The Great Xbox Rally Faceoff

"Well," he said, "as your attorney I advise you to buy a motorcycle. How else can you cover a thing like this righteously?"


If there's one genre that seems exceedingly well represented on the Xbox it's the driving game. It's been a long time coming, but I think Microsoft's console is finally hitting its stride in terms of providing quality racers, and we're getting new exclusives at a steady pace. Even the relatively maligned category -- at least domestically -- of rally racing is seeing healthy competition with the exceptional recent releases of Colin McRae Rally 04 and Rallisport Challenge 2. So what's a gamer to do with this veritable plethora of vehicular gaming goodness? Choose between them, of course. Step inside to see which one most deserves your hard-earned green.

Both games follow the same general career strategy -- though RSC2 provides a slightly less linear path through the races with a well-done interconnected grid of available events -- and provide about the same options for "quick action" to get right into racing. Let's get this out of the way right now since this is generally one of the first questions out of peoples' mouths:

Rallisport Challenge 2 Colin McRae Rally 04
# of cars Over 40 Over 20
# of courses Over 90 Over 50

This obviously gives RSC2 the nod in terms of car and course variety. You'll see a wide range of different cars in both games, from 2-wheel drive to 4-wheel to the infamous Group B racers and there's obviously some common ground between the two games since rally games are expected to contain a certain base-level of popular rally vehicles, like the Citroen Xsara, Subaru Impreza and Lancer EVO.

Competition types is also varied in RSC2, whereas in CMR04 aside from the equipment trials which we'll talk about later you'll be strictly racing traditional rallies. RSC2 provides the traditional rally racing as well as ice racing, rallycross, crossover, and hill climbs and descents. These other race types help to provide significant and enjoyable variety.

Current Score - Rallisport Challenge 2: 1 Colin McRae Rally 04:

"We got a full tank of gas, half a pack of cigarettes; it's dark and we're wearing sunglasses."

Rallisport Challenge 2 Colin McRae Rally 04
Two games, two corners, and a whole lot of dust and smoke.

For some reason, driving games just aren't driving games unless the driving actually works. Thankfully, each title drives well if completely differently. You'll find rewarding races with each title, but getting to the finish line in one piece and in good time requires different skills and techniques for each one.

CMR04 prides itself in being a rally racing simulator and for the most part they are correct. Though at times it can feel that you're driving a platform attached to a gimbal that rotates unerringly around a center of gravity instead of a car that has weight and is contacting a world through (barring loss of a wheel) 4 tires and suspension linkages, it still usually provides a convincing illusion of real driving. Driving quickly requires serious concentration and a delicate touch on the controls, especially on the brake and the gas. One thing that stands out between these titles is the throw range of the throttle and brake: in CMR04 you can (and will) roll from barely any throttle to full bore and everything in between in a comfortable, linear fashion whereas in RSC2 it feels as though you are either idling or redlining with not as much dynamic range between the two.

RSC2, like its predecessor, follows the Project Gotham Racing 2 model of driving... a fun, mostly arcade feel. Note that it isn't quite as arcady as PGR2, but it's still a slightly exaggerated driving experience and doesn't quite evoke a sensation that you are actually driving a car perilously close to the edge of a cliff and are about to lose it and die. You feel somewhat removed from the controls at times and you don't have the level of control that CMR04 provides. That said, the designers knew what they were doing and that's providing a rally game that is more easily approachable and provides an enjoyable, fast paced driving experience without some of the pain that a more "sim-oriented" experience can provide to the casual gamer. RSC2 invariably conveys more of a sense of speed while driving and at times you'll be struck by just how unreal it is to be flinging across the landscape at over 100 miles an hour seemingly barely in control of the vehicle. Obviously you can do the same in CMR04, but the difference being it's slightly easier to maintain that control in RSC2. You're on the edge, but rarely do you reach the point where you utterly lose it.

For overall driving, I have to give Colin McRae Rally 04 the edge. The sensation of piloting a vehicle and of having controls that respond and a car that interacts with the road the way you'd really expect it to interact leads to a more rewarding experience. When you hit a good time on a stage in CMR04, there's a feeling of accomplishment since there's so much interaction and thought required, whereas in RSC2 since it comes across as slightly more arcady and there's less perceived effort to get through the stage, though it's fun it isn't quite as rewarding.

Current Score - Rallisport Challenge 2: 1 Colin McRae Rally 04: 1

"I feel so... pretty!"

