Review: Colin McRae Rally 3 (PS2)

I hate racing games. By “hate” I mean “will stay up and play until dawn trying to clear all of the levels from, all the while cursing,” and it’s a sentiment I think a lot of people share. Really, what other kind of game inspires that kind of obsessive behavior? Adventure games move along at their own pace, for the most part. Sports games are time-limited by their very nature. Action games can bring on this type of zeal, but when fatigue sets in and you realize that you’re just too damn tired to fend off 100 zombies at once you’re more apt to call it a night than when you are playing a racing game where you’re just HALF A SECOND off of qualifying. . . . dammit!

Racing games, more than anything else I’ve seen, get you into a groove, a feel, an almost intimate (eeeww.) knowledge of the games controllability. Once you find that groove, you hold on to it as long as you can because it’s notoriously hard to get back. In fact, if you don’t have a steering wheel in this day and age, it’s damn near impossible to get it in the first place. (“Hi, I’m Cory, and I play Gran Turismo 3 with the analog stick.” “Hi, Cory.”)

Racing games also bring out the worst in human nature. With multiplayer shoot-em-ups one good kill can almost make up for a whole night of embarrassment. That and, eventually, everybody else will get so pissed off that they’ll hunt down the offender, pack-style. That’s harder to do with racing games where the jerk pulls away from the beginning and never has to look in his rear view.

Also, racing games come under the harshest scrutiny when it comes to the physics model. Not very many people have shot aliens or decapitated zombies but pretty much everybody of age in this country has driven a car, and they all have their opinions as to how a driving game should feel. Some games get around this by having unrealistic, fantasy worlds to race in (F-Zero), or by making the race more action-oriented and a little less time-critical (SSX:Tricky), or by giving those trailing behind a boost to make them more equitable with the leaders (pretty much every racing game ever made). For real automotive racing games, however, they’re no getting around it: If your control sucks, the game sucks, and all of the window dressing in the world won’t make it playable.

So, I really love racing games, but only the ones that I don’t have to work too hard at. If I have to have tighter reflexes than Michael Schumacher, or a softer touch than Tracy Lords, I’d rather play Tetris.

Game: Colin McRae Rally 3
Platform: PS2
Developer: CodeMasters (Sure they are.)
Enabler: Veronica, my lovely wife who bought me both my PS2 AND my Xbox. (This is why she gets mentioned in all of my reviews. On top of this she’s the mother of my son, a top-notch zookeeper, and the biggest pro wrestling fan in the house. She is invincible.)

Okay, this is a problem I’ve had with every game I’ve reviewed thus far for 411. I’ve drawn three sequels. Sequels to games I never played in the first place. I never played Evil Dead: Hail to the King (and my fellow writers have been crystal-clear about exactly how much of a good thing that is. Thank you Mr. Baxley and Mr. Lucard.), NBA Street, or either of the previous Colin McRae Rally games. Now, I like that I can go in and evaluate the game on it’s own merits; but SOME knowledge of the previous versions would be nice especially if the previous versions were as universally horrible as HTTK.

It’s rally racing. For those of you in the southeastern U.S., that translates to “drive little cars on dirt roads.” Also, NASCAR faithful, cars go one at a time, and are judged solely by the time to complete the course, so the late Mr. Earnhardt would feel awfully lonely out there without anyone to run into. You ARE Colin McRae. Your mission is to take your Ford Probe and do a three-year tour of the world rally circuit.

Gameplay

There are only two modes: Championship (the basic Career mode) and Stages (the basic single race/h2h mode). You can actually race head-to-head in Stages mode; but, in true rally fashion, you’re not actually on the course at the same time. Oh, sure, it looks like you are when you select the split-screen option, but it becomes apparent quickly that your opponent doesn’t exist in your little racing world, so no crash-up-derbys in this game. Also, there are several cars modeled for this game, but the only one you’re allowed to use in Championship mode is the Probe (more on this later). The controls are basic to driving games: Gas, brake/reverse, handbrake, view change. You can use the right analog stick for gas and brake if you wish.

Okay. Time for Cory to get on his soapbox. At the beginning of this review I said that I like racing games as long as I don’t have to work to hard at them. So, what does the first FAQ that I find on the game suggest? Get your Rally license in Gran Turismo 3 to practice! That’s right, it tells you to go get another game to PRACTICE, to be good at THIS game! If I have to study for anything, I at least want to get a nice slip of paper that says I can start commanding a higher salary for my trouble.

And why is practice so necessary? Because of the Second Rule of Simulations: “As the dynamics model improves, so must the control laws.” Translation for those of you who don’t build simulators for a living: The closer the game gets to realistic car response, the more necessary it is to have a freakin’ steering wheel to control it adequately.

(Just so I don’t have to answer everybody individually, here is the First Rule of Simulations: “The greatest sin is to believe that there is any connection whatsoever between your numbers and reality.”)

If I had the degree of neuromuscular control necessary to competently control a driving simulation with the PS2 analog sticks, I would probably be making millions on the PGA Tour. If I only had that control in my hands, I’d be pulling down six figures as a surgeon. If I only had that control in my thumbs, I could still start a successful business and have women lining up out my door, around the block, taking numbers, and scheduling vacations around my availability.

Maybe I’m just the worst driver in PS2 history, but trying to do anything subtle with that analog pad was impossible. It didn’t seem to matter what type of driving surface I was on, gravel or asphalt, it felt like I was trying to steer a cat. High on catnip. Being chased by a Rottweiler. In the rain.

