I recently saw a post on social media reporting that the Ford Focus that Colin McRae had driven was up for auction. This sparked a yearning in my old brain to have a blast on the first of the series on the original PlayStation.
The Sony PlayStation burst on to the scene in September 1995 and, due to excellent launch titles like Wipeout and Ridge Racer, quickly overtook the struggling Sega Saturn, Panasonic 3DO and Amiga CD32 to be the king of the 32bit machines.
Warwickshire based Codemasters, set up by the Darling brothers, had been developing games since 1986 having plenty of success on the ZX Spectrum, Commodore 64, BBC Micro and other systems with their Dizzy games on the 16-bit machines. Yet more success came later in the form of the multi award winning Micro Machine games.
Their first foray into 3D driving games came with 1997’s TOCA racing for the Playstation and PC, but it was the 1998 Colin McRae Rally that really set the standard for the early 3D driving games which later evolved into the Dirt series we still have today.
Colin McRae was a household name here in the UK. Being a world champion rally driver, he was a shoe in as the ‘name of the game’.
The game is very much a simulation compared to Sega’s arcade classic Sega Rally, as I will get to. The game is fully licensed using the cars and 7 stages from the 1998 season, plus an extra stage, Indonesia, as a bonus.
The 3 difficulty levels determine which class of the 12 available cars you will be driving. So, novice gives you 2 wheel drive hot hatches such as a VW golf and Skoda Felicia, intermediate will start you with the classic 4 wheel drive Subaru Impreza WRC and Ford Focus and expert mode lets you unlock classics from the past, such as the Audi Quattro, MK2 Ford Escort and Lancia Delta.
The game is both analogue and digital controller compatible, with my preference being analogue on the steering but buttons for braking and acceleration. While there is an option for manual gears, for me, there is enough to contend with staying on the track!
The game begins with an option screen to change settings of your car such as tyre type, suspension stiffness and gear changes, although it is initially set up for each rally as a default – snow tyres for Finland and closer gear ratios for the hills of Greece.
There is also a section for car repairs after each stage, with each repair costing time from your allotted 60 minutes. This instantly tells you this is a more serious driving game than what, up to that time, we had been used to on home consoles.
Each Rally is split into 3 or 6 stages depending on difficulty and you have about 5km of track for each stage. The player races against the clock with each stage being broken down into sections by red marker boards visible along the road side as you race. As you zoom around the track you move up and down the leader board depending on your split times between each set of markers. You need to finish in the top 6 of 12 of each rally to continue to the next country.
As the green lights come on to start your race, you realise this is not like the usual racer games from this era. The controls are loose and sensitive to every movement and you will be sliding all over to begin with, but it is really worth getting to grips with it. It soon becomes easy to power slide around corners while peppering the accelerator and break buttons. This control style for me was a revelation in a driving game at the time and still holds up very very well today. You really have to anticipate the corners coming up which is aided by your co-drivers audio comments and screen prompt arrows of varying degrees of curve.
The cars all handle slightly differently and the environments all work really well, with mud splatter going up your car, weather changing between stages and road side obstacles like ditches and gravel slowing you down considerably.
If you crash, your car will show damage – too much will result in you not finishing the race. Cars can be repaired after each stage but takes time to do, so if you have heavy damage you may not be able to fix to full health.
The graphics hold up really well even played through a SCART lead on my new LCD TV, they are a little grainy, but it definitely doesn’t deter from the gameplay. At the time of release, some of the original reviews complained at graphical glitches, but apart from the odd screen tear on some of the mountain stages, I have not noticed anything significant.
Sound wise it’s very basic, which works well. The engine noise is bearable, but I tend to have to co-driver voice up to max level as the prompts for upcoming corners are definitely helpful.
The game has quite a steep learning curve, mainly due to the twitch controls, but for me this only adds to the replay-ability of this game. Once you get the hang of how much you can get away with accelerating and braking around each various degree of corner and learn how each surface changes the handling, it really is so hard to put this down, always wanting to get to the top of those leaderboards.