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Colin McRae Rally 2.0 (PlayStation)

After playing TOCA2, I was eager to look at the new creation from Codemasters - Colin McRae Rally 2.0 (CMR2). After being told that the AI was controlled mostly by neural networks I was even more eager!

In short, in just a few days, CMR2 has provided me with some of the most exhilarating gaming experience, awed me with the graphics, and seriously impressed me with the AI. With new PlayStation titles definitely grinding down with the PlayStation2 on the horizon, CMR2 seems more like a tranisition game - getting you used to the quality that the PlayStation2 should bring, but on the PlayStation! It sure as hell beats Ridge Racer V.

Graphics

The graphics in the game are amazing. The contrast of the interface and the game is really cool - the interface is very neat, very stylish and modern. Get into the game itself and mud, dust and broken taillights are the order of the day.

The first thing that struck me was the interface. Some very neat effects are used, and the entire game is very accessible and nicely designed. The racing menu is my favourite: all the weather details, car adjustments, car repairs and system functions available is a concisely designed screen. After selecting "Race" here is what I was presented with:



Schweeeet. The graphics in the game are amazing for a PlayStation title. The roads, mud tracks and surrounding areas are beautifully done. No repeating textures, no generic buildings, and no bad modelling! The eye candy is great: the sun is nicely done, your car leaves marks on the snow/mud/tarmac, taillights will break, bumpers will come off or your engine will smoke. The environmental effects are also brilliant - snow and rain are beautifully done. Codemasters kept all the neat weather effects from TOCA2 - rain will make your car headlights reflect on the wet road.

I found that there were some 3D engine quirks, you could see your car (or others) through trees, banners, barriers and other assorted objects. This happens more in the replays than in the game itself. Also, the limitations of the PlayStation show up at times - trees and crowds are sprites, if you get real close to the car in front the back pixelates up, and the dynamic lighting in night racing isn't the same quality of RR5. Nevertheless, I'd take CMR2 over RR5 any day with the gameplay CMR2 has to offer.

Gameplay

Gameplay within CMR2 is great. You can pit yourself against computer controlled cars, race a single rally stage, a single rally, a championship, a time trial, a challenge or multiplayer! Since in real life, rally cars do not go head-to-head but instead get around the tracks as quickly as possible, CMR2 allows you to play with up to four players, each taking it in turn to complete the rally. Time-consuming, but a great option!

The arcade games are great fun, since the AI is excellent (more on that in a minute). As long as you can keep on the road, the finishing times are always incredibly close. The real rallies are also good fun, you have your navigator telling you the perils of the road ahead, and you're just concentrating on keeping the car in one piece. The minute the navigator warns me of a hairpin turn, I smile as my thumb reaches for the handbrake button...

The challenges are a really welcome feature to a racing game (especially a rally). Basically, the challenges pit you up against another driver, and you have to fly around a very taxing assault course and beat your opponent to the finishing line. Very tough, but very rewarding.

CMR2 unlocks parts of the game as you achieve best lap scores, trophies and other goodies. This keeps gameplay interesting and fresh. This also means that CMR2 requires 2 memory blocks, so I had to buy a new memory card - I suppose that isn't anything compared to the 4 that Gran Turismo requires.

In game, the cars handle realistically (not that I've driven a rally car before), sliding and skidding all about the place. The different cars don't seem to handle all that differently in the base configuration. You have an initial 6 cars to play about with, with the Ford Focus being...well, the focus of the game (Colin McRae drive a Focus). The one problem I found was the analog controller was rather sensitive, so if you're a analog kinda guy (or gal!), get used to the digital pad.

So, is there anything bad about the gameplay? Simply said, no.

Artificial Intelligence

Although it isn't advertised, neural networks are used to control the AI opponents. I chatted with the AI programmer on the project and he said that that hardest part of the AI was training to slide the cars around corners...but damn did learn to do a good job of it! The cars handle steep, hairpin turns better than I can, try to keep their distance yet drive viciously when they have to. The cars didn't seem to take a trailed path like Gran Turismo (or TOCA2, at times) but instead filled the road, cut corners and blocked opponents.

The AI beats anything I've seen before: TOCA2, RR5, Gran Turismo, Driver are all left behind. The effect is one hell of a race - the cars take the course as a pack, meaning you're constantly battling to get through any gap that appears, trying to take those corners just that little quicker so you can pull out faster than the rest.

The AI deals with the various environments differently too: the cars handle very differently between the tarmac, dirt and snowy levels, and require different methods of driving for each. The CMR2 AI provides realistic and challenging AI opponents in all of these.

 .: Interview with Jeff Hannan :.

G5: Why did you choose to use neural networks in CMR2.0? Is there anything you can tell us about the networks themselves?

Controlling a rally car on mud and gravel is a lot more complex than controlling a car on a tarmac circuit. On tarmac its mainly a case of pointing the car in the right direction, and maintaining the right speed. On slidy surfaces, the car has to turn into corners early, and slide round. I tried to create a set of rules to control the car, but was unsuccessful. I thought that neural networks would help me find a quick solution, by modelling the way I drove the car. In the end, the neural networks made it very easy to create the AI.

G5: What kind of flexibility did the neural networks give you in terms of AI design and playability? Did the networks control all aspects of the AI?

Obviously the biggest challenge was actually getting a car to successfully drive round the track in a quick time. Once that was achieved, I was then able to adjust racing lines almost at will, to add a bit of character to the drivers. The neural net was able to drive the new lines, without any new training.

G5: How did you feel about the resulting AI? What did you like/dislike about the results? Would you use a neural network again given a similar problem?

I was very pleased with the performance of the AI. I am very confident about it as well, because I understand what the neural net is doing. I haven't just created a big mysterious black box, I can map out the internal workings of it.

Conclusion

I really want to see what Codemasters can do with a PlayStation2. Colin McRae Rally 2.0 is no doubt the best racing game to come out on the PlayStation. This beauty has it all, graphics to drool over, gameplay to waste productive time over, and AI to die for. The Metal Gear Solid of the racing genre.

Cover 9.3
Platform:PlayStation
Liked:AI used neural networks! Graphics, physics, modelling, features...just about everything.
Disliked:Dynamic lighting a little strange, analog controller overly sensitive, some 3D engine quirks.
.: Buy at Amazon.com :.

Last Updated: 28/03/2001

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