There's something rather charming about the low-fi nature of FlatOut: Head On. With its Dukes of Hazzard-style vehicles and single-minded hunger for destruction, it definitely has a gritty charm--like Burnout on a budget, if you will. But what FlatOut lacks in refinement, it makes up for with a twisted sense of humour, an assortment of game modes, and some frankly outrageous stunts. FlatOut fans will definitely get a feeling of déjà vu if they pick up this first iteration of the series for the PlayStation Portable, but that doesn't stop it from being a very enjoyable handheld racing game.
FlatOut: Head On offers a wide variety of race types, all of which have a destructive element. The circuit races are the most familiar--the aim is to win the race while earning points and boost power by smashing others off the road. Final position is based not only on where you finish, but also on the points you accumulate and the amount of damage you dish out. There are also destruction derbies, a welcome mode for anyone with fond memories of Psygnosis' Destruction Derby on the original PlayStation. The idea here is to inflict as much damage as possible on the other vehicles in the arena, mainly by hitting the weakest spots on their car as fast as you can. If you become damaged yourself, you have to hide from other players or else you can be knocked out of the event. Finally, beat the bomb follows the traditional time-trial racing model--but FlatOut's penchant for destruction means you'll explode if you miss a checkpoint.
The stunt mode is where FlatOut: Head On really comes into its own, and it's here that its twisted sense of humour shines through. The idea behind stunt mode is to drive down a short stretch of road to build up speed, and then launch your driver through the windscreen of your car, aiming him at some sort of target. Ten-pin bowling, darts, and even curling form the basis for many of these minigames; there are a total of 12 sporting-based stunts. While they might sound like minor diversions compared to the main races, the minigames are addictive and frequently hilarious as your rag-doll driver hurtles into a variety of obstacles.
The aforementioned modes are split up into two main components, the carnage mode and the flatout mode. The carnage mode offers a total of 36 races, derbies, and challenges that are unlocked by earning enough points along the way. This means that you don't actually have to come in first in every race, and you can go back and retry them if you're struggling for points. There are a decent number of events in total, and working through them will take at least a few hours depending on how many times you have to redo them. The flatout mode is more like a standard career mode, where you'll race to earn money that you can spend on new vehicles and upgrades as you progress. With more than 100 events split up into 27 cups, it's enough to keep you going for quite some time.
On the multiplayer side, up to eight people can share a PSP and compete in both custom or preset stunt challenges. Passing the PSP among eight people can be a bit laborious, but it's good to see that multiplayer has been implemented without the need for multiple PSPs and numerous copies of the game. If you know fellow FlatOut fans, you can set up races and competitions to play over the ad hoc wireless feature of the console. Up to four people can join as long as you each own a copy of the game, and you can compete in races or destruction derbies.
The satisfaction of driving in FlatOut is greatly enhanced by the excellent physics engine, and the weight and handling of the cars feel spot-on. Vehicles crash and crumple in a realistic-looking manner, and as they become increasingly damaged you have to wrestle with the controls in order to keep yourself on the road. FlatOut isn't unfair in its difficulty level, but it's certainly at the higher end of the scale. The destruction derbies are particularly gruelling, and trying to complete some of the stunts will test even the strongest nerves. The structure of the carnage mode allows you some leniency by not forcing you to win or even take part in every race, but some of the challenges will definitely require some repetition. This isn't particularly due to the strength of the competitor intelligence--it's more to do with the fragility of the cars themselves. The stunt mode is also quite challenging, often requiring you to navigate your way around a number of obstacles at high speed before firing your man through the windscreen.
FlatOut is a textbook PSP game, offering a fantastic mix of racing modes that are great to play in short bursts or long sessions. Head On has very few features over FlatOut 2 for the PS2 other than the new multiplayer options and the ability to play on the go, but there's still plenty to sink your teeth into across the many different game modes. The racing is highly satisfying, the destruction derbies are a great deal of fun, and the stunt games go beyond being simple distractions to becoming one of the main reasons to play the game. If you have any sort of interest in destructive racing and you've never played a FlatOut game before, then the PSP version is definitely a good place to start.