Non-realistic racing games have really gotten a boost in the past few years - the recent tuner-oriented Need for Speed games, as well as the crash-heavy Burnout series have seen huge success even alongside the sims like Gran Turismo 4. While racing games have always been popular with independent game developers, the heat has been turned up, what with so many stellar racing titles on the market. New to the scene is Finnish developer Bugbear with their multi-platform racing game FlatOut. This game promises some fun crashes, dirt-track racing, a full physics model for cars, your driver, and the environment, and a few mini-games that are sure to get you laughing.
Today we're looking at the PC version of FlatOut - the first thing I've got to say is that you really need to get yourself some sort of analog control setup to enjoy this game on the PC. My weapon of choice this time was an Xbox controller with a USB adapter, and I have to say that it worked quite nicely for the racing action. Those who want to use steering wheels or the like will not be disappointed with FlatOut's control options, although you'd best skip this game if you're looking for realistic dirt-track racing. For that matter, does that rather narrow sub-genre even exist?
Don't let FlatOut's excellent graphics and great physics fool you, though - this is arcade racing through and through. FlatOut has one of the most complex damage models I've seen in any racing game, where the right crash will send your bumper flying off (and the cars behind you will even hit it!) or will crumple your front end very nicely. This won't really have much of an effect the performance of your car, though, so it's really just for show. The driver in your car is modelled and he or she will turn the steering wheel to mimic your own controls. If you smash into something that's movable in FlatOut, which is pretty much just about anything on or near the track, these things will react much like they would in real life. Hit a stack of logs and they'll roll off the pile, possibly creating a hazard in the track for other drivers to deal with.
The single player game has a career mode which is where most of the developers' effort seems to have gone into. You start off with $4000 to buy an old junker car, and can even buy an upgrade or two for your hoopty right from the start. Placing in races will get you more cash for more upgrades, which really do help quite a bit on many of the cars you'll be driving (even if just about all of the cars handle basically the same). To unlock the next race in a series, you'll need to finish in third place or better, and this is usually not terribly difficult as long as you take it easy and learn to deal with the AI cars.
Those who play plenty of racing games surely know about the phenomenon known as "rubber-band" AI, where the game will artificially speed up or slow down opponents in order to get them nearer to your own position. If you're in second place, then the guy in first will rarely be far ahead, and the guy behind you will never be that far behind - and in extreme cases, this holds true even if you suffer a large crash or something like that. Rubber-band AI helps when you're not in first place, but once you get there, it gets very annoying when you know you're driving better than the AI and the game arbitrarily still puts them right there in your rearview mirror. And FlatOut has a lot of this going on, so if it's a major racing peeve for you, then be wary of this game. Personally, I don't mind it so much, and this game doesn't really force you to get first place so much anyway.
All cars come equipped with a nitro-style boost in FlatOut, and you gain nitro not by passing cars or making them crash, but by actually crashing yourself. Ok, you don't need to do a full-on crash, but bumping into other cars and the environment usually does it. It kind of seems like Bugbear wants you to play with the game's well-done physics engine by rewarding you for making it work. After a while, this feels a bit gimmicky, but it's still fun and you'll have a unique experience trying to find objects to hit that give you the most nitro without slowing you down too much.
Of course, some crashes are very bad for your car and for your position in the race, and these are always triggered by your driver literally being launched through the front windshield of your car. The physics system works here too, so don't be surprised if your poor little driver flies fifty feet, slides along the ground, and then gets run over by another driver on the track. Not that this actually, well, hurts your driver, because all you need to do is press the "reset" button and you'll be back in your car (plus a good chunk of actual body damage) and ready to race.
One thing I'm pretty disappointed with in FlatOut is that unlike the Burnout series, you are not rewarded for making other cars crash. In fact, the nitro gained from bumping into other cars is minimal, so you're better off actually rubbing against the stacks of old tires along some walls, or the walls or fences themselves. I'd have loved to see this game borrow what makes Burnout so great, what with its focus on aggressive driving and making your opponents crash, and while you can do that here and certainly gain something from it, the game doesn't hand out any rewards for doing it.
The final interesting feature in FlatOut is the set of mini-games you can fiddle around in. These are decidedly comedy oriented, as they mostly revolve around you launching the driver out of the windshield of your car to set distance records, knock over big fat bowling pins, or more. The destruction derby mode is a lot of fun to play, as the game's car damage model really makes it a satisfying thing to play around in, but it's not a source of major replayability or anything.
Multiplayer modes made it into FlatOut, but sadly this is definitely an area of weakness for this game. For some unknown reason, Bugbear didn't get any internet play working at all, opting only for LAN play. I'm sure there are ways to set up games over the internet regardless, but to not support it out of the box (when the PS2 and Xbox versions even have online play) just makes no sense to me. When it's there, it's fun, but the lack of internet play pretty much cripples my chances of doing any multiplayer races altogether.
I found the sound effects in FlatOut to be pretty much top-notch and appropriate for all of the things that happen in this game. The cars sound great and much less lawnmower-ey than some recent racing titles, and the sound effects for all of the crashing and other car damage are great. The soundtrack is kind of like a European version of Burnout 3, with plenty of independent rock bands you've never heard of. In this case, though, I've got to say that they really did a pretty bad job with the music. During any one race, the same track will play over and over, and while some races are short enough for you to not notice, you will most definitely notice during the mini-games or the longer races. And the music, well, it's just not nearly diverse enough for my tastes. Kudos to Bugbear for picking up real bands for the soundtrack, but the way the game delivers the music can get on one's nerves quickly.
I enjoyed FlatOut for its unique physics-flavored racing and fun dirt track action, but this game has a few too many flaws for my tastes. The racing's solid, but the AI needs work and the lack of internet play is inexcusable. The sounds and graphics are great, and the car upgrades and mini-games add a bit of depth, but it could have been so much better with a few key fixes and features. FlatOut's a fun diversion for a while, but it lacks the depth that gamers demand out of modern racing titles.