Replay Value: 8.5
Number Of Players: 1-4
Another year, another Colin McRae Rally.
In an unusual move, Codemasters have given us a sequel to last year's Colin McRae Rally 3 less than a year after that game's release. This is different compared to the relatively long waiting times between new installments in the past. One can speculate about whether this is just a new approach from Codemasters' side, involving yearly updates, or if it's a reaction to the critique CMR3 had to endure from fans and game critics around the world. The important thing is that it's here now - but is it enough to blow us away?
Before the release of CMR3, Codemasters were praising the new direction the series were headed in. This time YOU were going to be Colin. The career mode sounded like it would have unseen amounts of depth and identity, trying to mirror a championship through Colin's eyes, with all the glory that comes with it. Unfortunately, it didn't turn out quite the way I had hoped. What we were left with was a rather paltry championship mode, which you could only play through as Colin. The glitz and glamour was totally missing - those of us expecting some kind of RPG-esque behind-the-scenes content were disappointed. The rest of the game certainly didn't gain anything by virtually being stripped off options either.
Right from the beginning, Colin McRae Rally 04 offers you more choices. There are now three types of championships; One for your regular 4WD vehicles, and a 2WD challenge for those of you who like it nice and easy. There's also an unlockable championship where you get to try out the legendary Group B cars, which were banned from races in the 80's (for a reason). You can also put together your own choice of cool stages in the Custom Rally mode. You could say that this is about as close to a level editor as you get in the game. It's pretty convenient to have all your favorite tracks readily available in one place. There are three difficulty levels - Normal, Advanced, and Expert. You don't have access to the latter from the start though, but perhaps that's for the best. I assure you that you'll need a lot of practice before you can make it through that mode. Unfortunately enough, the game is missing the online functions found in its Xbox incarnation. I'd like to hear Codemasters' excuse for that, seeing as how said functions are only the option to upload your best times for comparing with others.
In my opinion, the best improvement found in the game comes in the form of the enhanced physics engine. Instead of having a single point of weight in the middle, keeping you glued to the ground, the car now is less stable (in a good way) thanks to a more realistic four-point system. The different track surfaces are more noticeable now, as well. Thanks to the individual movement from the car axles, accidentally getting one wheel out in the ditch during a sharp turn will affect your steering a lot more than it has ever done before. So now it's both more important and more difficult to stay on the road than it used to be. It's also essential that you take some time to view the information about the upcoming stages during the Shakedown phases of each Rally. You'll get a good look at what kind of road surface you'll be racing on, and you'll need it, because the game won't auto-adjust any tyre settings, or whatnot, for you. Thankfully, the manual setup is not much of a hassle, even for beginners.
Remember the way you got earned car upgrades in CMR3? This time, you'll have to put up more of a fight to get them. Between each Rally, you'll be subjected to a test, kind of like the license tests in Gran Turismo. You get two tries, and if you manage to clear the task given to you, you'll receive an upgrade. It's a nice addition in theory, but in the real world, it's basically filler material. The challenges aren't very hard to begin with, and if you should mess up on your second and last try, you can always just press "start" and go back to the main menu to load up your saved game again. Boo.
The quality of the graphics has been bumped up a notch, now featuring more subtle environmental effects, and the sound effects, together with the delivery of the pace notes, are excellent as always. These are all secondary aspects to a game like this, however, and the question remains if what Codemasters are offering us with CMR04 is enough. It's a good game for sure, but there's nothing new about it. The developers have corrected most of the problems CMR3 had, but I have to wonder if they're content about lagging a year behind the competition. Are yearly updates to the series going to be the norm in the future? Is catering to the hardcore fans enough?
At the risk of sounding contradictory, I'll have to say this: Colin McRae Rally 04 is a great game, but ultimately lacks soul.