Publisher: Empire Interactive
Developer: Six by Nine/Bugbear Interactive
Release Date: March 11, 2008
When it comes to racing games, there are two distinct camps: those who love sim racers like the Gran Turismo series, and the arcade fans who gravitate toward franchises such as Burnout. A fairly new entry in the scene is FlatOut, a racer that leans much closer to the arcade side of things, bringing speed, stunts, and destruction to the racing landscape. FlatOut: Head On is the series' first attempt to bring its particular brand of mayhem to the PSP, and the final product is an overall fun racer, with enough flaws to keep it from achieving greatness.
The bulk of the FlatOut experience is divided between two main single-player modes, Carnage and FlatOut. FlatOut mode is essentially the career mode, with you racing in one of three different classes (derby, race or street cars), with each class being broken down into a number of challenges. The main races in this mode are a series of standard circuit tournaments, with the occasional destruction derby or stunt event thrown in to break up the monotony.
Carnage mode, on the other hand, eschews conventions in a celebration of everything that makes FlatOut different from other racers. This mode presents you with a series of 36 challenges spread across four distinct formats, each of which will test not only your racing prowess, but your sense of aggression. Carnage race, the first of the modes, is similar to your standard checkpoint race, but with an added emphasis on destruction. In this mode, points are awarded not only for making it around the track faster than anyone else, but also for wreaking havoc along the way. Therefore, each race turns into the very picture of controlled chaos, with car parts flying and vehicles cartwheeling as competitors vie for the top score. In addition to this particular flavor of mayhem, carnage mode also features Beat the Bomb (a timed checkpoint race in which not making it to the next gate on time leads to a bomb strapped to your car detonating), destruction derby, and stunt events.
It is worth discussing the destruction derby and stunt challenges separately because they really provide the greatest amount of fun in Head On. Destruction derby will remind you of the local county fair, with eight cars lining up in a circle and then going after each other until only one is left standing. Points are awarded based on aggression, severity of collisions, and the number of other drivers in individual wrecks. To make things more interesting, scattered around the arena are a number of power-ups, meaning all it takes is an armor enhancement or infinite turbo boost to quickly turn the tide of battle.
Stunt mode is the most unique element of the FlatOut franchise, and also one of the most beloved. In this particular setting, you run your car to top speed, and then hold the R button to launch your driver through the windshield and into the field of play. Each stunt is unique, and you'll find yourself doing everything from flinging your little rag doll driver into a wall of playing cards in an attempt to make a straight flush, to chucking him through a series of flaming hoops in the hopes of making it all the way through the fire and into a nice, cool pool at the other end. Honestly, the destruction derby and stunt challenges are so much fun that the developers probably could have just made a game filled with these modes, and it would be hailed as the best racer on the PSP and one of the greatest on any system. Unfortunately, they decided to keep going, and that's where things start to fall apart.
When you aren't slamming other cars into oblivion of tossing your driver to an almost certain death, you'll be forced to endure more traditional races like you'd see in any other game in this genre. The major problem is that due to questionable physics and finicky controls, these events quickly turn tedious, and it won't be long before you go back to the senseless mayhem that actually makes Head On fun.
The reason races are so frustrating is that FlatOut awards you turbo boosts based on wrecking up the scenery, crashing other cars, and taking jumps for big air. Normally, this would be a fun and unique way to achieve a speed boost, but Head On seems to have a really hard time figuring out its own physics. Oftentimes, seemingly inconspicuous objects like a traffic cone or chain link fence will cause your car to spin out uncontrollably, forcing you to press Triangle to reset your ride and lose valuable time and speed. At the same time, larger objects, such as billboards and telephone poles, seem to have almost no effect whatsoever on your speed and trajectory, leaving you constantly wondering just what will happen when you plow through the next object.
