Dirt Rally isn't Dirt 4, in name at least. It's not on console - yet - and even though you can play it today it's no way near finished. Once you've got through the muddle of emotions all of that inspires, it's worth considering this: Dirt's new direction, which goes well beyond what fans have been calling for, is the best thing that's happened to rally games for years.
Well, in truth it's the only real thing that's happened to rally games for years. Since Dirt 3's release back in 2011 it's all been a little quiet across the virtual tundra and forests, save for Milestone's limited but well-meaning passes at the discipline. Dirt Rally isn't just the return of the one game that towers over them all, though. It's a serious rethink and refit of Codemasters' series, as drastic as the switch between the Colin McRae games and the all-singing, all-dancing Dirt games that followed, and one that's headed in entirely the opposite direction.
This is a simulation, and to my mind perhaps the first that Codemasters has ever produced, despite its long heritage with driving games. TOCA, Colin McRae and latterly Dirt and Grid have all provided enjoyable driving experiences, but you could never really accuse any of them of being authentic. Dirt Rally changes that.
Not that I know what driving a rally car's like - I'm not quite brave enough to strap myself into one of those machines for a 100mph tour of some of the finest countryside within centimetres of the scenery. Paul Coleman, chief game designer for Dirt Rally, is, though. Since we talked a couple of weeks ago at Codemasters' Leamington base he campaigned a Subaru Impreza around the Somerset Stages Rally, and he's poured his experience into Dirt Rally.
"I've had my mind set on creating a more focussed and authentic rally experience for a long time now," says Coleman of the project's genesis. "It was actually after Showdown where we started to directly work on this project, and that was with a very small team of individuals who weren't required for the Grid project at the time. To begin with we started prototyping a handling model, and creating tracks based on map data or tracks that my friend and I were tackling in the Impreza to get car handling as close to our own real life experience as possible."
Codemasters hasn't been shy in acknowledging the existence of a new Dirt game, and late in 2013 it invited a handful of journalists, myself included, to play an early version of what it had created. The results were impressive - a marked improvement on Dirt 3's handling that benefitted from a focus on core rally driving. That wasn't quite good enough for Coleman though.
"FWD and 4WD cars felt okay, but RWD didn't give people the sense of stepping the rear end out and holding the slide. In an iconic car like a MK2 Escort, if you look at any picture it's on the lock stops, it's sideways with a big plume of dust coming out the back. That's what people want from the experience and we were unable to give that with the old physics.
"So we got a new physics programmer in onto Dirt, and he brought fresh eyes to the problem. Starting with a new tire model and a new surface model, he's basically rebuilt our physics from the ground up. That's only been possible by having a handling team that wanted more out of the engine, and always asked questions. That pairing has really enabled us to break down the walls of assumption and bring in new features."
The results are striking, initially in how unforgiving it all is. There's an added layer of thought required, and no longer can you attack each stage like a thick-armed hooligan 100 per cent of the time. Getting the front to bite into a corner takes some player-orchestrated weight transfer, and setting up a car's poise for a corner is now something that must be managed well in advance. There's more of a flow, as a result, as one swerve leads to the next, the car flitting under your fingertips in a fashion that requires constant management. All this without the safety net of the rewind feature, which has been excised in order to serve Dirt Rally's emphasis on endurance, and on staying on top of the damage dealt to your car in-between stages. It's an edit that focuses you entirely on the task at hand.
There's no mistaking that this is anything other than a simulation - and I don't think you've been able to say that of a rally game since 2004's much-loved Richard Burns Rally. Even that's not quite good enough for Coleman, though. "I haven't aimed at Richard Burns Rally and say I want to make a game as revered as Richard Burns is," he says. "However, my personal feeling and the feeling of a number of rally drivers I've spoken to who've had experience of Richard Burns Rally out of the box - I'm not talking about the modded version - certainly it's too hard. It's a simulation that goes beyond what is real, and if rally cars fully drove like that, there wouldn't be many rally drivers left in the world because they'd all be wrapped around trees."
