Destruction and death (of the hilarious variety) are occurrences we've always been big fans of and activities we've consistently excelled at. In videogames, the basic concepts of destruction and death have only recently been improved upon thanks to the use of advanced physics routines, or godsends, as they are more commonly called.
It's not hard to imagine why a simple ragdoll or some falling debris could be so cool, either. Punt-kicking the lovingly constructed LEGO palaces of innocent neighborhood children across the street and into parked sedans wouldn't be near as much fun if they lamely retained their shape and bounced around without a satisfying explosive shatter. It's all cause and effect! We shoot. He dies. We kick. It breaks. We destroy. They cry. And when we crash...?
Now please don't go make a bigger ass of us and mistake Empire, VUGames and Bugbear's little off-road derby of destruction for Criterion's own Burnout. In that they were both developed by Europeans and feature fictitious cars, destructibility and lame soundtracks, the games are identical. In every other way, the two racers are different. Comparing one to the other would do a disservice to both titles and their respective developers.
FlatOut is an off-road rally game, and so excessive speed isn't nearly as important as consistency. More often than not, race time is spent perilously careening about the game's ultra rural and extremely dangerous environments, not rocketing down a clean straightaway. In fact, nothing in FlatOut is clean. Each and every bit of track is littered with pitfalls, deadly mounds, debilitating curbs, cranes, barrels, tires, and many other instant-stop hazards. Crashing into any of these obstacles will often result in a driver ejection animation. This gets old faster than watching Facts of Life reruns for "fun."
It seems the triggers that determine when a driver flies forth to bravely meet the maker are far too sensitive. Bubba the junker will blast through the windshield at the most random times. We once took a corner too tightly and popped up onto a curbed sidewalk. The instant our front wheels hit the curb at 40mph -- a freaking sidewalk curb! -- Bubba shot out hollering. Touchy.
Get sideswiped? There goes Bubba, right out the damn window. Scrape some paint on the right side? See you later, Bubba! He never shoots left, right or back, either. It's always forward, as if some great divine lasso had snagged his face and tugged him straight through the glass for giggles. The ragdoll expulsion even adds a few seconds to the clock and thus becomes infinitely more frustrating. It needs to be toned down or altogether removed from the main singleplayer races.
This little gimmick might not have been so annoying if FlatOut hadn't featured one of the looser, more unpredictable control configurations available. Best that we can figure, there is actually no conventional steering in FlatOut. There is only strafing. Every hard turn results in a traction-less powerslide. It's as if the developers set a limit that removed all grip if a turn is taken at X speed. It's hard to spin out, but ultra easy to just slide right off into some roadside oblivion unless you use the brake and handbrake dramatically.
This works to totally diminish the kind of satisfaction that typically comes from powering through turns in other games like Hot Pursuit 2, sliding around hairpins in Rallisport, or effortlessly jamming past ninety degrees of corner in Burnout. Those sorts of adrenaline pumping moments other arcade racers focus on get lost in FlatOut's physics shuffle. Simply, the game too strictly forces its drivers to pump the brakes hard, long and well before the actual turns happen. That makes the fast arcade racer somewhat slower and more plodding than it needed to be. The game is about crashing into stuff and getting crazy, so why not give us some more leeway there?
Eventually, the "always on a layer of Crisco" steering combines with totally unpredictable physics and some truly devious "shortcut" designs to make for a lot of haphazard trial and error racing... Translation: The game gets really damn hard! It takes a lot of effort to beat some of the later gold level tracks. Even after we had mastered the use of nitrous boosting during the apexes of our turns to increase forward momentum, we still had to deal with roadside hazards and drivers that are so aggressive they'd ruin their own chances to win just to kill us and only us. In addition to exponentially increasing the difficulty level, FlatOut's proclivity to maliciously propel users into the drifts with mathematically choreographed tumbles ending in Bubba ejections also help negate another of the game's gimmicks.
