Remembering classic games: Richard Burns Rally [2003] | Top Gear
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Thursday 5th October

Remembering classic games: Richard Burns Rally [2003]

20 years old and it still can’t be beaten in the gravel

Published: 04 Sep 2023

Here’s a line from Gamesradar’s review of the venerable Richard Burns Rally from in situ in 2003: “Unless you're really, really into rally games, [it’s] simply too unfriendly to be any fun.” Critics noted its realistic but stern and unforgiving driving physics and roundly concluded that it was just a bit too hardcore.

20 years later, it’s considered one of the best rally games around, even when pitted against modern masterpieces like Dirt Rally 2.0. Some people would tell you it’s the outright best, and they’d say it with far too much passion and frightening conviction to be argued with. It’s supported by a modding scene that has upgraded everything from physics to visuals and added more cars and stages than you could get through in a lifetime. As it turns out, quite a lot of people are really, really into rally games.

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Critics weren’t wrong about its punishing nature though. Colin McRae Rally was as forensic as the simulation got in the early noughties and although Codemasters’ series was a dust cloud of pure joy, it wasn’t trying to capture the behaviour of tyres passing over loose surfaces with the same kind of detail that Warthog Games was striving for. Codies’ popular arcade series embodied the mantra of its namesake: if in doubt, flat out.

By contrast, taking your first few corners in RBR was a striking, confrontationally difficult ordeal. The only time you’d ever dare go flat out here would be if your co-driver navigated you onto a two-mile stretch of closed-off motorway. No, the tricky compressions and blind cambers in RBR had to be taken with absolute respect. Which is another way of saying: at an absolute snail’s pace. 

It was trying to teach you what driving a brittle, screaming torque monster through 10km of deadly woodland actually required. A completely different kind of driving, that had you thinking less about speed and more about angles, and placement. What matters most in RBR isn’t your longitudinal, but your lateral trajectory. Since you’re so rarely simply going forwards, with all four wheels gripping the surface and the platform’s weight distributed evenly across them, you have to think in terms of quick squirts of throttle to dance the car from one tight left 3 to the next. You’re using speed to achieve a precise position on the road, not just for speed’s sake.

And that’s extremely tough to do now, in the era of £50,000 hydraulic sim racing rigs and esports broadcasts watched by thousands. Imagine what a blindside attack of difficulty it felt like in 2003, when most PC players were controlling it with the directional arrow keys on their keyboards.

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In the years since it released, RBR has become more of an engine than a game. It’s the foundation that modders have built a perennially improving, evolving experience on. The latest and greatest is RallySimFans, which rather humbly calls itself a plugin but adds everything from cars and stages to a new physics model and online championships. When you cast an eye on it now, it looks, feels and sounds like a different game. The vehicles cover all of rally history, right up to the 2023 WRC machines, and the co-drivers give numbered pace notes now rather than the original game’s alarmingly vague ‘slight’ rights. It supports large-scale, real-time online championships, something that developer Warthog could only have fantasised about with 2003’s netcode. The one constant? Convincing, challenging, and punishing driving. It didn’t get a groundswell of support at the time, but RBR most certainly lives on.

Tragically, putting your name on a rally videogame in the 2000s proved something of a curse. Richard Burns died on 25 November 2005, having fallen into a coma as the result of a brain tumour. Colin McCrae would pass away two years later on 15 September 2007 in a helicopter crash that also claimed the lives of his five-year-old son and two family friends. Both drivers left an awful gulf in their wake with their passing, and both remain on the tips of rally fans’ tongues, not just for their incredible career accomplishments, but for the games that popularised the sport they loved among the masses. Colin McRae Rally made us all realise what an adrenaline-fuelled riot rally driving was, and Richard Burns Rally reminded us of the superhuman skills it requires.

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