What's more, each location provides entirely unique environmental hurdles. In icy Sweden, the snowplough-cleared road is flanked by deep drifts, meaning you need to keep the car absolutely central to earn a decent time. The Welsh countryside is a blend of sparse, undulating moorland peppered with blinding water-splashes, and dense forests that obscure your view of the meandering gravel tracks. Perhaps the most difficult track of all is the fearsome Kreuzungsring in Germany, a spiny circle of acute and hairpin turns, each of which is fringed by race-ending rocks. And I'm not even going to talk about the terrors that await you in Finland; those memories are still too raw.
In fact, thinking about it, Dirt Rally is probably the most frightening game I've played this year. When you're careering full-tilt down a narrow corridor of undulating gravel, the peripheries of your vision fringed by tightly-packed trees, it's absolutely terrifying. You can feel the entire car juddering around you, the wheels barely gripping to the rough, rolling surface. All the while you're trying to keep track of your navigator's incessant calls, "Right three tightens two keep left over crest bad-camber dip jump maybe caution rocks on exit." It's vital information that's also just a little bit distracting, such that you dip a tiny fraction of wheel into a rut on the road and OH GOD THE CAR'S GOING TO FLIP NNNNNGGGH wait no it's ok I got it under cont- ARRRGH RIGHT THREE BRAKE BRAKE BRAKE FFFFFfff.... It's phenomenal, edge-of-the-seat-of-your-pants stuff.
These beautiful, sadistic courses are accompanied by a remarkably deep and flexible vehicle simulation where tuning your car accordingly makes a stark difference to handling and performance. Each car feels markedly different. The solid, weighty glide of a 1960s Lancia Fulvia feels utterly distinct from the twitchy straight-line speed of a 1980s BMW M3 Evo, which in turn is a world away from the legendary grunt of a Subaru Impreza.
As is so often the case though, success in Dirt Rally is less about what you've got, and more about what you do with it. Shortening the gears for winding courses to increase acceleration, or frontloading the damping on a snow or gravel to improve traction can shave seconds off your final time. Assuming you can cope with the handling trade-offs such tinkering inevitably results in, of course. Hiring more engineers and other race crew allows for even more detailed setups if you're so inclined. Either way, getting to grips with the workings of your car is an important aspect of the game which, unlike before, you can't completely neglect.
While Dirt Rally certainly isn't short on detail, it does often lack clarification. You're thrown into the career mode with no real preparation, and if any of Codemasters' racers needed a handling tutorial, it's this one. A comprehensive tuning guide wouldn't go amiss either, or possibly an auto-tune feature that provides an acceptable if not spectacular setup for each stage.
Dirt Rally's biggest issue, however, is simply the time investment it asks of the player before it opens up fully. Cars must be purchased using your earnings from completing events, and initially you only receive about £30,000 for each. Hence it'll be some time before you're spitting gravel from the back of the most modern machines. Locking away the top-tier cars for top-tier drivers is fair enough, but even the alternative race-types, Rallycross and Hillclimb, don't become available until you stump up the £200,000 or so in in-game cash to purchase the vehicles required to compete. So if you're feeling frustrated with a championship earlier on, there's nowhere else to turn for relief except for the "Quit" button, which is unfortunate.
Yet even when it had me swearing like Gordon Ramsey with his thumb trapped in a door, forcing me to step away from the PC for a few minutes, I always wanted to return to Dirt Rally. There's something about the earnest nature of its challenge, those savagely beautiful tracks, that is utterly compelling. As a laser-focussed and fiendish alternative to Project CARS' immediate abundance, you'd struggle to find something better.