When you first fire up Codemaster's latest racer, you're warned that DiRT Rally is a simulation that shouldn't be taken lightly.

You'll wonder if that message was even necessary approximately two minutes later, when your car has flown over a sandy bank at an angle in the Greek hills and the sky and the ground have swapped places. Make no mistake, DiRT Rally most definitely IS a simulation of the sport that it attempts to recreate. So much so, that in a single Scandinavian Flick, it renders the contenders on the platform – Sebastien Loeb Rally and WRC 5 – absolutely redundant. Those games have carried on what has been the video game world's idea of what rally racing is since Network Q RAC Rally debuted on the PC in 1993. In the more general racing genre, there's a split between arcade racing and simulation titles. In the rally genre, that split doesn't appear to exist. Even games that claim to be simulations of the sport can be picked up and mastered easily enough, since there's very little depth to the way that they play. There have been some great rally games – Codemasters' own Colin McRae Rally for example - but the idea that you put just your foot flat to the floor to power down straights that give you four car-widths of space on either side until the navigator tells you that there's a corner ahead, then slam on the anchors and pull the car into a dazzling handbrake turn with no care for weight transfer, bumps, the surface, or anything else, is an outdated one.

Try that arcade-like approach in DiRT Rally, and you'll not get very far, because the game focuses on what the sport actually is. In contrast to road racing, rallying is actually about getting around corners as quickly and as safely as you can, losing as little speed as possible, as opposed to slowing down to a crawl to get around a bend with the sole intent of getting the perfect line and exit so that you can accelerate as soon as possible into the straight. DiRT Rally is the first rally game that recognizes this and this is going to throw a lot of players for a loop when they first pick up the controller.

In fact, to say that the majority of people won't get very far in DiRT Rally is probably not too far off the truth. The game is a tough and unforgiving take on the sport that will sap every drop of concentration that you can muster as you try to wrestle your car of choice around the narrow and unrelenting courses. After a while, you'll start to realise that taking an approach of "more haste, less speed" is the way to go and that you have to respect the conditions, the car, and the track more than in any other racing game that's ever been released. When you get to that point, the adrenaline kicks in and you'll be fighting against fear as you gradually pick up speed. You'll get a genuine rush of excitement out of having the opportunity to fully engage the accelerator for more than a half-second, as the game forces you to ride that razor-thin line between risk and reward a thousand times during each lengthy stage, never for a second allowing you to relax until you've crossed the finish line.

That line is something you'll actually want to contend with too, since the game does a good job of incentivizing your play. Starting out with a 1960s-era vehicle and limited money, you'll try to build a successful racing team – hiring and firing crew members as you do so – in the hope of qualifying for higher levels of competition and most importantly, racking up enough cash to be able to purchase newer cars. As you complete events (and depending on the quality of your team) your crew will upgrade parts on your existing vehicles, which is useful not only for the offline career, but the online challenges. Indeed, there's career money to be made by taking on the world, with daily, weekly, and monthly events on the table. Performing well in these can lead to big payouts, but in a delightful twist, you're only allowed to enter each event once. Botched a turn in the fourth stage of the monthly event and wrecked your car? Well, it sucks to be you.

What this means is that you don't get the same players at the top of the table in every single event. Good players do rise to the top of course, but there's always a chance that a lesser-skilled competitor will break into the higher ranks as their safe and careful run through was enough to beat the better opponents who ended up pushing it too far and wrecking their vehicles. To skip back again, this also extends into the offline events. You might be third in a rally and two minutes behind second with two stages to go, only to end up gaining a position as that second placed driver had a nightmare of a penultimate stage. Even with the comparatively high difficulty level that DiRT Rally provides on the course, there's always a chance that the AI will falter and you'll benefit as a result with a clean run.

Aside from that obvious perk, taking things a bit slower also provides another upside, in that you get to revel in the visual performance that the game puts in. On very rare occasions, things do drop a frame or two below the targeted 60fps, but you'll notice it only a handful of times across multiple hours. The concentration that you need to put in while driving means that you can never stop for too long to drink it all in, but this is a real looker at times. If you're a spectator, you'll notice that some trackside objects can appear to be a little dull and lifeless, but when you're at the wheel in the cockpit view, snow particles flittering through the beam of the headlights and collecting on your windshield in a manner that comes across as being very convincing, you'll be able to let that pass. As part of the visual finery, Codemasters have done a great job of making each rally feel different, as opposed to just being the same thing over and over with slightly different traction levels. From the bright sunshine and dust of Greece to the slippery roadways of Monte Carlo, via Wales' mud and rain, Finland's beauty and Sweden's snow, every event looks the part and requires a different approach, to boot. The change in the way you attack things is down to the stellar handling model, which – while as we've said, is tough to get to grips with at first – is so detailed that you need to start thinking as if you're actually driving a car. 4WD and FWD vehicles don't drift in the same manner, so you'll need to apply yourself and work out exactly how you trigger oversteer in each car, altering the setups as and when required to give yourself a slightly easier time of it. Once you think you've got things down, you can take in the game's Hillclimb and Rallycross championships and find that you're right back at the beginning of the mountain, with fresh challenges to face that those disciplines present. Beautiful.

Fortunately, there's a series of tutorial videos on hand to give you the inside scoop on how to lay down the quickest times and how to handle things. But this does bring us to the only real downside of the game that we can find. These non-interactive tutorial videos are all you've got as a learning tool. They provide some nice information, but – and we keep stressing it and we'll stress it again – this is not rallying in the form that gamers have become accustomed to. Players are suddenly being asked to learn an awful lot about an incredibly complex and fast-paced sport, and while some will relish the challenge, others will play through an event or two and decide that they simply will never be good enough to even think about winning anything. The tutorial videos are like wanting a hug and getting a handshake.

That isn't to say that the difficulty curve is insurmountable with what's on offer but essentially, your enjoyment of DiRT Rally will come entirely down to the type of player you are. Most will wreck the car a few times on their early runs for sure, especially given that there's none of Codemasters' usual "flashback" shenanigans on offer here. They'll steel their jaw, take a firm grip on the controller and swear that they'll not let the game beat them, having an absolutely fantastic time gradually becoming more accomplished drivers as they listen to the pace notes – which are more detailed than in any other rally game – and start to feel the rhythm of the car. Others will clip a snow bank one too many times on their first event, throw their controller down and swear that the game isn't very good because it doesn't let them handbrake it around a hairpin at 110mp/h on snow and then skip back in time to have another go when they foul it up.

Those in the latter set can go back to enjoying lesser games, because DiRT Rally is an absolute triumph.

Conclusion

With DiRT Rally, Codemasters have thrown the conventional way of looking at the sport of rallying in videogames out of the window and done it with such aplomb that the end product is all but irresistible. It could be said that the learning curve could do with being flattened just a little. We say that the harder the climb is, the greater the feeling of success is when you finally put in that perfect run, but it's understandable that not all players will feel that way in an age where going into a menu is considered to be achievement-worthy. For our money, this is easily the best rally game ever released. Not only that, it's transcended the scope of that admittedly small genre and is surprisingly close to the top of the general racing game category, too.