I can still remember where I was when I heard the news. At a press event at Rockingham race-track, a Codemasters representative quietly whispered it in my ear. My jaw fell. The sheer incredulity of it stunned me. One of my ways to measure the year's passing, one of gaming's staple titles wasn't going to see a release in the year of 2006. Was it even possible for a year to pass without another edition of Colin McRae? Would the world stop spinning? Had Codemasters finally got bored of the title?
Fear not though, because behind closed doors, the Codies team have been busy with the latest edition and now we've had a chance to slide sideways round the full game, we can happily report that Colin McRae: DiRT is well worth the wait.
First things first. This is not the Colin McRae you've played a hundred times before. Everything from the sound effects through to the graphics, even to the game modes has been stripped down and built back up again to create a completely new experience. Whereas before, playing one Colin McRae title meant you'd pretty much played them all, now the game has changed almost beyond all recognition. It seems that Colin's not only been resurrected, but reincarnated in a vastly superior form.
SHINY AND NEW
Drawing on their multi-motorsport experience with TOCA Race Driver 3, Codies have introduced a raft of new racing genres to the game. No longer just restricted to plain rallying, this time round, they've managed to cram in practically every type of motorsport that features copious amounts of mud and dust, demanding that a car wash and a well-equipped mechanic be standing by at the end of each race. While standard rallying still plays a big part (appearing in RWD, FWD and 4WD forms), there are also five newcomers to the scene: Crossover, Rally Raid, Rallycross, CORR and Hill Climb.
But let's start at the beginning. From the moment the flashy new floating 3D interface pops up (reminiscent of Windows Vista, with the exception that everything works), the Scot of the title is conspicuous by his absence. Instead, your presence is greeted by the American tones of Travis Pastrana, motocross legend, rallying newcomer and all-round nice guy (makes you sick, doesn't it?).
Quite why Colin's disappeared is a mystery; you see his name popping up in races as you pip him to the post, but that's as much of an appearance as he makes. I guess middle-aged Scottish guys just don't pull in the crowds like an all-American urban hero who does backflips on motorbikes, says "Awesome!" way too much and commands instant respect from any beanie-wearing kid.
SEE THE PYRAMIDS
Three modes are open to you: Career, Championship and Rally World, although the latter's really just a free ride mode. Championship mode offers some classic McRae gameplay, with its selection of rallies that you can compete in, stage by stage. But what you should be most interested in is the Career mode. Selecting this option swoops you off to a flashy pyramid-like structure.
Starting at Tier 1 at the bottom of the rung, there are 11 different races, with each tier featuring one less race - all the way up to Tier 11 at the top. Progression through the tiers is dependent on winning points from the races in the tier below.
Moving up in the world offers faster cars and more difficult tracks, going from straight roads to ones in which your co-driver will barely be able to keep up with the twists and turns. This pyramid structure cleverly offers lower-level drivers plenty of chances to experiment or stick to their best events, only to force you to master them all at the higher levels. There's also a difficulty level that can be set for each race, hopefully preventing you from getting stuck on any tough races. Or should that be stuck in the mud...