There's something infinitely satisfying about causing a 15-car pileup at 80mph that produces fiery explosions, sends twisted scrap metal rocketing in all directions, and flings drivers through the air like rag dolls. The FlatOut series has never been much for realism and instead has favored physics-heavy vehicular carnage at high speeds. And that's exactly what you find in FlatOut 3: Chaos & Destruction--only it's amped up to the third degree. True to its name, this arcade-style demolition racer is over the top in every way. Slamming into rival cars and smashing through the scenery en route to the finish line is packed with adrenaline-pumping thrills, yet all the chaotic fun unravels when it starts to get in the way of achieving the staunch precision that's needed to win races and progress.
Without any kind of campaign or story to speak of, FlatOut 3's main racing mode seems the most obvious choice for diving into the gameplay. What's mind boggling is it's the least accessible place to start. Here, you're meant to work your way through small groupings of tracks, unlocking new courses and cars as you progress from one location to the next. It's all very straightforward. But the meager selection of cars available from the get-go is wildly unbalanced, and none of them are a good fit for the surprisingly demanding first few courses available. You're either able to steer well but are prone to exploding at the slightest touch or built like a tank but about as maneuverable as an aircraft carrier.
Tuning up the cars doesn't help much either. There's nothing in between "flimsy toy car" and "clunky tank" at first, and it makes muscling through the early stretches of the main racing mode an exercise in sheer aggravation. It can take an awfully long period of teeth-clenching frustration to make it through the first small track only to discover you have to start over because you didn't rank in first place out of the 15 psychotic drivers. After spending time in the game's other play modes--which range in difficulty from being equally unforgiving to downright easy--unlocking new vehicles with better handling makes returning to the main game a lot more reasonable, but that's not the end of FlatOut 3's woes.
A big issue is the large number of racers on the track at a given time and their asinine level of aggressiveness. FlatOut 3's demolition aspect is great fun when you're in the mood to smash things up. It's not so hot when you're trying to win a race. Even the better rides have a floaty feel to them, and the slightest bump from a nearby car at any speed can send you spinning out of control or flying end over end into the scenery. If you don't explode outright and get forced to restart the course, recovery is still slow enough that it botches your chances of getting back into the race most of the time. On their least-aggressive setting, AI opponents seem more interested in slamming into you or one another than actually racing. On their highest setting, it's nearly impossible to stay on the road. This produces spectacular wipeouts and ridiculous pileups that are awesome to watch unfold but are frustrating because they tend to ruin the race.
The tracks are nicely varied, elaborately designed, and beautifully depicted at times, yet they too seem custom crafted for maximum frustration. You can plow through explosive barrels, debris, fences, and many other obstacles with destructive ease, but tiny saplings will stop you like a brick wall. Some courses throw other impassible hazards at you as well, placing them in the worst, most unavoidable spots to spur maximum vehicular annihilation. Adding that to the questionable driving skills and apparent road rage of your opponents yields a combination that makes it tough to enjoy the fast-paced racing action because you spend more time stuck on the scenery or upside down on fire than burning rubber the normal way. The unavoidable, constant crashing and restarting gets old quick.
If you dial back the number of racers to a more manageable number, trim down the number of laps, and adjust the aggressiveness to a lighter setting, FlatOut 3 becomes more playable. Beyond the main racing gameplay, there are numerous other modes to explore, though they vary in quality. Some options, like a linear Challenge mode, a tougher night-racing mode featuring limited visibility and inclement weather, and a fun-but-short series of open off-road maps, aren't that entertaining beyond the first few tries. Other modes, like new monster truck courses and the returning Stuntman mode that has you smashing your car to rag doll your driver through the air at a target, have more staying power. And when you can find a match, playing multiplayer against other folks online in arena battles and demolition derbies is a great way to blow off steam.
FlatOut 3's attention to destructive detail is commendable, but it overshadows the racing aspect to the point that it threatens to derail the gameplay altogether. Loose and explosive wins out over tight and controlled throughout many facets of the game design, and the chaos it creates doesn't always make for an enjoyable experience. It's not that the game doesn't have nuggets of fun hidden in its debris-strewn tracks; you just have to work way too hard to find them.