Now just three weeks away from its North American release, FlatOut is an action-packed racing game that takes many of the genre's conventions and, after turning them upside down, repeatedly smashes into them until they're barely recognizable. Your primary objective will be to win races, of course, but you'll also be encouraged to collide with both your opponents and destructible trackside objects. You also won't be punished for taking shortcuts that would be illegal in most racing games, although those in FlatOut are rarely without risk, which we've learned the hard way after spending some time with near-finished PlayStation 2 and Xbox versions of the game recently. This isn't the first time we've had an opportunity to test-drive FlatOut, of course, but for all of our previous coverage this is the first time that we've been able to spend any time with the game's career mode and multiplayer options.
When you create your FlatOut driver profile, one of the first decisions you'll have to make is whether to opt for "normal" or "professional" car handling. We haven't been told exactly what the difference between the two is, but as far as we can tell the professional option simply gives you less grip to play with as you race around corners or attempt to regain control after a collision. The professional handling option is, unsurprisingly, more challenging than the default setting, but the difference isn't nearly as pronounced as we were expecting it to be, and it's worth noting that collisions are rarely a cause for concern. In fact, it's no exaggeration to say that colliding with environmental objects at the right time (and in the right way) can actually help you to win races.
Hitting a tire wall hard enough with your back end as you slide around a corner, for example, will often leave tires strewn across the track behind you, ready to slow down any opponents in pursuit. Many of the game's 36 tracks also feature structures built on flimsy supports that will come crashing down onto the track behind you if you plow through the supports. When playing online we also experimented with attempting to relocate and/or destroy the detour signs that let you know which route through the environment a particular track requires you to take. Apparently the developers at Bugbear are familiar with the same antics of Wacky Races' Dastardly and Muttley that we are, though, because the major detour signs are among the very few trackside objects in FlatOut that put up something of a fight when you crash into them. Curses!
Regardless of how you feel about making a mess of the track for drivers behind you, you'll want to master the art of crashing into stuff without trashing your car, because it's the only way to fill up your nitro boost gauge--so you can get a significant, screen-blurring burst of speed whenever you need it. Regardless of your finishing position, you'll be awarded a small amount of cash for every object that you manage to destroy during a career mode race, and although you don't have to pay for repairs to your car, you'll definitely want to spend money on tuning it or on upgrading to a better vehicle at some point. Only five cars will be available to you at the start of your FlatOut career, but as you progress through the game's bronze, silver, and gold divisions, you'll unlock a further 11, each generally with a larger engine and a heavier body than the last.
FlatOut's multiplayer options vary according to which version of the game you're playing. The Xbox game, for example, can support up to eight players online or via system link and up to four players split-screen. The PS2 version supports six players online and only two players split-screen. Both console versions of FlatOut (a PC version is also in development) support hotseat play when you choose to compete with your friends in Rag Doll Olympics bonus games such as long jump, high jump, darts, bowling, clown, and bulls-eye--which are all variants on a "send the driver flying through the windshield toward some kind of target" theme.
When you host an online race, your options will include how many player and friend slots you want open, a choice of normal or professional handling for all players, how many laps you want to race around which track, which classes of cars are permitted, and whether or not serious collisions will see rag-doll drivers getting thrown out of cars. It's not a bad list, but there are a few additional options we would have liked to see--namely an option to keep score as the same group of players to compete in a series of races and an option to fill out the starting grid with CPU drivers if there aren't enough players available. We had a great time racing online with only three of us, but the experience definitely felt kind of empty and uneventful in comparison to the career-mode races. We were also told previously that the North American versions of FlatOut would let you go up against other online players in last-man-standing destruction bowl events, but this option is actually only present in the PS2 game. Expect a full review of FlatOut as its release date closes in.