"The closest thing to rally perfection"
There is always a fear when a sequel to a game is released only twelve months after the original product. In some cases the sequel could have best been released as an expansion pack but this is not the case with Colin McRae Rally 04. The developers obviously had some very long nights at the office because what they have produced in twelve months is quite possibly the best rally game ever made.
Whereas Colin McRae Rally 3 focused on Colin McRae himself and you fitting into his shoes, 04 returns the series back to its roots. You have the choice of any car, any team, any rally, anywhere. Out with the career mode and in with the ability for players to have choice again, and it works remarkably well. There are several game modes in 04; championship, rally, and stages. Rally allows players to race a full circuit of any rally they have unlocked in other modes, and stages allow players to test their mettle in individual sections of each rally.
The main area of the game is championship, and whilst career mode has been thrown out the window for this years game, a few elements still exist. There are six championships to win across three categories; 4WD, 2WD and Group B. As you might have guessed each category has two championships, normal and advanced. Normal is fairly easy and most people will be able to win the championship first time through but the real challenge (and primarily where bonus items and cars will be unlocked) is the advanced championship. Even the slightest mistake in advanced can wreck your entire season.
The championship is raced across seven rallies of six stages each. Some of the rallies have an additional super stage. Most of the stages in each rally are completed under five minutes, which is in stark contrast to some rally games in the past where stages have lasted twenty or more. This makes the gameplay quick and brutal. Concentration is most definitely the key to victory in each rally. As you progress through the championship, you will probably notice that as each round is finished, the stages and rallies become harder which allows people new to the franchise to enjoy the game as much as the veterans.
At first you only have a choice of four WRC cars for the main championship. Subaru Impreza, Mitsubishi Evo VII, Ford Focus and Colin's own Citroen. When you win the initial championship more are unlocked such as the Peugout 206. Each car handles differently due to the new physics model. This physics model allows for much more realistic handling and control. It may take some people time to get accustomed to it, but there is nothing better on the market at the moment. The smaller cars such as the Focus are easier to take tight corners at speed with, whilst the larger cars such as the Evo VII have faster acceleration. Across the board, the times you post in different cars won't change too much.
As well as these cars, 2WD, Group B and Bonus cars are included. The Group B cars are from the eighties and include many famous cars such as the Cortina and Peugout. These cars are incredibly tough to control and damage easily. In each category of cars there are two damage levels, normal and heavy. In normal, hitting a wall will cause some damage but not critical, whereas in heavy even brushing a wall can cause severe problems. Cars will fall apart, windows will smash and doors and various other parts will fall off the car. The damage model has been retained from CMR 3 and why not, it is still the best model in a rally game at the moment.
Something that is new to the championship mode for 04 is the shakedown and testing process. The shakedown is a designated day for drivers to test out their configurations for the upcoming rally. You should use this to gain the best configuration before hitting the tracks. Between each round of the championship, a test will be offered to you to gain a better part. They can range from stopping in a certain area to test brakes, to revving an engine in a workshop to test gears or the engine. Pass the test and your car will have a significant advantage over other competitors.
Colin McRae Rally 04 offers you three view points. In car, behind the car and bumper cam. The in-car view is most definitely the greatest execution of this view ever. It is highly realistic and shows just how much a rally driver relies on their co-driver during stages. There are also three gear settings; auto, semi-auto and manual. Semi-auto is automatic but the player can override the set gear. To succeed in the advanced championship it became apparent to me quickly that in car view and manual have to be used. Codemasters obviously you want you to have the most realistic experience and these two options provide it in spades.
As mentioned before the championship is set across seven countries including USA, Australia, Japan, England and others. Each rally is unique with varying road surfaces. For instance Australia is completely dirt road, whilst Spain is completely on tarmac. Tyre choice is key in each situation. Each of the tracks look stunning, with a long draw distance and unique objects for each country. For instance in Australia you are driving in the outback whilst in England, cottages and other English buildings are viewable.
The graphics in Colin McRae Rally 04 are fantastic and a huge improvement on last years game. The cars as mentioned before feature a realistic damage model and the tracks look superb. They don't push the Xbox to the limit or even near it, but all the same it is a visual feast. Sound wise, the cars sound great and in the in-car view it is easy to tell if there is something wrong with a part such as the engine or wheels. The pace notes prepared by Derek Ringer (not Nicky Grist) are superb, and for the most part rather then looking at what was up ahead I used the pace notes which worked a treat.
Colin McRae Rally 04 makes you wonder how the same developers managed to put out Colin McRae 3. It improves the game in so many ways, and adds new features that I'm sure not many rally fans would have envisioned in a game. If you have even only a small liking of racing games you simply must own this game.