Just the speed I needed.
Many games have made their way into my hands and most have then made their way to a Funcoland or a hastily wrapped birthday present for a forgotten nephew or cousin. Only the very best games are granted asylum in the illustrious "video game drawer," and even those are occasionally subject to purgation (I'm the opposite of what one would call a pack-rat).
I've reviewed both of the previous Colin McRae games and they are both still in the drawer. And I'm pleased to say that right in between Colin McRae Rally 2 and Vice City, Colin McRae Rally 3 has found a new home.
CMR 3 is exactly what I hoped it would be; CMR 2 but faster, sleeker and even more fun. Even though the game realistically only includes two play modes, the CMR essence is intact. And as it happens, the two modes are two of the best to be seen in the series.
The first and most important is the Championship Mode. Here you race for two days (three races a day) through one of several countries - Spain, Finland, Japan, Australia, the UK, USA and Sweden - trying to come in first more often than not so you can unlock goodies and feel like a winner.
At the beginning of each trio of races you get a 'Shakedown Day.' Here you make tweaks and adjustments to your car in anticipation of the obstacles to come. You can also do things like check your telemetry, which is basically a graph that illustrates your car's performance throughout three test runs. This is at once a fascinating detail (now you can actually see what difference, if any, your rear end suspension makes) and an anal retentive one (trust me, it doesn't make a difference).
After that you hit the road for three races in a row before your next chance to repair. This makes things especially interesting for the first hour or so, because you'll take substantial damage to your car in the first race, and then have to race two more races, all before you've really gotten the hang of the controls. This can be entertaining since the damage modeling is convincing and your car's handling drastically changes after a couple of should-be-fatal crashes.
Which brings me to a point: Why aren't there any fatal crashes? The answer is probably because you're playing as Colin McRae and you can't have him and co-driver Nicky Grist getting killed. But some of the most intense moments in the game come when you realize you're going into a turn entirely too fast, right into that tree! An explosion here and then maybe a forced retirement would give the awesome crashes some finality and the gravity they lack. The fact that the rally car keeps on tickin' when it should be at a "Pick-n-Pull" really bothers me.
Another interesting aspect of the Championship mode is that you can't restart a race. So say you have one of those should-be-fatal crashes and it completely takes you out of a competitive time frame. Your first reaction is to attempt to restart the race and do a better job. But nope, that's not an option, so it's early retirement instead.
At first I didn't like this at all. But then I considered that 1) It's more realistic not to be able to restart races and 2.) The fact that you have to take three races at a time adds a lot of challenge, and keeps the courses fresher longer.
The only real downside to the Championship mode is that you can only race as Colin McRae and you can only drive the Ford Focus. This doesn't make any sense to me. The Championship mode is where you should spend most of your time and is worth dozens of hours of gameplay, but you can only race in the Ford. All those crazy cool cars you can unlock? Only drivable in the Stages mode.
Which isn't that bad, considering the Stages mode is very cool. You can race any of the first levels of any nation, as well as those you've actually played in the Championship mode.
Either way, Colin McRae Rally 3 offers the same great gameplay as its predecessors. Though the auto-transmission system is a little boring, racing in manual-transmission is a blast. You must downshift, hand-brake into a turn, then up-shift and accelerate out of it. Sounds fairly simple, but loop three or four turns together, all of varying degrees, and you start to look like the people you see playing games in sitcoms: frantically pounding all the buttons at once while bouncing up and down, left and right with the turns in the road. Fun.
And the physics rock. Getting the perfect edge on a dirt track power-slide and riding it all the way around a turn is as smooth and satisfying as most cigarettes claim to be. On the other hand, the relative precision with which you can navigate tarmac leads to even faster, more precise timing and a sense of power as you leave the dirt (which is only safely navigated in first, second and third gears) and up-shift into 5th. Then, because you feel a little too free, you invariably crash. Any game that plays with my emotions like the CMR games do gets a thumbs-up.
Graphically, CMR 3 is adequate, but not as impressive as the CMR games someday should be. My main gripe is with the scenic vistas. The first CMR game had the worst backgrounds ever, and while this game is a huge improvement over that, the backgrounds are never striking, lack a sense of depth and are totally forgettable. I would imagine one of the coolest parts of being a rally driver would be seeing the geography and splendor of a country from a unique vantage point, and you don't get much of that here.
Otherwise, things look fine. The cars look decent - they get covered in mud and varying degrees of dust - and one of the views really looks like you're sitting in the car (more so than either of the other games). The damage modeling is really good this time around, as bumpers, hoods, doors and windows can be wrecked.
However, the sound is where damage is best expressed. Driving off the track doesn't seem nearly as innocuous as it used to, as the car makes all sorts of loud, awful bumps and jarring noises if you venture from the course. It really sounds like it's getting torn up. There's still no background music, and I guess after playing this many CMR's I don't really mind anymore. The sounds effects are good, rounding out a solid audio performance.
Colin McRae Rally 3 contains the best gameplay and some of the worst decisions made in the series. That you can only tweak the Ford Focus and drive only as McRae in the Championship mode is a little silly, but the game still kicks ass and is a lot of fun to play. And that's what really counts in my video game drawer.