Rallisport Challenge 2 Colin McRae Rally 04
A first glimpse of both. Yeah, I'd love to drive there, too.

Yeah, yeah, "gameplay is king" and all that jazz. And it is. But it really helps if that delightful gameplay is wrapped in some sexy visuals. And for these titles, they are, though we do have a clear winner which will probably be no surprise to most of you.

Let's talk about what they have in common first. Both titles support a widescreen display and 480p output, and each of them put the widescreen display to good use. Each title has a lively if somewhat different set of palettes, with RSC2 edging out the other title in vividness and realism. You have to see the autumn leaves falling and the subtle desert hues in motion to really appreciate these color selections. They both run at a comfortable 60 FPS -- though oddly replays immediately after a race in RSC2 are shown in what appears to be 30 FPS but if you save it and play it later in the "Replay Theater" it is shown in 60FPS -- and neither title has exhibited any appreciable slowdowns. They each provide a selection of viewing positions while racing including a convincing and enjoyable in-car view and the ubiquitous chase views. Now let's break it down.

Yes, RSC2 takes the lead in the stunning visuals department. As this is an Xbox-exclusive title compared with CMR04 which is also available for the PS2, obviously the designers had a much easier time tailoring the graphics to the single platform and eeking out every bit of performance they could. And frankly, they've done a hell of a job. The original Rallisport Challenge was known as arguably the prettiest racer on any platform. They've upped the ante this time with even more realism and beautiful effects and environments, including a frankly hauntingly lovely nighttime racing option. The first time I raced a desert hill climb at night with a moonlit backdrop I practically drove off the cliff a couple of times just staring at things. My wife even remarked on how good it looked which is, frankly, miraculous. There are some excellent minor touches that add to the realism as well: sun glare that will have you reaching for your sunglasses, wildlife that goes flying or running when you round a bend, puddles that reflect their environment very attractively, and vehicles that grow increasingly dirty throughout the race. Though some of the replay angles in the "cinematic camera" mode are questionable -- behind a copse of trees, over the crest of a hill so that you just see landscape for 3/4 of the camera cut time -- the replays are generally lovely, especially at night. You really have to see the headlights in motion to believe how lifelike they are.

For a cross-platform title, CodeMasters has done an admirable job of producing an attractive rally game in CMR04. Yes, the palettes are sometimes duller or less realistic than its competitor, the texture detail is not up to the same level, and the landscape don't have the same vitality as RSC2, but you can't say that this is an ugly game by any stretch of the imagination. IT too has some subtle points of interest, like the billowing dust across the course in desert races, a far more convincing rain effect, longer dust trails behind cars -- that only really come into play in replays -- and a windscreen that gets increasingly dusty, somewhat obscuring your vision in the in-car view until the windshield wiper automatically sends a swipe across to clear it a bit. Like RSC2, the cars get increasingly dirty during the race, and damage effects are noticeable and wild. Car models are a toss-up between the two with RSC2 perhaps having a slight edge over the ever-so-slightly plastic appearing models in CMR04. The game's presentation has a decidedly European flair, with understated monochromatic backgrounds and text compared with RSC2's more traditional, higher-tech feel.

Rallisport Challenge 2 Colin McRae Rally 04
The car selection screens. The bright white bar on the right is an artifact of my recording, not of the game.

The cinematic replay camera in CMR04 is a notch better than its competitor, with better angle selections and some exciting, sweeping follows that really capture the race better than RSC2. That said, it's good that it has a quality cinematic camera, since that's the only thing the replays have: there's no controls during replay in CMR04 (unless you consider exiting out of the replay a "control") whereas in RSC2 there's a full suite of controls including a very well done "jog" control that utilizes the triggers to progressively speed up or slow down to a complete halt during playback as well as the full complement of enjoyable views. It certainly made capturing screens in RSC2 far easier. Add the fact that the only time you can see a replay of your race in CMR04 is immediately following said race -- and you can't save the replay -- and Rallisport certainly has to be considered superior in the replay department.

Rallisport Challenge 2 wins this round in graphical prowess which, as I said up top, shouldn't come as too much of a surprise being essentially an exclusive first-party title. Seeing it in action is really something, and you can save a replay of that quality run and watch it again and again in slow motion from a variety of angles.

Current Score - Rallisport Challenge 2: 2 Colin McRae Rally 04: 1

"Listen. You smell something?"