Now, I realize it’s not the game’s fault that I suck, so let’s get positive. The physics model is very, very good. There was apparently great care taken to get every rise, dip, curve, embankment, pothole, and tree location just right in all of these courses, and the car is perfectly capable of hitting all of them. The car spins off nice when you slam a tree sideways into your front or rear quarter-panel, but stops just as nicely when you hit the same tree (or one a lot like it) around the center-of-gravity of the car. They seem to have taken some care to model friction due to various surfaces. There’s a very definite change in handling between gravel, asphalt, and the grass on the side of the embankment. What’s nice about this is that there isn’t that sort of artificial friction that seems to be induced in other racing games when you get off of the track the tiniest little bit. Rally racing encourages cutting corners (when possible), so it’s nice to know that there’s no arbitrary “best” course.

I have a problem with the claim of “realistic” damage, though. I hit that rock at probably 60 mph. I didn’t even mean to that time. I came over a ridge, went airborne, and saw this Gibraltar-looking monstrosity in front of me. I slammed into it harder than Sergei Federov did into Anna Kournikova. I should have been wearing the engine as a shirt, but what was the end result of this carnage? I lost my hood, and my front lower cowling came loose on one end. Okay, so it’s easy to lose hoods and doors in this game, and I even think the suspension started pulling left on me during one stage. Still I rolled a couple of cars, and did I have to pay a price for that? Yes. One whole second. It’s getting closer but “realistic” damage will never actually make it into a racing game. If it did, clods like me would never finish a race.

You have the opportunity to tweak your car at the start of each day of racing to compensate for road conditions, weather, or course layout. The interface is pretty simple (“Braking: Light, Medium, Hard”) but you can tweak pretty much anything. Braking, steering, engine, suspension, tires, whatever. I’m not sure that any of this actually affects your performance, as I set the steering from “normal” to “light” in hopes of alleviating some of the overcontrol issues me and my thumb was having and it still felt like I was playing Rally Tabby.

Graphics

Like I said above, a lot of care went into modeling these courses, and that goes for graphics as well as physics. Everything appears to be 3D modeled, and modeled very well. There are lots of individual trees and shrubs and rocks and signposts to run into, and they all look fabulous, even up close (and I should know). I’d appreciate a little more variety in the road surface graphics; maybe some cracks in the pavement here or a sprinkling of white gravel on the red dirt, but that’s just me. Animation was always smooth, even with all of the sudden stops I made and all of the loose parts flapping in the breeze by the end of each stage.

I did notice some clipping problems, which probably wouldn’t have occurred if I was a halfway competent driver. The worst one was when I sideswiped a rock face on the side of a road and apparently got a glimpse of the eighth dimension (quick, name the movie) inside the rock. This wasn’t a regular occurrence (the clipping problems, not my crashing), so I wouldn’t worry too much about it.

Sound

There really is only so much one can do with the sound in a racing game, but if you don’t do it well, you’re hosed. Fortunately, this does it well. The engine noises sound like wrapped-up small engines. The road noises are all appropriate. Spinning out on gravel sounds like same. Spinning out on pavement squeals like same. The odd thing is the innovation of having your assistant reading off road notes as you go, warning you about turns and jumps and dips coming up. They’ve even modeled the rather complex language of rally navigation terms well, and while it’s not terribly clear what they’re talking about at first, it becomes rather understandable in a very short amount of time.

Fun Factor:

By having some silly unlockable vehicles (a tank, a buggy, a jet) this game flirts with being a mainstream racing game. And I have to admit, I liked slip-sliding around these courses. This series seems to have gotten a lot of acclaim for being such a fine rally simulation. In this respect, the acclaim is well deserved.

However, forcing someone to go through the Championship mode driving the Ford (Found On Road Dead) is ludicrous. I would much rather drive the Subaru Imprenza, with Subaru’s limited-slip differential all-wheel drive than any variant of the Ford (Farked On Race Day) Probe, especially in a rally race. The Mitsubishi, the MG, the Citroen; heck, I’d even drive the Fiat (Fix It Again, Tony) before the Ford (Fix Or Repair Daily).

Why is Ford (Flip Over, Read Directions) getting so much of my ire here? Because it’s just stupid to build a game, especially a racing game, where the player has absolutely no choice about what car s/he can use. People have their preferences. As much as it would pain Mr. McRae (who used to drive for Subaru, BTW) and the Ford (Farked Over Rebuilt Dodge) Motor Company, the best business decision for this game would have been to let the users choose which car to compete with in Championship mode. The car models are already there for the H2H mode, would it have been that tough to include them in the Championship mode? No. Mr. McRae and his . . . . sponsor (I can’t think of any more acronyms. Sorry.) simply wanted to foist their car of choice on the rally game lovers of the world and avoid competition with automobiles which may be technologically superior to the Probe. Of course, the allure of rally racing is the larger impact of driver skill instead of technology, so the irony is that they could have included the other vehicles without much problem. Hell, they could’ve just tweaked the models so that the Probe was slightly better in all categories, and I wouldn’t have cared. I’d have been happy just as long as I had options.

Not that there are a whole lot of options for anything in this game. Tweaking your car is probably the most interactive thing you can do. Your options when racing h2h are, and I’m not joking here, are “split-screen” or “alternating.” Also, everything is just too low key. The menus, the cutscenes, the races themselves, nothing has any sense of excitement or at the very least urgency. This is not a game for the weekender-type of gamer. Don’t get this and call your mates over looking for a raucous, joy-riding time. This is for serious fans of driving simulations. It probably is the definitive game for rally racing simulation, but any time you specialize that much you start alienating mainstream gamers. If you’re a racing game fan, by all means, check it out. You may love it; you may not. Everybody else can come over and play Tetris at my house.

Ratings

Gameplay: 6
Graphics: 8
Sound: 7
Fun Factor: 4