FlatOut Hands-On Impressions

We test-drive PlayStation 2 and Xbox demo versions of Bugbear's upcoming racer.

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We've recently received both PlayStation 2 and Xbox versions of a playable FlatOut demo from Empire Interactive. The eight-car, six-event demo offers only a fraction of the gameplay options that will be featured in the finished game, but we're pleased to report that even this cut-down version has proved to be very entertaining. The courses we have access to are all well designed, the racing is challenging, and the carnage, which invariably ensues within seconds of every race start, is as enjoyable as it is unpredictable.

Spectacular crashes are never far away.
Spectacular crashes are never far away.

Before we talk about the specifics of the demos that we've been playing, we might as well get the comparison between the two console versions (a PC version is also in development) out of the way. The only noticeable differences between the two versions are that, predictably, the Xbox one looks a little more polished and runs a little more smoothly than its PS2 counterpart. As far as gameplay is concerned, the two demos we've been playing are identical, although it's perhaps worth noting that the default control setups on the two consoles are quite different. The Xbox version employs the trigger buttons for accelerating and braking, while the PS2 game sticks with the usual combination of face buttons.

With the exception of one small European-looking hatchback named Pepper, all of the automobiles available in our FlatOut demo are generic muscle cars with names like Speedevil, Fasthammer, Bullet, Blade, and Bonecracker. Each of these autos has a rating for power, weight, and torque, and although each one was available at the demo's outset, it's apparent that you'll have to raise money to purchase subsequent cars in the final game's career mode. Most of the racers available to us right now actually offer similar handling characteristics, although the weight of each car definitely appears to have an effect on how it reacts to collisions with opponents and trackside objects. In the final game, all 16 of the automobiles will be available with different paintwork, and you'll have the option to upgrade each car's engine, drivetrain, exhaust, bodywork, suspension, brakes, and tires in a garage area.

Collisions and the damage they cause are obviously elements that the team at Bugbear has spent a lot of time on, but while the damage models on the cars are certainly very good, it's the physics that have been applied trackside that really impress us. Tire walls, for example, are made from individual tires that often end up littering the track after a heavy collision. Lost tires and other objects, such as oil drums, logs, detour signs, and water towers, can cause chaos if they end up strewn across the racing line. In actuality, the physics that cause these objects to come into play aren't always very believable, but the simple fact that they're in there and that they add a great deal to the gameplay make them worthy of praise.

AI drivers in FlatOut are competitive, to say the least.
AI drivers in FlatOut are competitive, to say the least.

Less significant is the inclusion of a "mayhemeter" dial that fills up every time your car collides with a trackside object or causes an opposing driver to be flung from his vehicle. When the bar fills up, you have the option of activating a nitro to become invincible for a couple of seconds. However, the benefits are so minimal and short-lived that it's barely worth the effort required to push the button to activate the nitro. It's not evident in our demo, but we're told that in the finished game you'll be awarded cash according to how much mayhem the meter registers at the end of each race.

Driving You Crazy

With so many collisions occurring during even the brief, three-lap races that our demo allowed us to play, we occasionally found that our car got stuck in spots that it just couldn't get out of. When this happens, you have the option of hitting a reset button that puts you back on the track. What's unfortunate, though, is that your artificially intelligent opponents use the exact same system. Generally speaking, knowing that your opponents are using the same controls is considered a good thing. However, seeing the car you just crashed into vanish into thin air is really a little disappointing.

Jumps and shortcuts are never without risk.
Jumps and shortcuts are never without risk.

Worse still--at least in our early demo version of the game--is the fact that cars will occasionally rematerialize right in front of you, which makes further collisions unavoidable. At least the AI of the other cars in FlatOut is very good, for the most part. When they crash into you, it just feels like they're being competitive--as opposed to games like the Gran Turismo series, in which the other drivers simply appear to be blissfully unaware of your existence. It's a little disappointing that we've not really seen any AI drivers attempt to take advantage of shortcuts during our time with FlatOut, but perhaps this is something that will be addressed before the game is released.

All of the tracks that we've raced in FlatOut, with the exception of one figure-eight circuit, feature a number of different shortcuts and opportunities to make spectacular jumps. The shortcuts we've discovered to date are exactly like shortcuts in racing games should be. That is to say that they offer you an opportunity to shave a few valuable tenths of a second off of your lap time but are never without risk. The jumps, on the other hand, are rarely a good option unless you're looking to be involved in a spectacular crash. It is possible, of course, to land the jumps so that you can maybe gain a little time by using them. Your car will always sustain damage though, and, more often than not, you'll end up crashing or even seeing your driver fly through the windshield of your car.

As we mentioned earlier, causing an opposing driver to be flung from his vehicle adds quite significantly to your mayhem rating. Your own driver will also be ejected from his seat from time to time (there's even an option to trigger this deliberately), but while this is quite amusing the first few times you see it happen, it actually gets old very quickly. The driver models in our build are all identical, and when they're ejected from their cars, they literally fly through the air (like Superman does) until they hit something or until gravity takes over. The problem is that while the damage sustained by vehicles in the game appears to be quite realistic, the positions that the drivers find themselves in are right out of a Tom & Jerry or Wile E. Coyote & Road Runner cartoon. We've even seen a driver smash into the top of a lamppost and then slowly slide down to the bottom of it.

The long jump is fun, at least for a little while.
The long jump is fun, at least for a little while.

Drawing additional attention to FlatOut's much-hyped rag-doll-driver physics is the game's stunt mode, which will comprise a number of events designed to test your driver-ejecting skills. To give you some idea of the kind of events we're talking about, one of the stunts in the arena features a giant dartboard for you to "throw" your driver at. The only event the demo actually allows us to compete in, though, is the long jump. This event basically requires you to drive toward a line as quickly as possible so that you can then hit the rag-doll-eject button to send your driver soaring over a sand pit. Given the excellent car damage in the game, we'd have preferred to see a more conventional stunt track that allowed us to test our driving skills rather than our ejector seat, but maybe the finished game will offer both.

Although our demo build of FlatOut is somewhat limited, we've really enjoyed our time with the game and are looking forward to getting our hands on a more complete version. It'll be interesting to see how well the Xbox version's online play pans out, especially since the potential for players with nothing better to do than cause other racers grief is so immense. Expect more on FlatOut in the not-too-distant future.

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