Sound used to play second fiddle to graphics in the olden days of gaming. These days it seems the minimum configuration is Dolby Digital 5.1, with 7.1 becoming more prevalent on a daily basis. Both of these titles tout Dolby Digital 5.1 surround output, realistic engine sounds, and the ever-present (well, in RSC2 only during rally races) co-driver calling out the terrain ahead. Each of them sounds good, but only one can come away the winner. And it ain't the Xbox exclusive.

Rallisport Challenge 2 Colin McRae Rally 04
A bit of snow and a bit of snow. Fear those headlights.

Those lads at CodeMasters have really taken sound to a new level in racing games. Sure, plenty of racing games have decent sounding engines, and several of them have rocking soundtracks. But few if any have achieved the level of audible realism that Colin McRae Rally 04 can boast. Those of you who traditionally eschew the in-car view in driving games -- and I count myself among that number pre-CMR04, truth be told -- are doing yourselves a disservice if you stick with that position, because the in-car view presented in CMR04 is truly the most realistic rally driving experience to be had today, especially audibly. While RSC2 provides a similar experience, the level of sonic detail in CMR04 from the in-car view is unparalleled. The engine, of course, sounds dandy. Exhaust blats come convincingly from the rear, suspension jarring and shimmies are emitted from various directions as you take turns. Any body hits or harsh landings sound as real as you can imagine. My favorite aural experience came during a particularly hairy hill descent with a lot of switchbacks and hairpins. At one point following a particularly poor turn, I detected a thumping audible from the left rear of the car, with a commensurate degradation of handling. This was a visceral experience as well, with plenty of healthy subwoofer hits. After another few turns there was a sharp shift to a grinding, grating sound and a decidedly worse ride as well. After finally finishing the race I watched the replay and noted that I had a flat tire during the thumping phase. As I continued to drive, the tire eventually flew off the wheel, leaving only the rim grinding across the gravel. I suspected it from the audible and handling cues, but that visual confirmation that what I envisioned was true was awe-inspiring.

The co-driver -- voiced by real-life McRae co-driver Derek Ringer -- in CMR04 is vastly superior to Rallisport's generic attempt in every way. Aside from the authenticity derived from having a real co-driver making the calls, the accuracy of the calls is generally spot-on, whereas in RSC2 many of the calls seem to be overly optimistic, calling for a relatively easy turn when in fact it's a fairly substantial turn. Also, the co-driver in RSC2 tends to fall behind the turns or at least not call them with sufficient time to react. A classic, well-derided example is a notice of a blind jump over a bridge and while you're in the air off the jump he finally decides to mention that there's a square turn that you're quite likely flying past right now. This can be frustrating and there's surprisingly little to be done about it, though enabling the map view instead of the turning indicators can give you a bit of advance warning at the expense of a bit of realism.

RSC2 has good sound, make no mistake, with all of the trimmings you would expect. Good engine noise, little extras like whistling waste-gates and backfire blats, and a distinctly heavy soundtrack that plays while you drive. It sounds fine, but doesn't provide the same level of integration with the game that Colin McRae Rally 04 does. For that reason, CMR04 takes the sound title by a fair margin.

Current Score - Rallisport Challenge 2: 2 Colin McRae Rally 04: 2

"Hey, that thing got a HEMI?"

Rallisport Challenge 2 Colin McRae Rally 04
Blasting through the dust never felt so good.

A rally game also wouldn't be a rally game without a bit of tweaking and customizing, and each title allows a measure of car setup to tailor the car to suit your driving style and the conditions of specific courses and stages. DICE did their work a bit better this year, adding significantly more customization of vehicle parameters than the original Rallisport Challenge. The added ability to save off those parameters and load them in again makes things easier to manage, but the fact that you have to load them in before every race mitigates that somewhat. And those parameters, once adjusted, have a measurable influence on the handling of the vehicle, making it possible to shave 10s of seconds off stages with just smart configuring.

CMR04 continues the trend of customization and extends it further, with upgrades that can be earned for your vehicle through small mini-competitions to "test out" the equipment. Successfully complete the equipment trial and that equipment is yours to install. Everything from different tires to brakes to suspension and more is available. As an example, to earn the suspension you have 2 attempts to drive through a course and put the hurt on the suspension as much as possible, really trying to bottom out the car and damage the system. Accrue enough suspension damage with hard landings and such in the allotted time and you win. If you don't you can try again during your next test phase, but there are only so many test phases and you'd hate to waste those test slots without winning new gear.