The accumulation of nitrous boost is handled somewhat differently here. Instead of being rewarded for stunts, tricks, opponent damage or style, FlatOut racers earn boost by destroying the environment. Conceptually, crashing through fences, rocks, tire stacks and other things that break is cool. But, because the attempt is so risky and will often result in a dead stop and a dying driver, most racers will not want to actively partake in roadside destruction to earn nitro until they have memorized the tracks and each of their plainly marked turns. Once every dusty bank and snowy hill has been committed to memory, you'll probably be good enough to win first place in any race without the extra earned boost. See the logic error there?
At least most of the backwater logging, construction, small town, farm, and snow tracks offered feature some compelling gameplay situations and the potential for dynamic, reflex-based racing. Since its tracks will also become cluttered by the consequences of someone else's mishaps, FlatOut can get particularly intense in difficult, many-round races.
Please, try to understand that it's not that the actual control or concept are remarkably bad. Not even close! Bugbear just took some key components of the game too far. The unpredictable physics make exploiting shortcuts extremely difficult. The Bubba ejection makes crashing a serious pain in the ass. The loose controls and constant drifting deplete the sense of speed and exhilaration... It's enough little things spread across enough areas to detract from a premise that's as sound as any. But once you get really, really good at it, you too will find something genuinely cool in the singleplayer game, despite periodic frustrations and an underwhelming presentation.
We also really like the graphics engine.
Interactivity at this level is, as we said, a godsend. Bugbear's engine displays all the unique chaos quite nicely. The finely detailed cars wreck wonderfully. They'll crumple, split and disintegrate during play. Fire will spew out of exposed engine compartments complete with their own working fans, tires will wobble, and drivers will appear to lurch to and fro in collisions.
Environments also feature generous amounts of detail and have been carefully constructed to include small touches like nicely textured signs and building interiors. But aside from the stuff that breaks, there isn't any real life to FlatOut (people, other motorists, animals, weather effects, etcetera). It's here that Bugbear really missed an opportunity to include exciting effects. Maybe a stampede of deer could have screwed up the roadway or a tornado could have tossed rubble from a flying house onto the street? Or, it could have just been raining buses! Anything is possible and anything creative that would have played off the physics engine could have spiced up the racing considerably, but I suppose we'll have to settle with Farm Course Number Six.
Even without those additions, FlatOut still carries a fair amount of redeeming qualities, especially in multiplayer. Assuming you can find a server, the online modes are particularly fun on Xbox and PS2, though why PC was limited to LAN, we cannot say. The races are pretty simple, and lag can cause some inexplicable spontaneous teleportation and collision detection issues, but the overall action is solid, for however reward-free it might ultimately be.
Online FlatOut just turns super crazy. People do unexpected things and make lots of mistakes. This creates an environment perfectly tailored for such an unscripted game. Even more so than most other racers, FlatOut's evolving tracks and unpredictable car to ground interactions make for some honestly awesome races, especially if everyone is good and the game is set to eight laps.
And now for something completely different.
Online. Offline. Man-Darts. In addition to everything else, FlatOut comes with a bonus Olympics mode. It's here that players can try out Man-Bowling, Man-High Jump, Man-Long Jump, the Man-Clown game, and other similar activities.
Basically, you start, drive down some kind of a ramp, and then launch your driver out of the car at a specific time to achieve a specific end, like 40 points on a giant dartboard or 100 meters on the high jump. Beat these events in the career mode and you can earn money. Beat them with a friend and maybe you won't have to do shots or some kind of dare that involves nakedness and the local grocer. It's that kind of party game.
But for as funny and challenging as all the mini-games are, they still suffer from a serious lack of presentation value. There should be more characters to make, more competitions to have, a decathlon, and even the ability to create your own events! All that and more could have made the car-lympiad really something.
In stark contrast to racing proper, the developers at Bugbear have neglected to take FlatOut's bonus mode far enough. I don't think they knew what they had with this extra mode until it was too late.
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