"We want to simulate that these cars drive down these roads quickly and competently, and they're set up to be a pleasure to drive and so that you can have confidence in them. A lot of that comes from the surface, and the surface giving that feedback perhaps it doesn't in Richard Burns Rally. When you slide in our game the surface is building up, there's a density there so the deeper you cut into a surface the more resistance it provides. It's something a lot of games don't get to focus on, because they've got all this other stuff they're trying to sort out as well. It's our thing, it's what makes Dirt unique. And that's why we wanted to represent it in the best way possible."
Surface is tangible in Dirt Rally, to an extent that's not really been seen since the excellent Sega Rally Revo ("I might have worked on that," says Coleman with a smile), the loose gravel of the Welsh rally track spitting and hissing as you break traction and feel your wheels digging in. Taking to Pike's Peak, which will be available as the first significant update at the end of May, it's amazing the other factors that come into play.
On the tarmac at the foot of the climb (and rest assured that the hill climb will be available in its older, untamed incarnation as well as its more sterile modern form) the aero builds up on the Peugeot 405 t16, pushing you to attack each corner like you're in a slicks and wings single-seater. As loose surfaces come into play on your climb a different, more balletic approach is required, as you dance the tail over impossible drops in emulation of Ari Vatanen's legendary 1988 performance. There's something else that surprised me too: as you gain altitude the performance of the engine dips thanks to the thinner air it's sucking on, with big fistfuls of BHP being lost to the skies. In case you had any doubts, such detail underlines that this is very much a simulation.
It's the hardcore experience fans have been asking for ever since Codemasters' off-road series gained something of an American accent with 2007's Colin McRae: Dirt, and Coleman and his team have arguably over-delivered when it comes to doubling down on real rally. That's not to say there won't be complaints about Dirt Rally, and specifically about how it's PC exclusive for now.
"The people that are expecting the all bells and whistles Dirt 4 product will be disappointed," says Coleman. "But hopefully they'll see that with it being Early Access, that's not really supported on consoles so it'll be impossible to do it at this stage anyway. If I'm brutally honest I think people will feel that it's slightly unfair that we're not allowing it on to console just yet, but I'm set on putting this out on console eventually. I think that it's right, at this early stage, is to package it and tweak it and introduce those things that fans will be asking for that we don't know they want yet."
The other concern is that an Early Access approach isn't befitting of a studio of Codemasters' size and stature - even if, as Coleman admits, the developer has seen better days.
"I think Early Access has been fantastic for small developers to get product out there that perhaps wouldn't have seen the light of day," he says. "One of the misnomers that exists is that Codemasters is a big company. We used to be an enormous company, we're now not very big at all - the car park's looking thin out there now. You can see that we've had to take stock of the situation.
"I can understand those who see Codemasters as a large corporation may think we're doing this as a money grab exercise. It's not that. If we were doing that you'd see the product come out at £65-85 and us trying to squeeze the money out of the people we know are passionate about what we make. I really fought to make sure that what we're offering players is value for money, and the experience they're getting is more polished than what you'd get from a small developer doing Early Access, but all the exciting things we can bring into the product through doing Early Access, that's what I see is why we're doing it."
What happens, though, if it turns out all they want is the return of monster trucks and US-centric histrionics?
"What happens then? Then we start bringing that stuff into the mix. You can't argue with numbers. What I'm hoping for is people start raving about content we've given them. My actual concern is they want more of what we've given them rather than thinking outside the box of what we've given them. If that happens, there'll be a number of people in the company that will feel vindicated, when we made those all-singing all-dancing elements that did everything, whereas this is looking at elements of those games we knew people played in the long term.
"But yeah, if I'm going to put desert racing back into Dirt, I want to do it properly. I don't want to just put people on a rally track in a trophy truck and say hey, you're doing trophy truck racing. It's not right. A trophy truck points at the horizon and does 130mph across the desert. That's a completely different experience, and if you get that right it will feel incredible."
Dirt Rally, then, is the game you've been asking for, and Codemasters has given you the space to direct where it goes next. Wherever that may be, you can at least have faith that with someone as passionate and informed as Paul Coleman at the helm, it'll be done right.