Colin McRae Rally 3 Review (Xbox)
Rally racing is something that has only recently come into its own in the United States. While the rest of the world enjoys this sport very much, the U.S. has been busy with Nascar, Indy Racing, and every other method of “circle” driving known to man. In the past few years, however, late night Speed Channel telecasts will show glimpses of this amazing sport. The in-car camera shots are downright scary, as drivers fly around at breakneck speed, relying on their copilot to tell them what kind of track lays ahead. I shudder to think of what happens if the copilot is wrong…
Codemasters had a fairly large success on their hands with CMR2, and they have finally released CMR3 upon the eagerly awaiting public. I thoroughly enjoyed version 2.0, and Codemasters was promising better graphics, handling, damage models, and everything but a supermodel bringing me a beer periodically with CMR3. When I finally unwrapped the cellophane and popped the disc into my Xbox, I was like a kid on Christmas.
That lasted for all of 30 seconds.
Let me get this out of the way right now. This is a horrible interface. It’s like taking the most beautiful woman you’ve ever seen out on a date, only to find out she slurps her wine and snorts when she laughs. The overall package is great, but there are some really, really annoying things in the game. Unfortunately, they’re the first things you see. You get this afterthought-type “Press Start” screen, and have to scroll through horribly designed menu options at the bottom of the interface. Championship, single rally, options, and the standard selections are all down there, but you can barely tell. Not only is it cluttered and ugly, but half the time it seems a directional press doesn’t do anything. I would scroll through and miss an option, then try and go back and would have to hit the direction 2 or 3 times just to get it to register. At first I thought it was my controller, but every controller I have did the same thing, and they all work perfectly everywhere else. It was truly bizarre. Once you actually get into a rally, between stages the same garbage interface presents itself again. Get used to it, because it never gets any better. I guess the explanation is that Codemasters didn’t want to overhaul the interface over and over for different versions of the game, so they just cut corners and made one “universal” interface. Good for Codemasters, nice decision. If the game’s score rested primarily on the interface, CMR3 would fail miserably. Thank goodness it doesn’t.
As horrible as I think the interface is, one can’t possibly argue with the fact that CMR3 is beautiful. The car models are some of the best I’ve seen (which should be a prerequisite, seeing as how you’re staring at one for most of your playtime, but I’ll get to that later), and the dust effects as you tear across gravel or dirt have to be seen to be believed. The days of ugly clouds of fake dust are a thing of the past, and I can’t say I’ll miss them. Watching the car get dirtier by the moment as you progress through a stage is beautiful, and one of the subtle touches that really make the game shine. Damage is as advertised, with windows spiderwebbing and shattering, and parts coming completely unhinged if you’re a careless driver. The surrounding areas have less detail in them, but they’re certainly not ugly. Some of the secondary foliage layers can be less than stellar, but I never found myself looking at the scenery and going “damn that’s nasty”. All in all, when you look at the graphics of a racing game, there are only a few things to consider…car models, track textures (which are also well done, of course), backgrounds, and effects. All of these are very well done, and it is quite obvious that Codemasters put a lot of effort into making the game have a positive visual impact.
This is another area that is generally consistent in the racing genre. Doesn’t matter if you have ovals, right turns, or drag strips…you’ll still hear engines, effects, and commentary. In the case of CMR3, all are extremely well done. The engine sounds are fantastic, and hearing the backfire as you let out of the throttle is very authentic. These things fire at such a high compression ratio, that letting out of the gas at all has a buildup of combustible fuel that gets spit out of the back with regularity. Little fireballs, if you will. All of that is in there, and while it’s a small touch, it just reminds you that they paid a lot of attention to the presentation of the product, both aurally and visually. Tire sound effects vary on the different surfaces, so sliding across gravel sounds vastly different than sloshing the car through a muddy segment. Crunching into a tree is an especially vicious treat, as you’ll hear glass breaking and parts bending. I promise that you’ll hit one or two in the early stages of your CMR3 career, as those turns are just as hairy as the ones you see on TV. Your copilot has the typical foreign accent (gee, wonder why), and sounds authentic. I have no idea if it’s actually Colin McRae’s sidekick, but I doubt it. You will learn to live by his comments, literally. If he tells you “3 right, tightens to 2 right, into 4 left, into 6 right” you better memorize it. The turns happen so fast, you had better be shifting gears (all of his numbers are recommended gears) and prepping for the next corner. If you forget, sometimes you can get by anyway, but you’re only going to win rallies in the later stages of your career by precision driving. Your navigator is almost always spot-on, and the dialogue is spoken far enough in advance that you can prepare for corners adequately. I wouldn’t change much about the audio, if anything. It fits the package, and that’s what counts.