Further complicating things is the fact that some objects are not destructible, so you may go flying full tilt at a light pole only to find out as you make contact that this particular pole is fixed, and rather than toppling it and gaining nitro, you are now flying through the windshield and wondering what went wrong. Opponents also create a problem, as crashing into another racer frequently causes their vehicle to stick to the front of your car, slowing you to a crawl and generally making it difficult to advance through the field. The whole physics system is questionable at best, and it seems like no sooner do you think you've figured it out than does some rogue fence or post send you careening off the track, pushing you right to the back of the pack.
Physics issues are exacerbated by the controls, which fluctuate wildly between too loose and too tight over the course of a single race. As you fly into a corner, it's usually near impossible to nail down exactly when and how hard to brake, and you'll likely end up either overshooting the turn and slamming into the wall, or coming to a near dead stop right in the middle of the road. The hand brake is nearly worthless, as it doesn't seem to have any effect as you hurtle toward a barricade at full speed. In the rare occasions when you actually manage to make it through a tight turn, attempting to correct your car on the other end is an exercise in futility. Suddenly, you are subjected to pretty exaggerated fishtailing, and trying to steer out of it only compounds the issue. As you try to correct your steering, you'll simply find yourself losing speed and being either passed or crashed by the other racers, all of whom can make it through most turns just fine.
However, all of these problems are nothing compared to what happens when your car takes enough damage. Since FlatOut is all about the joy of smashing, cars will show damage as you race, and their performance will be affected based on how beat-up they are. If you are unlucky enough to sustain serious damage, you may as well just restart because there's no way you'll finish at the head of the pack. For example, if your car loses a wheel in all the banging, then it will pull hard to that side constantly, making turns damn near impossible. Once, just to see the extent of the problem, I reset my car after a wreck on a straightaway and didn't touch the control stick. As soon as the car was rolling again, it immediately cut so hard to the right that it was at a full 90-degree angle and utterly useless.
As you race, you earn cash that is meant to improve your speed, handling, car strength, etc., but I rarely found them of much assistance. The only upgrade that seemed to provide any tangible benefit was the nitro boost, seeing as all the other tune-ups made improvements that are so subtle you probably won't even know that they're there. While I always appreciate the opportunity to tune and upgrade my rides, forcing me to spend an entire race's income on an upgrade that takes my speed from 6.5 to 6.6 seems like a pretty poor attempt at making the game appear deeper than it really is.
Head On's graphics and sound also suffer from a two-faced personality, with some bits being brilliant while others are practically unforgivable. The cars all universally look great — even when they are beat-up, smoking hulks. The details are pretty solid for the PSP, and the frame rate stays up even when the action gets frantic. Unfortunately, to keep this solid frame rate and make the cars look so good, the team obviously cut some corners in the tracks and backgrounds. Most courses feature a lot of flat, ugly browns and grays, with a general lack of texture and character. The cars in which you're racing may look pretty, but the surroundings sure don't.
It's a similar problem with the sound; the "nu rock" soundtrack serves the game just fine, and fans of the genre will be pleased with the selection. And even if you don't particularly like the music, there's little that could be considered more appropriate for this kind of title. On the other hand, the sound effects are incredibly bland, with the most generic noises possible used for crashes and explosions. In an era when franchises are going to great lengths to record individual engine noises for the different cars featured, the least the FlatOut team could do is use more than one noise for every crash and explosion in the game.
If you've peeked ahead at the score, you're probably wondering why I'm giving the title such high marks in spite of my myriad of complaints. That's because, aside from the races in FlatOut mode, FlatOut: Head On is one of the most genuinely fun and entertaining racers I've picked up in a long time. The destruction derby and stunt modes alone are worth the price of admission, and the other offerings just serve as icing on the cake. In these modes, none of the issues that crop up in the races ever rear their ugly heads (aside from the bland graphics and blah sound effects), and it's easy to play until your PSP battery dies simply because you're having so much fun. The stunts alone are terribly addictive, making you constantly say "one more time" as you attempt to beat your high score or achieve a gold medal. At its most basic level, Head On appeals to your inner road rage, allowing you to take out all that pent-up aggression on a bunch of AI drivers or a poor helpless rag doll, and it turns out to be a whole mess of fun.
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