When you have a cat "fixed", it's still a cat, but it's not quite the same. This holds true with car games - and Codemasters has utterly neutered its rally-bred Dirt series in this massively dumbed-down version.
As a fan of sims over arcade racers, taking the nitty-gritty out of Dirt hasn't won a fan here - although its wider focus will likely sell well. Gone are manual gearboxes and subtle tweak functions that made the earlier games engaging and forced play-after-play to win achievements and glory. Now it's just foot down fun, and though its forays into demolition levels and massive focus on online play, conversation and more will annoy some, others will find the new Racenet social aspect (similar to EA's Autolog) useful.
The gameplay itself has given a lot away in its arcade move - handling is nowhere near as sharp, and competitors seem to reappear in the rear-view mirror almost instantly after a massive crash. Quick laps are rewarded in proper race games, and though this keeps the action coming, it's not as satisfying as knowing skills rather than dumb luck won the race. Driving modes jump between demolition, straight-out races and even head-to-head gymkhana races with the game's superstar Ken Block - who admitted to me in an unrelated interview this week that the arcade nature of the game is why it wasn't called Dirt 4. Dirt 3's handling was challenging at times, and getting Block-style tricks sorted took a bit of effort. This has been replaced with basic and button-mashy simplicity that won't extend playability beyond the first run-through.
Graphics and music are pretty solid and there aren't too many drops in frame-rate - but the commentary will have you reaching for earplugs as its one of the worst voiceover tracks ever. There's some good online fun to be had, but again it's too basic to keep you engaged for longer than a few quick races.
Fun for those who aren't real car fans and don't demand realistic handling or well-sorted physics. Race sim fans - don't bother, this cat's lost its nuts.
Platform: Xbox 360, PS3, PC