The Colin McRae Rally series of games has had a pretty good history. The initial release on the computer was pounded for being just okay, but each release after has seen better and better reviews. I even reviewed last year’s game, Colin McRae Rally 3, for both the PS2 and Xbox. I liked the game a lot, although I was not enthused about only being able to drive one car through the whole game and only as Colin McRae.

This year Codemasters brings the choice of cars and the ability to pick your name and country of origin for the low price of $19.99. Sounds like a steal, doesn’t it? Well, let’s see if it indeed is one.

One thing Codemasters has updated is the graphics. The car graphics themselves are a lot sharper and stand right up there with the car graphics of Project Gotham Racing 2 and the screens I have seen of the upcoming Rallisport Challenge 2. As you drive through the courses your car gets dirty, wet, filled with snow, etc. depending on what type of weather you’re driving through. As you drive by trees and other overhangs you see the reflection on the top of the car if you are in 3rd person view. Shadows are even more dynamic in this game than in last year’s version. Even in clouded over sections you see realistic shadows as you drive.

Environmental effects are simply great in this game. You drive most of the time in dirt and when you go to windshield view you see the best the game has to offer. As you drive through different weather your wipers will wipe off the windshield and you’ll find that it is tougher to see when driving behind the wheel than driving in the 3rd person view. Just like last year there is also a first-person view without the car dashboard and windshield in front of you.

There is a bit of draw-in with trees and such in the game. Thing is you really have to be looking to notice it, but it is there. The beauty is that the game never slows down from its speed. Simply an all-around great graphics engine, although it will be interesting to see if Rallisport Challenge 2 outdoes it.

Still the weakest part of the game unfortunately. The good parts are that you have your navigator constantly telling you what is coming up. The navigator can be turned off as can the indicators of how the road swerves. Outside of the navigator you get car sounds, but they just don’t sound accurate. The engines seem to sound the same and there really isn’t a noticeable difference between driving on grass and driving on other terrain. I think it would have been cool to have some more sound effects than what is presented here.

The biggest problem with this series is that it does not allow music inside of the game. Now, I realize that if I was actually in a Rally race that I would not be listening to the radio while driving at over 100 MPH going into curvy terrain. On the other hand, there are games like Project Gotham Racing 2 whose ability to have music in the game only accentuates the game. I feel this game would be so much better if they just allowed custom soundtracks in it on the Xbox. Allow the game player to choose whether to have music or not. The key problem is that the sound effects are not varied enough to keep you interested and I’m as much an audible game player as I am a visual one.

Control seems to be a bit tighter this year and I had less instances of destroying my car before the day’s races were over. The controls are the same this year: A or R to accelerate, X or L to brake, Y to change camera, B to handbrake, white to gear up, black to gear down and the d-pad or analog stick to drive around. Seems pretty simple and it really is. They have expanded the game this year to include 4WD and 2WD driving. Let me tell you, just like real life 2WD is a heck of a lot easier than 4WD to drive.

This game has a lot more going for it than last year. You can pick from over 20 cars such as the Mitsubishi Lancer EVO VII, Subaru Impreza WRX and Citroen Xsara Rally Car (Colin’s own I believe). There are also over 52 stages in many different countries along with mini-games that can add more powerful car upgrades if you pass them. You also have Shakedown races where you race against another driver on a short stage.

The graphics really help the gameplay out a lot. I must say that I just enjoyed driving although some of the stages can get pretty long. I immediately went to the Championship mode in 2WD because I didn’t want to start spinning out on 4WD cars again. I found a lot to like in the 2WD section and it was cool to drive in all the views.

Championship mode is just like the World Rally Championship except it doesn’t bring the actual WRC to the game. You race through stages in 8 countries trying to be the #1 point earner at the end of the whole thing. You don’t have to win each country you just have to stay at the top of the point board. You also get points for your team (Ford, Citroen, etc.). The stages are all nicely laid out and I had a lot of fun going through them.

The damage model is back this year and it has pretty much the same effect as last year. I was in a stage of a race and my right tire fell right off so I had sparks coming from that section and my speed went way down. Let’s just say that wasn’t my best stage I had ever raced. You do get a chance to repair your car every so often, although it is tied to time. So, you may not be able to fix one section. Smart idea is to hit the low percentage spots in the repair zone and keep the 90+ percent sections alone.

The one minus this game has is that it is Xbox Live enabled, but only for scoreboards. This is obviously a place where Rallisport Challenge 2 is going to trump this game, but then again that game is currently $30 more expensive than this one. It would have been cool to have at least one-on-one races online, especially considering this game is only on Xbox this year. It is a pretty big disappointment to me because I would have been picking up RC2 no matter what, but having this option in this game would have only added to its $19.99 price point.

Outside of the inability to play online with another person, the value of this game is huge. It is only $19.99, so you won’t be breaking your bank if you go out and purchase it. It will give you a long and challenging ride that you will probably enjoy. This game isn’t one you can just blow through in a few days. It takes a long time to go through all the countries and stages. The addition of the mini-games in order to win upgrades is a cool addition and the Shakedown races are simply fun.

This really is a top notch rally racing game although I can see Rallisport Challenge 2 being at the same level, but with added options on it when it comes out in May. I think Codemasters could have had an early strike opportunity on Microsoft had they included Live online play instead of just the scoreboard stuff.

Colin McRae Rally 04 is simply a great pickup if you like rally racing games or racing games in general. The only huge blunders are no music and the lack of Live online play (there is scoreboard support though). It may not be the whole package that Project Gotham Racing 2 is to the regular racing crowd, but it has done enough this time around to put it above the original Rallisport Challenge in the rally racing genre. However I don’t know if it will be able to stand up to the might of the new RC game, with 8-player online mode, coming in May. Luckily you have almost 2 months to enjoy this $19.99 title before Microsoft’s new game comes out, so pick it up and enjoy the ride.