Publisher: Empire Interactive
Release Date: July 17, 2005
While Americans won’t be able to play FlatOut until July of this year, the game has been out in Europe since last November. The American game is mostly a tweaking of the long-finished European version.
It’s not hard to see why FlatOut is coming to the states; it’s a great idea for a racing game. The concept is that you’re racing in what the European developers seem to imagine an American demolition derby is like, fighting it out for top honors and prize money. In the race, everything is subject to interacting with the game’s physics engine. If you slam into a wall of tires, they’ll bounce across the track; if you drive over a rock, you’ll be likely to flip your car; and if you slam into a tree, your driver will fly out of the car headfirst and bounce hilariously across the landscape.
Bugbear enhanced the good clean morbid fun by bundling in some bonus tracks, basically minigames, where you get to do things like smash up rival cars in a winner-takes-all survival derby, or practice flinging your driver out of the car for height and distance. The actual racing is typical stuff for this genre, trying to win races to unlock more tracks and earn money to buy better stuff, but the smash-up physics and an aggressive AI make FlatOut unusually challenging. Even if you’re in first place, hitting a tire at the wrong time can completely cost you the race. The feeling the game is clearly shooting for is something like a more brutal, car-oriented Tony Hawk sort of experience.
Unfortunately, the game is a complete and total failure when it comes to play control, so it'll need some serious work before hitting retail. In theory, the controls are fairly simple and typical: cross button to accelerate, circle to break, R1 for nitro boost, analog or D-Pad for directional controls. You can fiddle around with the camera angle you view your car from, too, but for practical purposes the default angle works best. However, as soon as you’re racing, you’ll find that applying anything but the slightest pressure to the PS2’s analog stick or D-Pad causes your car to jack-knife violently to the side. This makes the cars ultimately handle like shopping carts, and trying to make them take corners or evade obstacles is about as easy as maneuvering a high-speed shopping cart would be. It feels nothing like driving a car, and coupled with the aggressive AI and the way that terrain affects your handling, makes trying to win races deeply frustrating. It often feels like your car is doomed to slide drunkenly around the track and skid into obstacles on sharp turns, regardless of what you’re driving or how your car is tuned or even whether or not you’re trying to use the brakes.
In its current state, the physics engine compounds this sense of frustration. While the game will reward you for smashing things up on the track with extra money, trying to actually do so dooms you to finishing at the rear of the pack. The AI cars seem to be treated differently by the physics engine than the player car, so while you can (and will) frequently get stuck in the geometry, the AI cars can simply back up and re-enter the race. You’ll have to tap the triangle button feverishly for a reset, which will penalize you. Terrain rarely has any effect on how they corner, they’ll never be affected by debris the same way your car is, and often if you get stuck in a big pile-up wreck with them the cars blocking your path will simply disappear.
Even aside from the weird favors shown the AI cars, the physics engine is also full of oddities that start making it seem more like a punishment than a plus. The game is full of blatant clipping errors and places where you can get stuck in the geometry so badly that the game hangs. When the physics is working properly, it often just doesn’t make sense. Why can you crash head-on with a telephone pole harmlessly, but even tapping the rear wheel of your car against a tree in tapping will send your driver through the windshield? Why is it so easy to launch your driver such that he clips through chain link fences and concrete in the bonus games? Why do you slide as much on asphalt as on dirt or mud tracks, regardless of how tuned-up the appropriate car parts are? You’ll search for answers, but it will be all in vain. There is no reason; it’s there, as absolute and incredible as Nintendo Logic at its worst, and you just have to deal with it.
It’s a shame, because the dodgy physics are distinctly at odds with the game’s earnest effort at having realistic graphics. While hardly as impressive as, say, Gran Turismo 4 or Midnight Club 3, FlatOut still does its best to render the cars and tracks in lifelike detail. The cars look quite nice, and all take surprisingly realistic damage from crash impacts. The driver and track models are significantly blander, and generally lack enough detail to make them convincing. In the case of the tracks, this makes having to do repeat runs until you memorize the layout well enough to unlock the next track far more tiresome than it might be otherwise. You get sick of looking at the landscapes really fast.
FlatOut’s sound performance is also weak. The car engines and crash sounds are absolutely unconvincing. In particular, the engine revving noise makes all the cars sound like go-karts. In lieu of an actual soundtrack, Bugbear stuffed the disc with hot singles from the indy rock scene… in Europe. The soundtrack has been left intact in the American release, so for the most part it’s a constant barrage of bland rock and punk songs you don’t care about played by bands you’ve never heard of. There a few interesting tracks buried in the mix, but what song you get for each level is random. There’s no way to make sure you listen to songs you like or don’t have to listen to songs you hate, which gets very frustrating for the longer bonus games like the demolition derby.
FlatOut desperately wanted to be a good game. Bugbear put all the essential elements in place: stiff difficulty levels, lots of unlockable goodies, and an EA-style soundtrack, but it fails embarrassingly in the fun factor. Based on the preview build, the game is never anything but a chore to slog through; racing isn’t fun, smashing your car up isn’t fun, tuning your car isn’t fun, unlocking things isn’t fun. Even launching people through their windshields isn’t fun! While all the basic elements of a decent game are present in FlatOut, and it can even be amusing for short periods, the basic formula desperately needs refinement prior to its June launch.
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