Publisher: Vivendi Universal Games
Release Date: July 2006
FlatOut was at best a deeply flawed game, but remarkably, the original developer has come back with a second installment that shows staggering improvement over the original. This time, Bugbear is a bit more serious about trying to deliver an authentically enjoyable racing experience, while still retaining the demented ragdoll driver-flinging wrecks that put the original title on the map. With everything from the production values to the depth of the various mini-games, FlatOut 2 is simply shaping up to be a bigger and better title than its predecessor.
The Bugbear representative on hand described the original FlatOut as a very "European" title in terms of style. This is pretty fair; most of the soundtrack was Euro indy rock, and while the venue was supposedly America, it really felt like a dim trans-Atlantic imagination of what American might be like more so than the real thing: full of empty wastelands, huge outdated cars roaming the landscape, and drivers who don't know how to properly operate a seatbelt. The style for FlatOut is self-consciously "American," which means music from recognizable major American bands for the soundtrack, more authentic track environments, and shiny, new-looking cars. The drivers still can't properly operate a seatbelt, but in FlatOut 2, fewer wrecks result in your driver getting launched through the window.
The actual racing part of FlatOut 2 has been significantly tweaked from the original game's engine. Overall, the difficulty has been lowered and the controls altered to be more responsive. In particular, the AI's proficiency has been knocked back so it's easier to recover from a large wreck and still place well enough in a race to unlock later content. You still need to be very careful with how much pressure you apply to the analog stick, and on tight turns, it's still quite easy to jackknife your car into a wall.
Fortunately, new levels of destructibility have been added to the cars, so if you're doing really poorly, you can at least enjoy the spectacle of your car's parts flying off and the engine catching fire as you bash into the landscape. The "smash points" mechanic is also back, so you can rack up extra money both by getting your car trashed and trashing the landscape. The variety of breakable objects in the game has been dramatically increased, while there are more small objects that don't penalize your speed much for hitting them. So in FlatOut 2, it's more possible to rack up lots of Smash Points while still winning races.
The racing portion of the game still primarily concerns itself with a Career Mode, some various impulse-racing modes, and a very limited multiplayer racing mode. None of these modes are going to be the main draw of FlatOut 2 for most fans, though. Even the developer who showed us the title spent little more than a single race on the actual racing engine. No, the lion's share of our demo was spent on the new versions of what was easily the most memorable aspect of the original title: the mini-games.
The horrible, crazy mini-games that involve flinging your driver's body out through a window so you can get points for shooting him at targets, or just for getting nice distance or height on the toss. FlatOut 2 is doubling the number of mini-games in the title from the original six to 12, and only four of those will be mini-games from the original FlatOut. As with the first title, most of the mini-games have to be unlocked in Career Mode, and getting them quickly is going to be the goal for most players. Also as with the first title, the difficulty level of the mini-games varies wildly. Some can be easily mastered with simple timing skills, while others require inhuman precision and luck to make any progress in. The demo covered one of each type.
The inhumanly difficult mini-game we tried out was Poker, a game with no remote similarity to anything the original FlatOut. In Poker, you race your car to the end of a ramp and then use the R1 button to time when you want to eject your driver from the car. When you choose to do this determines the angle and trajectory of the driver's body as he flies through the air. The target towards which you're flinging the driver is an enormous goalpost filled with rows of giant hoops. Each hoop is marked with one of the card types from a deck of playing cards, and you "earn" a card for each hoop through which you manage to launch your driver. You get five launches, so to get a really good hand like a Royal Flush, you need to make every single one of your launches perfect. Note that the difficulty level of the mini-game is such that getting even one successful launch out of the five is a praiseworthy achievement. It's maddening enough to be the kind of thing that inspires obsessive replaying.
The easier mini-game we tried out was one called Stone Skipping that completely defies all concepts of realistic physics in the name of entertainment value. Like Poker, you race your car down a ramp and launch your driver at the last possible second. At the base of the ramp in Stone Skipping, though, is an enormous Olympic pool. As your driver approaches the surface of the water, you'll have the option of hitting the R1 button. This makes your driver's body "bounce" off of the surface of the water, the way a flat stone does when thrown across a lake with sufficient torque applied. The farther into the water you driver gets before you hit R1, the worse the skip will be, and the closer you'll be to running out of momentum. On the other hand, hitting R1 just as your driver hits the water results in a perfect skip that retains all of your driver's original momentum. The goal of the game is to get your driver to bounce all the way across the pool and crash into the little stand of floats that waits at the far end. Doing this only requires minimal timing game skills, yet remains bizarrely satisfying as an achievement.
Between the new American soundtrack and the improved textures, FlatOut 2 is a vastly more attractive game than its predecessor. The variety of cars is much wider, and the higher-end cars have the kind of shiny, flashy textures that one usually associated with big racing titles like Gran Turismo. The tracks are considerably more detailed and have a more "alive" feeling to them than the previous game's tracks, complete with pedestrian traffic and destructive parked cars in urban areas. This is nothing that is going to impress hardcore driving game fans who've just come off the early X360 driving titles and Forza, but just as an evolution of the first title, it's pretty impressive and definitely makes the prospect of slogging through Career Mode to unlock the mini-games more appealing. The build we saw was a beta with some kinks still to be worked out, but it's still on track for a late June release. If you've been itching to send some guys flying through their own windshields, then you don't have much longer to wait.
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