I love the smell of petrol in the morning. But, since the motor-racing season is all but over, it’s lucky that there are games like this to keep the thrill alive during the cold, dark, Winter months. PlayStation owners have had access to Colin McRae Rally for some time, the lucky devils, but only now can PC owners see what all the fuss is about. And what it’s all about is this. Take one stupendously powerful car. Add a maniac, sorry, driver. Add a fearless co-driver. Sprinkle liberally with gravel, rain, slush, snow, dust, oil, sheep and very hard trees. Serve at 120mph. And rest.
Rallying is one of the more skilful forms of motor-racing. There are no tyre barriers or pit stops in this game. Just you, some roads or gravel tracks and a big bag full of bravado. Stuff the car into a tree and there’s nobody to blame but yourself. Got a puncture? You’d better get out and change it yourself, then, hadn’t you? And, unlike virtually any other type of motor-racing, getting the car sideways is mandatory if you want to get the best time.
Colin McRae Rally captures this experience pretty well. As well as can be expected on a computer screen in the comfort of your own home, anyway. With a choice of cars that includes the Ford Escort WRC, the Mitsubishi Lancer and the Skoda Felicia (don’t laugh; they’re excellent rally cars), there’s plenty of variation, although the dominant product placement is obviously Colin’s own Subaru Impreza. The rallies take place in New Zealand, Corsica, Sweden, Greece, Monte Carlo, Australia and the UK, with a total of 52 stages to complete. It quickly becomes apparent that point-and-squirt merchants will get nowhere fast. You have to set the car up carefully for each corner, listening to your co-driver’s pace notes. Otherwise there’ll be a pile of scrap metal where a very expensive car once stood.
I’ve been there. I’ve stood in a Welsh forest on a cold, wet, miserable November morning, waiting forever for the ROAR-POP-POP-ROAR-CRUNCH-BANG of the next car. Unfortunately it’s not even as much fun as it sounds, even for a dedicated car nut. Far better to watch it on television. Rally organisers seem to have cottoned on to this, with the increasing use of special spectator stages, where two cars race head-to-head around a stadium track. It’s bags of fun, and it’s replicated nicely in this game. And if you really don’t know your sequential gearbox from your gas-flowed manifolds, you can pick up the basics at the simulated rally driving school, which teaches you how best to clobber loads of traffic cones without getting a ticket.
All things considered, Colin can be pretty pleased with his endorsement of this game, which is one of the best attempts at a rally simulation yet produced. We played it on the PC and the PlayStation, and we reckon that (if you have a force-feedback steering wheel), the PC wins the day in terms of speed. It also allows you to play against others on a network, in addition to the standard split-screen option. Installation was a bit of a pain, though, so you may need to hit your machine with a hammer before you actually get to drive. Maybe that’s just another part of the rally experience.