers in length and three or four minutes to complete. That compares to some stages that took almost 20 minutes in Rally Championship. I'm really of two minds as to which is better. The longer stages are a real challenge as it's easy to fade out after a while, miss instructions and go flying off into space as you overshoot a turn, but when every stage is so short, I was left feeling short-changed. If your attention span is short, you definitely want McRae.

Replay Value : 70
With the shorter stages, it's easier to memorize the roads, and when you play a racing game without other vehicles on screen, a lot of the challenge goes away when you get too familiar with the setting. And the similarity of the view from one stage to the next contributes to the problem of boredom. There's just not really a lot to see in this game.

Additionally, I was very quickly winning stages at the novice level, sometimes by 10 seconds or so, which is a huge margin. In the time I had to review the game, I didn't participate in championship mode at the intermediate or advanced levels, but I'm sure that as I learned the roads, winning would become the norm, and there's no way to crank up the level of competition. On the other hand, in Rally Championship, which I've continued to play since writing my review, I've still not come up to the level of the competition and so it remains a both a challenge to drive and a thing of beauty to watch.

Overall : 70
So in the end, we have a difference of philosophies -- the old battle between the game and the simulation. Colin McRae Rally is a game, and there's nothing wrong with that, but be aware that it functions at a pretty basic level – shorter stages, fewer cars to choose from and fewer adjustments to make on the cars. Rally Championship is a true simulation – more complex, more realistic, but also more frustrating at times.

If you want a game that's easy and fun, choose McRae – it fulfills that role well. But for the serious gamer, I'd suggest Rally Championship.

By: Paul Hamilton 5/24/00

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