They've taken their sweet time about it, but games developers are finally waking up to the potential of physics engines in games. All the most exciting games of the moment -Half-Life 2 on PC, Burnout 3 and Psi-Ops on console - are those that apply physics in interesting ways, creating worlds full of exaggerated kinesis and explosive cause-and-effect. FlatOut is about to join those ranks, perhaps not with the same bang as a Half-Life 2, but with a definite and satisfying crunch of twisted metal.
Based loosely on the world of amateur stock-car racing, FlatOut is a straightforward racer with the one advantage of having fantastic physics. The damage model is among the best in the business, enabling your car to twist, warp, smash and disintegrate in magnificent fashion. Bonnets crumple and fly off, wheels distort, exhaust systems drag on the ground. And in a hilarious (if slightly disturbing) twist, your driver even gets hurled through the windshield onto the road given enough encouragement.
What's more, every object in the environment is imbued with advanced physics properties, from fences and tyre barriers, right through to buildings and heavy machinery. Not only is this a great thing from the perspective of immersion, it transforms the racetrack from a strip of dirt and tarmac into a chaotic physical battlefield. By the end of an average race, the track looks like a hurricane has gone through.
There are no prizes for avoiding the damage either -in fact, you're positively encouraged to cause carnage. For starters; you get a cash bonus for all the stuff you smash in a race, but the control system is also based largely around the concept of smashing. Every time you inflict damage on other cars or the environment, you earn a small amount of nitro boost, often essential to winning a race.
It makes for an interesting dynamic - rather than trying to perfect your racing skills, you have to strike a balance between keeping your car intact and crashing as much as possible (while avoiding things that really bugger you up, like trees).
Crash And Burn
Certainly, all this is great fun. The problem is there's not much else to the game. The tracks display a desperate lack of variety, and beyond the fun of smashing and crashing, the game is remarkably slight. There's no story, no cutscenes, no voices and very little in the way of character. There are some amusing bonus games such as destruction derbies and a variety of sick events involving throwing your driver through the window at a target, but even these only have novelty appeal.
The only real reward system is based around buying upgrades for your car with race earnings, but this is largely unsatisfying. And to further encourage you to stop playing, the races are extremely unforgiving once you get past the early stages.
It's a shame, because the action can be hugely entertaining, but without a satisfying structure to hold it all together, FlatOut is at best a fun diversion.
Loosely Based On professional car scrapping (aka amateur stock-car racing), FlatOut is a action-rammed racer that'll have you entertained in seconds and bored within hours. Racing games really don't come more simplistic than this. Hurtle around a track as fast as possible (flat out, you might say), ramming your opponents out of the way while gleefully watching your car and the scenery disintegrate thanks to the game's excellent physics model.
All of which sounds mighty fun, but FlatOut's main problem is that there really isn't much else to it. Tracks lack variety, upgrading your car is passable at best, while the bonus games are no more than a fleeting distraction between destruction derbies. Only speed freaks and carnage lovers need apply.
Yee-haw! Fishtailing all the way, yokels race wrecks around low-grip, loose-gravel circuits. You can buy parts, but they're rationed out at popped-tire pace to keep you neck and neck (though never ahead). You can bulldoze trackside clutter for boost and bonus points--flimsy tire walls, fences, and water tanks-- and just as likely get locked in the junk pile. And sure, you can bank on a decent entry in the driven-into-the-ground genre, so long as you're not expecting a back-country Burnout. FlatOut's hook--drivers catapulting from cars like limp-limbed crash dummies--had me slapping my forehead more than my knees. Whenever I had to watch (and watch and watch) my gravity-defying wheelman demonstrate the game's so-so physics, opponents slingshotted past, and I placed last (buckle up, bonehead, we want that prize money even if it's in pull tabs). The trick works better in hurts-so-good bonus modes (not available online), where you hurl drivers for height, for distance, and for the hell of it at dartboards, bowling pins, and whatever's in the way.
When a racing game's gimmick relies on un-seat-belted drivers forcibly ejected through windshields during crashes, you know you're in trouble. But FlatOut takes the ridiculousness one step further: You earn nitro from smashing into stuff, and yet most objects (tire walls, poles, etc.) are so strangely sticky that if you bump into them, you're stuck. Hey, at least the car-reset button is easily accessible--it's set to Triangle on the PS2 version because you'll use it so much. FlatOut may be an ill-handling, poorly designed hot mess, but its minigames are good for a laugh--even if you're giggling at the absurdity of rag-doll drivers ejected into oversized bowling pins. Too bad only the conventional, crappy races are playable online.
I understand FlatOut wants to differentiate itself from the crowded racing field, but man, did this one make some wrong turns in trying to do so. Wrong turn No. 1: From the get-go, the hillbilly A.I. drivers perform like they aced Skip Barber's race school. Wrong turn No. 2: You'll need nitrous to challenge these backcountry pros for the checkered flag, yet the only way to acquire this much-needed boost is by rubbing other cars and crashing into objects, which--as you might've guessed--kinda slows you way down. Wrong turn No. 3: Unlocking the entertaining minigames requires you to complete the single-player mode, which is no easy feat. So make the right turn and steer clear of this wreck.