Time to get DiRTy.

Racing games have come to something of a – wait for it – crossroads lately. Titles like Forza Horizon 4 and The Crew 2 have been taking the genre into huge open-worlds, where social media runs rampant, while the likes of Onrush and Gravel seemed to return to the arcadey chaos racing games have so eloquently delivered in the past. But then there are the purists’ games, your F1 2018 and – as Codemasters announced last week – the upcoming DiRT Rally 2.0.

While the game won’t be arriving until February 2019, we got a short hands-on session during its announcement and thankfully got a chance to see how the game should be played versus how we played it.

DiRT Rally 2.0 – more than anything else – is a return to that purist sensibility as it looks to separate the wheat from the chaff through its unforgiving sim-centric gameplay. Codemasters had their project consultant and professional rally car driver, Ryan Champion, on hand to give us a quick demonstration of the game. Drifting around the course at high speed, kicking up dirt with every turn that feels more and more risky as the car tears through the course, giving way to sun-drenched vistas of New Zealand as he teases cliff edges before completing the track unscathed. Champion made the whole thing look easy, but that’s far from the case.

It’s seen straight from the off as we took on one of the all-new New Zealand tracks. Gone is the choice of “arcade” and “sim” controls of DiRT 4, with Codemasters settling for a single handling that offers enough intuitive control for rank amateurs to just about get through a course, while the return to the in-depth tuning system that we saw in both DiRT 4 and F1 2018 allow seasoned players the space to perfect their cars and master the sharp turns lurking throughout. And you’ll need all the insight into the fine print of racing if you want to get through the tracks in a respectable time. A lot was made of the game’s revised physics and the “improvements” were clear to see, with every sharp turn you take feeling like a battle as you try to shift the weight of the car away from spinning out or worse, sending the car over a cliff side.

Along with the car itself giving you a challenge, track degradation is another new feature for the game and something that works to give your placement in each race more emphasis. What does all this mean? Well, let’s say you’re wallowing back in 17th place, and there’s a hairpin turn coming up. Remember, 16 cars have now taken that turn before you, meaning the tracks isn’t a tidy formation dirt anymore. No, instead it’s a bastardised cauldron of mud that turns the simplest of corners into a gamble.

The mechanic is similar – strangely – to something I remember Fifa promising a few years ago, with pitches supposedly being kicked up throughout a match, ultimately creating an area where simple passes could be sent off-course because of the pitch. And just like pitch degradation was supposed to offer a new challenge during matches, the threat of having to go at high-speed through a track that been pulled apart by the cars ahead of you means that qualifying races should prove a lot more significant this time around.

The level of detail in the course we played, for both the track and its surroundings, is a real step up from DiRT 4. We only got a look at the New Zealand track but the signs are looking pretty great for what could be in store for the other locations.

The main reason behind this jump in detail for DiRT Rally 2.0 is the decision to return to handmade levels rather than the procedurally generated courses of DiRT 4. The 2.0 team said that the bespoke levels would offer players a chance to familiarise themselves with the courses with – hopefully – a more contested arena for both competitive matches and your run of the mill online modes. And while the unique tracks of DiRT 4 were a nice touch, the move away from algorithm-based courses does mean that you’ll see far less of the same old assets appearing one after the other, with the track we played through taking us on a whirlwind tour full of miniature tunnels created by trees, paths rendered unseen because of the sun’s glare, revealing a sharp corner at the last moment, and grassy country lanes. Yes, the MyCourse feature was great, and Codemasters haven’t ruled out the possibility of the feature returning for 2.0, but with the various traps and deviations that laid across the courses of 2.0, the beauty and feel of each track looks set to justify the decision.

And let’s not forget that 2.0 brings with it a revived partnership with the FIA Championship, so along with the long-haul races through Argentina and New Zealand, you’ll get the chance to take on the small yet ridiculously challenging courses in the likes of Quebec – all whilst advertisements of Monster energy drink draw your eye away from the track. These Rally Cross events look like they’ll take place every now and again, either as special events similar to the classic car races in the F1 series or as seasonal championship races. Either way, they offer a different kind of chaos compared to the rally races where you’re left to your own devices. Instead, Rally Cross has you vying tor speed and space as your share the track with four other equally nimble cars. Fall behind in these tracks and you won’t last half as long as you think, with tracks becoming battered in seconds, the experience is certainly fast and furious, but it demands your constant attention if you want to put a good shift in. The mixture of narrow entry points, sharp corners, and even the blending of tarmac and gravel go a long way in making the rallycross tracks a short but intense challenge.

I had a good bit of fun playing F1 2018, but even that seemed rather tame compared to the dazzling look and feel or rally car racing. The early signs of DiRT Rally 2.0 are indeed looking good, and while I couldn’t last more than ten seconds without causing damage to myself or my surroundings, the decisive thinking behind the singular handling system, which feels far more weighty and thoughtful as it orbits around corners, does really sell that feeling of being in the driving seat – and you can’t ask for more than that from a game.