Codemasters has announced DiRT Rally, the next game in its popular rally racing series available to download now on PC via Steam Early Access.

Available for £24.99, DiRT Rally switches the franchise's focus on arcade racing for a new simulation-based physics model, offering hyper-realistic handling and a hardcore level of difficulty previously unseen in a DiRT title. The game is not available on any other platform.

"Our team has been working tirelessly to get the simulation just right," chief game designer Paul Coleman told during a visit to Codemasters earlier this month. "And that's not just from the mechanical simulation of the vehicle; that also speaks to the road surface that you're driving on. Many other racing games have the easy option of just representing tarmac. We've got tarmac, ice, different types of gravel, mud, snow... all of these surfaces to deal with, and they all have their very own unique characteristics. It was very important to us to get that aspect right because that's what makes DiRT special."

The initial launch package includes access to 36 stages across 3 meticulously recreated real-world locations: Wales, Monte Carlo's Col de Turini and the Acropolis Rally in Greece, and is backed up by a Career mode, asynchronous multiplayer and the option for players to create their own online leagues.

But Codemasters also has plans to introduce new cars, locations, modes and gameplay tweaks throughout the game's development via a series of free content updates. The first update, which is due to arrive in May, will add hillclimb rally Pikes Peak, with a new German environment following in June. Later updates will deliver a new Rallycross mode and PvP multiplayer.

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"Although the game's called DiRT Rally, we are planning to broaden out content and not just focus purely on rally," Coleman continues. "It's rallysport, really. The first drop will happen at the end of May and that will contain Pikes Peak with a couple of variations. We've got the full tarmac and the mixed surface versions of Pikes Peak, [and] we have some of the most iconic hillclimb cars in there to allow players to try and compete for those records.

"Then at the end of June we'll be introducing our first new rally environment, which is Germany. That's based in the Baumholder military training compound known as Panzerplatte. Very, very different style of racing compared to the tight, twisty corners of the Col de Torini and the fast blowing gravel stages of Wales, so it's another style of driving that's employed there but brought together with rally. And to complement that we're introducing a suite of cars that are known for being better on tarmac: the Peugeot 306 Maxi kit car and the Seat Ibiza kit car."

Although Codemasters has its own internal road map for development, it's also looking for feedback from the community to help shape where the project goes in the future.

"[After the first two content updates] it starts getting a little more flexible and we can start feeding the machine with some of the features the community are asking for, and we'll still have a good volume of staff available to support that stuff and bring those features in," Coleman says.

"So if the first thing that people want is an Outbreak mode or Monster Trucks, then not only do we have a physics system that's robust enough to cope with that now, but actually we can start feeding the machine further down the line so towards the end of the year you might start to see some of that stuff coming through."

Codemasters is keen to stress, however, that DiRT Rally won't feature microtransactions -- "There's no in-game purchases whatsoever," says designer Darren Haywood -- and that all content released during the Early Access period will be available to players free of charge.

"I think there will be people who will look at how Codemasters have behaved [in the past] and how they have sold a game and then bolted on content that perhaps was already in development," Coleman tells us. "Now, anyone who understands development will know that you have to have lead times on content that you are building, but the way that it's been packaged has suggested that it was all there ready to go, we'd held it back and were forcing people to buy DLC.

"I think it's going to be very hard to break down some of those opinions and mindsets about how we have treated our customers in the past, but I hope this goes a long way towards changing that mindset. By being able to react to people's feedback, by being able to introduce more content, by people feeling like they've paid £25 for something that they're getting £35 or £40 worth of content for, that starts to reinvigorate and get people feeling a lot more comfortable buying Codemasters products again."

There is potential for the game's price to increase as the project evolves, however, meaning those who pick up the game today may find themselves with the best value proposition. "It will only go up to what you'd expect to pay for a full-priced Steam game," Codemasters promises, "but that's something that we're going to monitor as we go through." A full launch is currently pencilled in for November or December, although that's still subject to change.

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Players expecting an experience similar to DiRT 3 will want to watch videos of the game being played before laying down the cash, though. DiRT Rally is tough and, at launch, is being designed to attract a hardcore rally audience.

"Right now, the only assists that are available in the game are assists that you would get in a normal road car: ABS, traction control, stability control," says Coleman. "But in time we want to layer in some of the other assists that really help players drive, so braking assists, steering help... stuff that we had in DiRT 3 but actually felt quite intrusive because of the way that we layered it in.

"So you're absolutely right: You do need to learn how to drive a rally car before you can be fully competent within DiRT Rally, but it's our intent to bring that in as part of our experience as time goes on. I think it would be wrong to hold the project back while we do all of the tutorial and quite cumbersome and costly elements of an experience when there's an experience there to be had already."

However, while DiRT's move into simulation rally racing may leave some fans excited, they may also be disappointed to learn that the game is actually being built on a modified version of Codemasters' last-gen Ego Engine, not the next-gen version used in this summer's F1 2015.

"The engine that we're building it on visually is very similar [to previous games]," Coleman admits, "but under the hood is dramatically different. All of the simulation stuff has been completely reworked from the ground up. And actually this experience for me is more about how the game feels and plays than how it looks.

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"Now I know that a lot of people judge games on face value and what they look like, and of course, with us making a new DiRT game, people are going to expect [us] to have taken it to the next level. But what I really want people to do is - while they may be upset that we haven't raised the bar visually perhaps as far as we are expected to, what I hope people start to focus on is how we've made the game feel and then give us the feedback for the actual tactile nature of the way the cars are driving down the stage. Once we've got the game feeling right, then we can worry about what it looks like, and that will come further down the line. But what I want people to do is be completely enamoured with the way that the game plays first and then make it look even better."

Then there's the question of a console release. DiRT Rally isn't the big-budget, DiRT 4-sized production many fans may have been expecting and, while Codemasters hasn't ruled out a launch on console -- "Never say never," Coleman says -- at this stage it appears to be yet another game from the developer skipping a release on PS4 and Xbox One.

"Where the product is at this stage I think it's right for Early Access and for PC," Coleman says. "I think if we had the opportunity to develop for another 18 months and refine it into a much more complete DiRT package then it would be right for console as well. But to validate what I think is right for this product at this early stage is vitally important for me and that's why we're doing what we're doing."

Ultimately, though, Codemasters' vision for DiRT Rally is to provide fans with exactly the type of rally experience they want, even if it is only on PC for the time being.

"When we started work on this project, we broke everything down and looked at what was important to the player in the experience," Coleman adds. "That was the car, the control of the car and the cameras from which they control the car. They're the three C's and it's real basic game development, but it's something that we'd forgotten about while we'd been making these all bells & whistles games.

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"The in-car cockpit experience was paramount to what we did [for DiRT Rally]... This is all about you, your car and the road ahead, because when you're playing a racing game as a committed racing gamer, you don't notice the windmill on the left, you notice the road ahead and the intricacy in the road, and that's what we've doubled down on in this experience."

He continued: "If people find this game too challenging, and I'm sure some people will, then there are things that I think we can do that we can layer in to help with that stuff. That may take the form of assists, but actually I'm hoping that it's tuition that people really ask for. Holding a player by the hand and leading them into this experience gets them far more invested into it.

"And once you learn how to do it, it is so empowering. It is so incredible to drive one of these cars down the stage and feel every corner and every single turn and know that you've nailed certain sections, or kick yourself when you make mistakes. It's that kind of sense of rallying that we've perhaps lost in some of our earlier products that I think we're starting to return to with this one."

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