This is what it all boils down to. The best-looking, most fantastic-sounding racing game in the world will sit in a bargain bin if it controls like crap. Thankfully, that’s not the problem with CMR3. Personally, I’m not as high on it as some of the guys I know are. I find some flaws with it, but that may just be my “American Redneck” personality coming through. I’ll try and explain as best I can, and let you take what I say with a grain of salt. After all, unless you’re a Lemming, that’s what anybody reading a review should do.
The handling is definitely a mixed bag in my opinion. It’s definitely not sloppy. It’s very precise, and the car snaps when you want it to. In a rally game, you need to be able to put the car where you want, when you want, or lose. I guess that could be said for all racing games, but in most “traditional” racing (I’ll spare you the explanation of what rally racing is, since I’m thinking that most people who take the time to read this have at least a moderate interest in the genre) you can memorize a track, find your brake points, and put the car there. In rally racing, you will spend half of your time reacting to unexpected points of a track, or trying to get through a series of hairpins as fast as possible. Until you play the game several times through, you have no hope of memorizing all of the track segments. Codemasters really recognized this, and that’s actually what I think part of the problem is. Granted, I’ve never driven a rally version Ford Focus (the ONLY car you can drive in championship mode, by the way), but I can’t imagine this is how it performs. When you first turn the car, regardless of the speed, it will snap to the new direction like an Indy car. If I’m doing 20mph, I can understand that. But at 100mph, a Ford Focus just wouldn’t carry enough downforce to respond (and turn) so rapidly. These are jetfighter-quality snap turns, folks. The strangest part of the whole process is that it only lasts for a few milliseconds. After that initial roll, and you get the car’s direction changed, it seems to flatten out and just go into a nice slow drift. It’s not a gradual change, but honestly feels like an on/off switch. A typical corner goes something like this: approach the corner, brake as needed, snap the car in a direction, hook it into a slide (where the car no longer responds rapidly like it did half a second ago), and then power through the corner all the way to exit. I’ve heard people say “that’s how a 4WD rally car operates”, but I just don’t buy it. The laws of physics just wouldn’t allow something that’s not operating with 4,000 foot-pounds of downforce to have an inertial roll that would result in such a rapid change of direction, and then suddenly revert back to a slug of a car that can’t find traction to save its life. I’m all for realism, but this just feels too Jekyll and Hyde-like for me to really rave about. The overall package certainly doesn’t “suck”…it’s just not the be-all, end-all like I expected it to be. You can snap the car around on a whim, and once you get used to it, slide for hundreds of yards without a problem. Personally, I think that’s what Codemasters was trying to do…create a racer that let the general public adjust to rallying with a quick-handling, albeit not-quite-realistic driving model, and then adjust it on the fly to a powersliding, Ridge-Racer style car model that let them perform long slides in a cloud of dust…just like on TV. They succeeded, but I would have preferred to have it one way or the other. It’s not a bad model by any means, as it does what I “think” they were trying to do perfectly…it’s just my opinion that one way or the other would have been a better fit for me. Somebody else would (and more than likely does) have a different opinion entirely.
I think the biggest hit in the Gameplay department is the options, or lack thereof. In championship mode, as almost everybody knows by now, you can only drive as one person (Colin McRae), and one car (McRae’s Focus). You can unlock the other cars and settings (for crying out loud, I’m all for unlockables…but making me unlock “soft springs” or “tarmac tires” is a joke), but much to the dismay of almost everybody who’s played the game, even if you unlock the Evolution Lancer, you can only race it in Single Rally mode. Multi-season championship mode is only available in the Ford Focus. With no Xbox Live support, I can’t see anybody other than hardcore rally fans playing this for more than a few months. Setup options are extensive, and changing options actually has a noticeable effect. Some of the stages are brutal if you miss a setup option, but the shakedown days and test drives are perfect for fine tuning prior to starting a rally. When taken as a package, the Gameplay is about as hit-and-miss as it gets. Once again, it’s likened to having your rich grandmother buy you a Ferrari…only to find out she had the engine replaced with a 4 cylinder out of a Datsun.
If you’re a die-hard rally fan, you’ll go berserk over CMR3. If you have a passing interest in the genre, but aren’t fanatical about it, you’ll more than likely have some fun with it. If you don’t like racing games, or could care less about rallying, then don’t even bother. I can’t see CMR3 converting people on a grand scale, but there is definitely fun to be had. I enjoyed (and continue to enjoy) playing the title, and I’m sure I’ll tinker with it for the next couple months. No matter how hard I tried to ignore them, CMR3 just had some nagging annoyances that wouldn’t go away the more I played it. The major components are very polished...it’s the small things that seem duct-taped on as an afterthought. Interface, options, and a schizophrenic driving model just kept it from greatness. Even though this review sounded harsh, I think it’s the effect of hearing so much praise lumped onto the game had on me. I definitely think it’s a fun title. But it’s certainly not the bar to which every other game will be judged for years by.