He would pick up the game and he’d just be able to nail the fastest lap time, as fast as our guys in the studio and these are guys that worked on the games for years.
-Toby Heap, colin mcrae DiRT (2007) marketing department
“The following is a contributor post by the Purple Prose Mage.”
Colin McRae Rally (published by Codemasters) was released in Europe for the PlayStation in July 1998. Such UK No. 1 singles include “Three Lions ’98” by Baddiel, Skinner & The Lightning Seeds, “Because We Want To” by Billie, “Freak Me” by Another Level and “Deeper Underground” by Jamiroquai. The highest grossing film of the month is Saving Private Ryan, directed by Steven Spielberg.
In 1995, Colin McRae, driving for Subaru World Rally Team, became the youngest World Rally Champion after winning his first WRC title. It was the only one he’d ever win, yet his status as the first British winner – and the British driver with the most World Rally wins – secured his iconic status in the world of UK sport.
After their success with TOCA Touring Car Championship, Codemasters looked to develop a rally game. Due to the popularity of SEGA Rally Championship, the concept of “rallying”, to the general public, was thought to be nothing more than generic circuit racing in a tougher environment than usual. Producer Guy Wilday was a fan of what SEGA had done with those games in terms of the attempt at realistic handling physics, and wanted to apply something not dissimilar to a game that presented rallying for how it actually is: one car at a time. The idea of a true-to-form rally game had been done before, but Colin McRae Rally would be the first one to take it to the mainstream – and it’s because it had Colin McRae’s name on it. That’s the cultural significance that he had in his heyday. In the United States, rallying is still a bit niche, so it was this game that introduced it to many local fans, who – having never of heard of him before, assumed that Colin McRae was a fictional character.
Expecting the general public to only care if there was a recognisable driver connected to it, Codemasters made the decision of acquiring the rights to use McRae’s name and likeness, rather than a WRC license from regulator the FIA – that would’ve made it more of a tie-in to the sport rather than the one driver in it that people could actually name. The former would eventually come to exist in the form of WRC World Rally Championship (2001), but that’s for another time. The other drivers included are fictional. McRae’s co-driver Nicky Grist reads the pace notes (the other drivers’ co-drivers aren’t named). The constructors championship is absent altogether.
As a professional, McRae provided technical input into the driving physics as well as the structure of the championship. The intention was to create the most accurate rally simulator that it was possible for a PlayStation game to be. The developers also spent a period of time studying at a rally school in order to have an experiential reference for the finished product. This was the main inspiration for the Rally School feature: a series of tutorial levels of increasing difficulty and complexity that would prepare the player for the experience of competing in a rally championship, from learning the basics in a car park to going out on a complete rally stage at night. Each test is introduced with a demonstration video narrated by McRae himself and grades the player /10 for 7 different principles of their driving with a minimum pass grade. It’s not necessary to complete the Rally School in order to begin a rally proper but if you go there first and you commit, you’ll notice that your driving will improve. Exactly where the Rally School is supposed to be isn’t specified, but the test track shares a resemblance to the United Kingdom’s F. of Bowland stage.
The most unique gameplay feature introduced to the genre by Colin McRae Rally was the car setup stage. This is something which is briefly covered in the Rally School but doesn’t really apply until the rally proper begins. While not as sophisticated as modern examples, it presented the player with stage information before asking them to decide how the mechanics should setup different aspects of the car based on descriptions of what they do and how different environments affect their overall performance. This matters when some rallies are predominantly gravel and others are asphalt, or when one stage is a combination of both and require careful judgement. Each adjustment takes a designated amount of time, but there’s only 60 minutes allocated, so a large part of it is prioritisation – especially if some of the required work is repairs that take longer the more damaged a part is. This is what made Colin McRae Rally the first rally game to offer the complete rally experience, by remembering that there’s more to it than just driving, you’re also leading a team and are the main decision maker when it comes to the car.
The cars, by the way, are rendered from laser scans of their real counterparts, with engine and road noise sampled from recordings. It may look like a primitive arcade game from a bygone generation, but the true art of it is under the hood.
There are three difficulties: novice, intermediate and expert. Novice only grants five rallies in a championship with only three stages and only the weakest cars are available: including the Skoda Felicia as used during the Rally School. Intermediate is the default setting, but if you’re a newcomer, downgrading to novice and then entering the championship with the Felicia wouldn’t be a bad idea. Intermediate allows you to drive the Subaru Impreza as featured on the cover and driven by McRae at that time. Arguably the greatest World Rally Car ever constructed, it’s won more World Rallies than any other. An intermediate rally championship also includes all rallies and stages. Expert mode is where the most powerful rally cars are. It’s a good learning curve. Some rallies finish with a head-to-head between the player and the other driver in their pair on the leaderboard, though cockpit view is disabled during those events in order for their to be enough memory to render the other car (though that’s not really a big deal – the cockpit view has the same model for most of the cars and the player’s gloves look more like mittens). The stages are named after real places in their respective countries, but are otherwise entirely invented, only attempting to create a general idea of the local environment. The countries list is mostly based on the real 1998 championship. But even then, it’s tenuous. For instance, in 2000, the game was rereleased as part of the PlayStation Value Series with the years on the rally logos updated and Monte Carlo renamed to Austria. Indonesia wasn’t even included in the 1998 championship.
Another key feature introduced is the colour-coded checkpoint system. Between starting a stage and crossing the finish line, the player will pass checkpoints. After each of those checkpoints, the player’s time for that sector is compared to the other drivers’ before them and only then is the stage’s leaderboard updated. It’s an ongoing comparison that’s adjusted at specific intervals rather than being live. A red dot moves along a line divided into equal sections, displaying the player’s proximity to the next checkpoint and the finish line. After each checkpoint, the section is coloured either red or green to show whether they took more or less time to complete that sector than the previous one.
Colin McRae Rally might not be the most realistic looking rally game by today’s standards, and isn’t even a complete rally experience. But what it did do was go as far as it could to create the first major simulation of it, and in doing so introduced features that are now commonplace. It wouldn’t be hyperbole to say that Colin McRae Rally proved that an entirely different style of racing game could be popular, and subsequently introduced an entirely new subgenre.
I’ll leave you with gameplay footage from my favourite stage in the game: United Kingdom’s Greenhow Hill, which is in Skipton and Ripon, 9 KM from some place called Sigsworth Grange…
The Purple Prose Mage is the author of the Racing Game of the Week column and is currently working on a documentary about the Driver series for its 20th anniversary on 25th June.
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Categories: Racing Column