This is as good a place to talk about vehicle damage as any. Both games support vehicle damage in rather impressive fashion. Visible vehicle damage is noticeable and extreme, with each title shedding body parts and flinging glass and tires in all directions for careless drivers. RSC2 appears to cherish these events as the "crash cam" takes over when you get off course (or upside down) during the race, showing those damage effects for the user to enjoy. And while RSC2 nominally provides degraded handling for vehicle damage, there isn't the level of subtlety found in CMR04's handling damage model. In CMR04 if you damage the cooling system, the engine will run worse, sometimes stalling in mid-race. Tires -- as I've discovered to my chagrin -- can run flat and will eventually depart the car entirely, as will wheels. Suspension can be damaged, bodywork comes off, turbos can fail, oil systems can perish. Just about anything you can imagine short of decapitating your co-driver can and will occur if you're too careless. It's quite possible to damage your car in a myriad of ways such that finishing the stage is impossible. RSC2 has some of the same failures, but the distinctions aren't as great, and generally you go from "running pretty good" to "running pretty bad" to "not running", instead of the gradual degradation and subtle changes in driving approach required.

Taking that a step further is what happens when you finish a race. In RSC2, once you cross the finish line it's time to breathe a sigh of relief. You're done, doesn't matter whether you cross the finish line upside-down with all tires gone and your engine at the bottom of a canyon. For the next race it will be repaired good as new and detailed inside and out to boot. Things aren't so straightforward in CMR04. Between subsequent stages you actually have to plan out how best to repair your car to race-worthiness, and you have one hour game time to do it. Each repair to each part of the car takes some variable amount of time depending on how damaged that part is. It might require 20 minutes to repair that blown engine, 18 minutes to replace the suspension system, 17 minutes to repair the turbo, etc. Well, you've got an hour regardless, chief, and if you have more damage than time you can elect to perform some repairs anyway, but you'll be penalized in actual race time for every bit of time you go over. This factor greatly increases your feeling of responsibility for not harming the car during a race. That impetus doesn't exist in RSC2.

For real gearheads, Colin McRae Rally 04 provides more bang for the buck in terms of customization and car setup as well as appreciable vehicle damage. Rallisport Challenge 2 has made great strides since the original game -- where vehicle damage was visual only -- but doesn't have quite the complexity of the other title. Score another for CMR04.

Current Score - Rallisport Challenge 2: 2 Colin McRae Rally 04: 3

"All dressed up and no place to go."

Rallisport Challenge 2 Colin McRae Rally 04
It takes a different breed to blast through snow and ice at over 100 MPH.

We've already noted that RSC2 is the winner in courses numerically, but what about quality? That's tough, and can really be boiled down to two distinct viewpoints: beauty and challenge. Almost without question, RSC2 has the title for course beauty down pat, from the gorgeous environments, the believable landscapes, and exceptional details -- complete airports, mining towns, snowy expanses -- RSC2 truly raises the bar for wonderful environments. Both titles provide considerable challenge, with elevation changes, switchbacks and hairpins, and harsh jumps featured heavily. Course length is variable with some longer courses mixed in with shorter stages. The one area that CMR04 truly shines is in the racing surface itself. One of the weaknesses of the original Rallisport Challenge was the rather flat, plain driving surfaces. On occasion they threw in some bumps, but otherwise the surfaces were rather uninspiring. DICE has improved the situation considerably in this iteration of the title, creating somewhat more varied surface textures. However, compared with CMR04's undulating surfaces, they've still got a ways to go. Some tracks in Colin McRae Rally 04 appear so daunting in terms of driving surface that you almost want to throw in the towel. What RSC2 would verbally warn you about with a "bumps" call, CMR04 scoffs at. Sometimes it's challenging to determine where the ideal path is located, and ditches and gullies are true hazards to progress.

In addition, the composition of the road surfaces seem more varied and certainly has a more substantial impact on driving technique and efficiency in CMR04. Crossing a transition from pea gravel to dirt to tarmac to moderate gravel, you'll be able to discern differences in handling characteristics and turning efficiency more-so than in the other title. It should be noted that this differences are in general not felt through the controller in CMR04. The rumble feature in the controller seems to me to be under-utilized in this title, especially compared with the wealth of knowledge acquired though the impressive and varied tactile feedback provided in Rallisport.

Unfortunately, I can't point out a solid winner in this category, the strengths and weaknesses of each product outweigh each other enough to make it a very tight contest. I'll give them both points for this one.

Current Score - Rallisport Challenge 2: 3 Colin McRae Rally 04: 4

"Would. You. Like. To. Play. A. Game?"

