Colin McRae Rally 04

Belting down the rural dirt tracks and flinty forest paths of Colin McRae Rally 04, something becomes immediately and painfully apparent: nature hates you. It wants you to screw up. It despises the touch of your wheels, and bucks you at every opportunity. It wants you to hit that tree head on and cough your brains all over the track, like some spongy grey trap for the next driver. Perhaps if I join an eco-charity, nature will be nicer to me... do you think?

This perversely wonderful sensation is a reflection of just how uneven the surface beneath your wheels is. Codemasters have managed to blend the general effect of a road surface (ice, gravel, sand etc) with the minutiae of imperfection any such surface boasts. You don't just skid around on muddy forest floors; you hit countless little stones, rocks, potholes and inclines that constantly punch your steering off just enough to keep you fighting the controls at all times. Add in the compensations you need to make for camber, the mapping out in your mind's eye of the next couple of corners as described by your co-driver's pace notes, and suddenly your brain's working harder and faster than that raging P4 processor in your PC. If only you could get heatsinks and fans for the old grey matter. Make mine a Cooler Master...

But thinking about it, you don't want the pressure taken off. You want it piled on in custard-thick wodges, for the intense levels of exciement generated. And even amid the furious kaleidoscope of decision-making, commitment and compensation such knife-edge driving demands, you can still find time to admire the scenery. DirectX 9 comes into its own here, as the lighting and reflection effects aren't just pretty - they capture a feeling. Racing through the English countryside on an oppressive, overcast day, we found ourselves ejected from the forest track and barrelling down a stretch of country road. Just as we turned a corner, the shiny hog's-back camber caught a fan of pink-gold rays as the sun struggled out from behind a cloud to cheer us on. It made our hearts sing. We then ploughed headlong into a dry-stone wall, and concertina-ed the bonnet. But it was worth every lost second.

The graphical details are excellent almost everywhere, and the sheer sense of location is another thing you feel on an emotional level. Winter-crisp blue skies peep through the canopy of the English forest; hard-baked orange earth hammers at your suspension in the Aussie outback; and the steel-grey skies and dirty ice of the wintry Swedish tracks remind you exactly why the country is so notorious for its high suicide rate.

But it's not all roses. There are still a few areas where things just don't feel quite right. Bushes slow you down rather than stopping you, which is great, but they're just simple cross-shaped cut-outs, which is not so great. And however good the guys standing around at the start and finish lines look, you still come across a few cardboard cutout folk watching from the sidelines - the kind of models that were once used to reduce the polygon count and keep the frame-rate up, and just aren't necessary anymore. Bit lazy that, and something of an illusion-breaker.

Utterly forgivable stuff, though, and there's still an awful lot here for rally fans. The sprawling two- and four-wheel drive championship modes offer periodic mini-games in which you test out experimental parts in the field. Perform well, and you'll get to keep them as permanent upgrades. There's also a custom mode, which allows you to tie together any tracks you've unlocked into a rally sequence of your own. And for completists, there's a group-B championship, in which you attack the tracks using classic rally cars of days gone by. Stacks to do then - and let's not forget the LAN/internet multi-player mode, which promises to be a whole ambulance-load of fun.

The damage and repair system adds an extra layer of challenge as, between rally stages, there's only so much time for your team to get the car fixed up properly. This means prioritising repair time. If you're a wheel down but your tracking's also a bit iffy, for example, obviously you'll plump for a new wheel, and hope to limp through the next stage with wonky steering. Like you'll need the extra hassle...

Short of a serious disaster at Codemasters HQ, we can't see how Colin McRae 04 can fail. The early code we've played promises intense driving through some extremely well-detailed scenery, and it's simply made us hot for the finished article. Suffice it to say, it's coming along nicely. The only question that remains is, as a sequel, will there be enough in the way of new stuff here to warrant a purchase for Colin McRae Rally 3 fans? Given the sublime level of detail applied to every aspect of the driving experience, and the palpable sense of environment, we suspect there will.

Colin McRae 04 will be kicking up dirt on PC come 2 April