Rally 'round the price tag!
There are five things in life you can count on: your fingers, your toes, death, taxes, and Colin McRae Rally. The fourth installment of Codemasters' consistently solid series, aptly titled Colin McRae Rally 04, improves upon its predecessors in most every way while preserving the intense rally action that has typified the series over the years.
In large part, though, Colin McRae Rally 04 is nearly the same as it's always been. Included are Quick races, Individual stages, Championship, and Rally. Quick races and Individual stages are pretty self-explanatory, but Championship mode is the meatiest part of CMR 04 and initially the portion most worth playing.
You race through approximately six stages in each of eight countries, including the UK, the US, Spain, Japan, Greece, Finland, Sweden and Australia, and attempt to get the best time in every stage. It's here where you'll find the cool depth of CMR 04 thanks to its intricate car tuning options that actually make a difference. Of course, you can always just hop behind the wheel and go for it, but actually learning why one suspension setting works better than another for certain terrain makes the ride much easier and more fun.
Upon completing a nation's rally, you are allowed two attempts at a mini-game in which you compete for a new, upgraded car part. In each instance you must push the specified part of your car to the limit as well as complete a short course in a given amount of time. If you do so in two tries, you get the part. Otherwise, you don't.
This may sound like a huge pain in the ass, and in some ways, it is. You're made to feel you need these new parts, yet you're only given two shots per nation to get them. And you can't simply race a given nation over and over, because there's no going back in the Championship mode, making some of the later parts essentially one-shot deals. However, these parts do give the extreme race geek something to strive for and makes the ultimate rally vehicle a fairly difficult goal to achieve.
The odd new Rally mode, on the other hand, almost defies description. From what I can surmise, Rally is a set of races oriented around track conditions as opposed to nations, so you'll have all races with big jumps, all races with lots of mud, all races on tarmac, etc. You can also create custom rallies using any of the stages you've completed in the Championship mode as your building blocks.
Unfortunately, the ability to create custom rallies is a bit pointless. You can save up to six of your favorite tracks into one race and then play through them anytime you want without having to really think about what you're doing, sort of like an impromptu Greatest Hits race. However, you can basically do this through the Individual Stages mode and play any stage you want in between your favorites.
Regardless of the mode, the core play mechanics are unchanged and still rock: you can brake, accelerate, hand-brake, shift gears and change the camera view. Of course, a control scheme is only as good as it is responsive, and CMR 04's controls have always been both. Rally games are less predictable than classic track-based racing games; without stellar control, a rally game is doomed from the start. CMR 04 gets it right by keeping the controls simple and tight, leaving you to react to the course without fumbling with the controller.
There are now four classes of vehicles: four-wheel drive, two-wheel drive, Group B, and Bonus. The four-wheel drive group represents your standard rally cars, while the two-wheel group includes your souped-up street cars (for example, the Volkswagon Golf). Group B contains unlockable rally cars that were popular in the 80's but were banned for being too dangerous, and the Bonus cars are a random assortment of rides, ranging from nutty to bad ass
Having such a large ratio of unlockable cars to available cars is a dangerous move though, especially considering how lame the two-wheel drive cars are. As a result, you only start with about five cars that are any fun at all. Even though you can unlock some Group B cars pretty quickly, it sucks to have such limited options when you begin the game.
Colin McRae Rally 04 does feature Xbox Live! support, though in this case it's merely for posting times to see how you compare to other players. Standard split-screen multiplayer is here, but it's a shame they didn't go the distance and let you race online.
04's graphics are the best the series has seen. Low-res clouds and mountains aside, the cars look incredible, as do the foregrounds. The trees in particular look excellent and contribute to CMR 04's consistently fully-realized environments. Finland and Japan are the best-looking rallies - especially the former, with its alternating lush forests and murky wastelands.
The evolution of damage modeling in CMR reaches a high point in CMR 04. Tires blow out, windows visibly shatter, the hood pops off, doors fly open, and, if you accrue enough damage to your cooling system, your engine will actually cut out in the middle of the race. Also, you can unlock Expert Mode in Championship Mode, which enables nearly real-life damage and provides the most gruesome wrecks ever seen in a CMR game. Way to crash and burn!
CMR 04 sounds mostly like whatever car you're driving and whatever terrain you're driving on. This can be a good or really annoying thing. Fortunately, every car is granted a distinct engine sound, so if one car really drives you or your family nuts you'll probably be able to find one that isn't nearly as bad. I personally recommend the Citron Xsara.
It's plain to see that Colin McRae Rally 04 does a lot of things right, but the most astounding part of the package is the price: 20 bucks. That's right – this is officially a budget title. Despite its small problems and lack of online play, that's just insane. This is a well-rounded game that would still be recommended if it cost full fare, so race to the store and pick up a copy before they come to their senses and sell it for what it's worth.