Words by Nick White
The love affair between contemporary man and his car borders on the psychotic. If Sophocles were around today; he would have quilled a dark tragedy based on the forbidden passion between man and hatchback. Gary Numan may well have felt safe in his car (as long as he locks all the doors), but given the fashion of driving found in most arcade racers of late, the ethos seems very much to be ‘kill a pedestrian, not your speed.’ And thankfully not all contemporary arcade racers have a trite EA corporate rock soundtrack. Things used to be simpler. A racing game was de facto a racing game. Now we have myriad derivations; rally games, realistic simulations, ‘street’ racing titles, ad infinitum. FlatOut, however, is the game that might just get current monarch Burnout 3 to relinquish the throne.
Clunk, click; every trip
FlatOut is a hybrid of styles, with a scattering of outré ideas also thrown into the mix to ensure that all sobriety and physics are left sulking in the corner like a scalded child. Of course, the list of game features discovered in the PR hyperbole reads like a roster of many titles that have trodden this path before, especially the old-timer rag-doll physics. That being said, when said physics are used to hilarious effect when your driver is thrown through the windscreen and bounces on the road, we can forgive it. If, like me, you ever found those slow-motion crash test dummy videos amusing; then FlatOut will make you giggle like a schoolgirl on Red Bull. Of course I am not referring to the mediocre American band with such inspired song titles as ‘Mmmmm Mmmmm Mmmm’. Of the games that have passed in the mists of time, FlatOut is an amalgam of titles such as Demolition Derby, WipEout and Stuntman. Feel free to add a dash of Horace Goes Skiing for the sake of eclecticism.
It all begins innocuously enough; you construct a profile, pick a male or female driver, are altruistically allocated $4,000 and have a pick of five cars, with varied weights and power. You would never even dare to assume that this game will see you being thrown through windscreens at 100MPH. Following that comes the homage to the ‘reality’ racing game; the tune up section. This allows you to customise matters to your favour, such as engine, tyres and chassis; all with a view to increasing efficiency on the track. Prudence is the watchword, and the profligate will soon blow their cash on their car and leave themselves little for enhancements. FlatOut is a tantalising slattern of a game, and it salaciously displays all of the potential upgrades available; the trick being winning enough races to afford them. It becomes obvious quickly that some madcap and high-octane racing is on offer.
Initially on offer are Bronze and Bonus modes; Bronze mode being the core racing content, and Bonus mode being something spectacularly absurd and amusing. Bonus mode involves attempting to kill your driver by throwing them through the windscreen. This is more than a deviant and perverse novelty, however. FlatOut manages to sculpt a game around this vehicular oddity. And one equally as much fun as the Burnout crash junctions, and profoundly more traumatising. Crashing your car and smirking as your driver is thrown through the windscreen is entertaining enough, but FlatOut turns it into a long jump event, with the game rating how far your ill-fated driver is thrown through the air; like Track and Field on crack. There is also a similar high jump, and both are pleasurably simple to play – you drive at speed towards a brick wall and eject the driver at the point of impact. Perversely satisfying, as anybody who played the oddball internet game Stair Dismount will realise. Numerous other unlockable bonus modes pepper the game, such as darts and bowling; and all are suitably warped. Add destruction events to the mix, and FlatOut soon begins to play like a riot, and this is before you have even touched the ‘proper’ racing. Spectacular and sadistic flinging of your driver reaps you money to spend on your car; points not making prizes but shattered bones and internal bleeding.
Car Crash Bandicoot
Novelty aside, the racing proper certainly ups the learning ante, and the first few hours with the game will be spent familiarising oneself with the differences between racing on the various surfaces. With frankly insane races against seven other opponents, FlatOut proves itself very quickly that it is no novelty racer resting laurels on some innovative gimmicks. The races are long, tricky, dirty and occasionally frustrating, but so is trying to get a woman into bed, so no shocks for anybody here. Whilst many driving titles prefer to generalise upon a specific angle; be it realism or ungodly speed, FlatOut offers a smorgasbord of features in a well-woven tapestry of joy. And I am loathe to say this, so innate is my detestation of driving titles. To keep races on the right side of the insanity barometer, the tracks are festooned with objects such as logs, barrels and other detritus. The beauty is in the physics; and the objects possess a real sense of mass. Craven avoidance of obstacles is, perversely, a hindrance to the game. Colliding with things accumulates nitro, but it will take practice before you can turn these collisions into a positive note, and not just a way to plummet from first place to last. There is a universal sense of justice, however, and the AI cars are not powered by some dark, Hawking-like intellect that performs perfectly. Often you will gain places as the AI cars have their own pile-ups, and the sense of schadenfreude is sweet like a prom date.
Nitro, in FlatOut, is somewhat more than a universal ‘go faster’ utility; there is a strategy lurking in its application. A perfect race without incident will certainly keep your placing high; but crashes and bumps edge up the nitro, giving you an advantage when required. The choice is yours. In a fashion similar to the Burnout Takedown mode, FlatOut encourages the kind of devious and vicious driving that only London cabbies seem capable of. And, no, I really do not care that you had that Noel Edmonds in your cab last week, guv. Opposing cars can be forced from the road or into piles of barrels, and the whole affair reeks of satisfaction like a French cheese reeks of stale vomit. I camembert these cheese similes, though. There is longevity behind the chaos. The initial mode is Bronze, and it does not take an Oxford degree to deduce that Silver and Gold modes must surely prowl around the corner. FlatOut offers 36 tracks in total, all of which are sadistically well conceived. Those with Live can take the pleasure online and swear at foreigners in true British style. Shunting AI cars from the track is one thing, but doing so and hearing the pathetic profanity of an irked ‘real life’ driver in your ear makes it all worthwhile. Then you can insult their mother and sexual orientation, in true internet forum fashion.
Graphically, FlatOut may not ignite the world, but the attention to detail cannot be faulted. The vehicles especially have been superbly rendered, and the damage modelling cannot be faulted; even the engine looks authentic when the bonnet is lost, right down to the spinning radiator fan. Colliding with an obstruction will result in a corresponding dent in the relevant place, and not a generic area roughly associated with frontal impacts. More substantial whacks result in bigger dents, as well as parts of your car working loose. At the end of a race, the car can resemble little more then a husk. The soundtrack is blasphemy in musical form; a token rock and metal outing that makes one wish they had not included it. This is not a teen-friendly Tony Hawk title, after all. To be fair, I respect the ethos of signing up unsigned bands for the soundtrack. Although it was probably more a money-saving exercise than an exposition in new music.
FlatOut might feel, at times, like another template racing title, but it manages to inject fun into the proceedings. It reminds a man of happier days, of games such as Chase HQ and Out Run; before we became obsessed with gear ratios and chassis weighting. The core racing is pure and uncomplicated, and the modes involving propelling your driver through the windscreen are continually distracting and pleasurable. Until some damn fool American teenager tries to emulate it and smears his brains over the dashboard. If you are done with Burnout 3, and heartily sick of the endless powerslides of Out Run 2; then FlatOut should be where your money goes next. It works out cheaper than smashing your friends’ heads through windscreens.