Xbox Live is hitting its stride quite nicely as well these days, with numerous quality titles and a strong and growing user base. Too bad only one of these titles has legitimate Xbox Live support.

Rallisport Challenge 2 provides a complete online multiplayer Xbox Live component, where you can race up to 15 of your friends head to head. If you have anything over 4 players in the game, everyone will appear as wireframes and collisions are turned off but truthfully, who cares. Most of the courses were designed with at most 4 players in mind, and quite obviously the game has been tuned to within an inch of its life to perform with a maximum of four cars on-screen at once. All the standard Xbox Live (2.0) features are well-represented, with voice-chat working in the MotoGP model: you can speak to the person in front of you and behind you in the game. Overall, the title works very well, though when collisions are on any collisions that do occur generally result in rather bizarre and usually unexplainable phenomena: cars flying in the air, warping to new locations, etc. These are, frankly, minor issues in my eyes, where a game is about getting the best time few people are going to be rubbing bumpers to shave seconds. Though it is sometimes entertaining giving people little "love nudges" off the sides of particularly precipitous cliffs.

RSC2 also holds claim as the first racing game to be integrated into the XSN Network, with the available and impressive tournament racing options therein. This is a definite boon, and seems to be very well done and awfully exciting.

CMR04 allows you to race a person sitting next to you, though (s)he'll be a ghost. Oh, and there's Xbox Live scoreboards that are almost impossible to post times to. Hmm, I wonder who wins this category.

This category will get a whole lot more interesting in the fall when Colin McRae Rally 05 is due to be released. With full Xbox Live support. Yeah, it's a good time to be an Xbox Live racer.

Current Score - Rallisport Challenge 2: 4 Colin McRae Rally 04: 4

"This town ain't big enough for two of us, and I've got a really low interest rate mortgage."

Surprisingly enough it looks like we've boiled down to a tie. As such, let's throw in a couple of different scenarios.

1. For the cheap Xbox Live gamer, I'd definitely suggest Rallisport Challenge 2. The added enjoyment of real multiplayer gaming over Xbox Live is an advantage that's hard to overcome.

2. For the cheap single-player gamer, go with Colin McRae Rally 04. It's a solid, attractive title that offers significant challenge.

3. For the gamer that can spend an extra $20... get both! Domestically, Colin McRae Rally 04 is available for the paltry sum of $19.95 brand new, anywhere you see it. That kind of gaming joy generally can't be had for that cheap, so take advantage of the situation to set yourself up with two quality rally racing titles.


Wow, great comparison. At $20 it's hard not to pick up one sooner or later.

I have Rallisport 2 and it is a blast on X-Box Live. Never played a Colin McRae game though...

I second the tie score. I am currently playing both and do not have a clear favorite over the other. If I had to choose one I would probably pick RSC2 cause of the custom soundtrack feature. This is trivial to alot of xbox users but I love having over 500+ songs to listen to in the background while racing.

I have been playing CMR04 pretty regurlary since I picked it up about a month ago. The controls are simply delicious and the co-pilot calls the race perfectly. However, I am a little dissapointed in the multiplayer.

Often I get turned off when I hear that a racing game has an "arcady" feel (although, i *love* the Burnout series). However it seems that Rallisport is a pretty tasty racer in its own right. So, I will probably pick it too

Excellent work, Coldforged! I like to see direct comparisions like that, as it takes our wallets into account. Keep up the good work!

Wireframes? Do you mean it looks like Battlezone or something?

1Dgaf wrote:

Wireframes? Do you mean it looks like Battlezone or something?

Essentially, yes. Though each car is a different color to denote which player it is. But Battlezone it is.

Wow, nice article. I've been looking at both titles for a week now. Thanks for the indepth comparison. Think I'm going to go with RC2.

Loving the direct comparison review. It's nice to see Colin Mcrae get some competition after it's wonderful stint on the PS. Would like to see more of these head-to-head reviews in the future as titles permit....and not for the sake of system comparisons....:)

Thanks gents, I appreciate the comments. Yeah, it's really hard to go wrong with either of these titles... they both offer a lot, just slightly different benefits to each one.

ColdForged wrote:

"Well," he said, "as your attorney I advise you to buy a motorcycle. How else can you cover a thing like this righteously?"

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

I just can't get too interested in racing games. No matter what system they are for.

I think I'll be getting RC2 once it's price has dropped a bit. The first was a very worthy purchase at a 20$ price point.