This review originally appeared in E61, August 1998.
Prior to the well-documented excellence of Gran Turismo, the premier position among car racing titles was occupied by a British contender. Codemasters’ TOCA: Touring Car (eight out of ten, E53) meshed PC racing sim handling with a strong console-style structure, delivering the best of both to PC and PlayStation owners. It recreated a popular motorsport to far better effect than Psygnosis’ F1, and performed remarkably well in retail for what was in some regards a specialist title.
Now Codemasters is back with TOCA’s spiritual sequel, Colin McRae Rally. Based (obviously) around the racing exploits of British rally ace McRae, the game utilises the bare bones of TOCA’s graphic engine as its basis. However, where past rally titles have been less than literal in their interpretation of the sport, CMR is for real. Screamer Rally, V-Rally and Sega Rally all place the player in the midst of a racing pack, fighting for places against human or virtual opponents. CMR is a pure rallying simulation, with only one car on the track at a time, struggling to beat the other competitors’ times.
However, in order to keep the action from straying into the realms of dull time trials, Codemasters has implemented a novel system which constantly tracks the player’s position, comparing it to that of other drivers. It’s a neat touch, keeping the action tense throughout each stage. When mistakes are made, the sense of anticipation as the next time check approaches is fantastic, eliciting self-deprecating curses on arrival.
As in TOCA, successful progress is rewarded with a variety of added vehicles. Eschewing its predecessor’s tank and Cadillac, CMR delivers a comprehensive selection of past rally cars. (Preferring not to spoil too much of the fun – although other publications will undoubtedly fall at that hurdle – Edge will only reveal that Lancia’s Delta Integrale is among those to be found.) These extras are gained by racing head-to-head on a looped special stage, with first place garnering the reward. Additionally, the full gamut of rallies cannot be accessed until the player has defeated each one in the game’s full ‘championship’ mode. It’s exactly this type of reward structure that PC racers such as Ultim@te Race Pro (six out of ten, E56) lack, much to their detriment. The imminent Windows 95 version of CMR will fill a much larger gap than it has to on the PlayStation.
While Colin McRae Rally’s ordered progression is welcome, any driving title is only worthy of a podium place if it conveys a realistic handling feel to the player. Codemasters has not reneged in this area. CMR’s licensed cars are imbued with a driving feel that surpasses those of the past hero of this genre, Sega Rally. It could be argued that CMR’s external views don’t deliver quite the raw, seat-of-the-pants feel of Sega’s racer, but it’s a marginal call. Played with Sony’s Analog Pad, Codemasters’ game provides a steady stream of reflex-testing moments, demanding total concentration. McRae himself was called in to assess the cars’ handling, while members of the development team tried out rally cars for real. CMR’s realistic feel ranks alongside that of Nintendo’s sublime 1080° Snowboarding, and brings about the same desire to replay stages to perfection.
Blessed with over 50 tracks, a reasonable two-player mode, watchable Gran Turismo-style replays and its fine handling, CMR provides the ultimate in rallying reproduction. It is more simulation than arcade title, such is the level of its authenticity. There are occasional chinks in the armour, including a sometimes-reluctant handbrake and graphical glitches, and a stronger engine and exhaust note would have been welcome. But these are not enough to detract from the fact that Colin McRae Rally is the most comprehensive – and playable – game of its genre seen to date.