Wednesday, May 24, 2006


A novel concept is generally the first step taken by any developer with aims at creating a new franchise amidst the crowded market of today's gaming landscape. There's been a lot of ground covered over the last thirty years, but there's also plenty of room left for innovation, and if you're going to stand out on the shelves, you're going to need a hook. In Flatout, that hook is certainly not lacking, (it's the only game I can think of that features... no, downright flaunts... a fleet of fully-ejectable drivers) but it falls into the very first pitfall in its way. This game takes that unique twist which gives it an identity and attempts to use it as a bandage to salvage what would otherwise be an underdeveloped, unremarkable, entirely forgettable title. What's worse, that single little identifying gimmick has an incredibly short shelf life and only serves to irritate beyond the first hour or two of gameplay. If you're looking for the short recap, well, I'm obviously not here to sing Flatout any praises. If you're here for the elongated review, I'll warn you: this won't be all that pretty.

There's really no storyline to this one. Although hints and shades of an intended single-player tale are revealed from time to time, it seems to have been the victim of some last second editing and only winks at you from the cutting room floor once or twice. For instance, there are a few different driver body-types that you'll glimpse should they sail past your driver-side window. There's a red-headed tomboy, a heavy set biker and what appears to be the lead character's identical twin, clad in the kind of white T-Shirt and jeans that would make any greaser proud. It hints at the possibility of inter-driver feuds, individual personalities and sweet, sweet revenge, and would've added some much-needed depth to the proceedings, but in its current representation is nothing more than a passing detail. The different faces are pasted over opposing drivers at the start of each race, seemingly at random, and nothing more is meant to be read into them.

Basically your only motivating factor is the ongoing quest for checkered flags, faster cars, golden trophies and freshly unlocked mini-games. There's your standard chop-shop, as seen in Gran Turismo and Sega GT, to improve your car's performance, and as you finish a tier of racetracks, you'll gain the ability to purchase newer and faster cars to keep up with the competition. Sadly, I can't really say I found any of these objectives to be all that motivational, since the extent of the cars' differences in handling seemed to be how quickly they could jump off of the starting line, and most of the mini-games were twice as mindless and annoying as the races themselves. I didn't even find myself developing any sort of affinitiy for the vehicles in my garage, as is usually the case with a straight-up racer, since every car in the game looks virtually identical, regardless of paint job. Even a scrap of storytelling, a hint of motivational effort, would've made a big difference. Instead we get nothing.

The actual gameplay is in dire need of some serious polishing, with minor bugs resulting in big-time dilemmas as the races grow more difficult. As I've already mentioned, the big story here is the engine's ability to eject a car's driver following a rough collision, which gives it a bit of credibility as far as the reality crowd is concerned, but any points awarded for the feature's mere existence are immediately negated by its implementation. Sure, it makes a revenge kill twice as rewarding when you can actually see the opposing driver suffering a grisly death after you've forced his car into a telephone pole, but the first time you hop a curb and watch your own lifeless driver hurl himself through the windshield, you'll start to curse the day you thought rag-doll physics were the least bit amusing. Of course, no real dire circumstances result from your driver slamming unprotected into the side of a barn at 82 MPH, as you'll respawn a few moments later, but the act of losing a few seconds every time it happens completely derails your own momentum and often takes you completely out of the race. Playing catch-up is the real game in Flatout, as two or three driver ejections per race are par for the course and there's always one holy lord of computer drivers out there, who doesn't seem to have any trouble navigating the track's obstacles.

The finer details of the title's engine are never fully explained in-game, as I had to consult more than one online guide before realizing that nitro boosts are awarded in the middle of a race, depending on how many obstacles you actually hit, and how large said obstacles actually are. Debris only seems to award these bonuses the very first time it's struck, but remains on the track throughout the race. This adds a touch of additional personality to the game, as almost every car is seeking out the big landmarks like a guided missle on lap one and the track is usually thoroughly trashed and tough to navigate by its conclusion.

Of course, it must've been a little bit too much to ask for the development team to leave well enough alone in this regard, and sure enough, there's a flaw or two. What's destructible in one track (and thus, the object of desire, as it carries with it a small nitro bonus) is frequently rock-solid in the next, resulting in (you guessed it) a brutal driver ejection and, usually, the loss of any lead you may have accumulated. As I'm sure you can imagine, this results in an uncontrollable flinch every time your car comes close to a fairly-sized obstacle, for fear it will result in death rather than rewards. Even more wonderful is the way small items such as a stray tire or a dislodged bumper, which frequently litter the track after lap two, react in wildly unpredictable fashion upon coming into contact with the front of your car. Sometimes they'll bounce harmlessly off to the side of the track, others they'll hang out on your grill for a while, killing your momentum, and occasionally they'll result in driving the nose of your car toward the sky, which always leads to a terrible highlight reel wreck, complete with cartwheeling car and airborne driver. Considering how frequently these things appear, it's not a matter of if you'll hit them, but when, and how kind they'll be to your car.

I keep wanting to whine about how the computer cars never suffer the same terrible fate as your own, which is a cheap trick that seems to be cherished and handed down from one successful racer to the next, but in actuality I must admit that Flatout's drivers are among the most realistic I can remember taking on in this regard. You'll routinely see the computer making the same mistakes you are, whether it's taking a turn too fast and sailing off into the distance spectacularly, colliding with the edge of a wall, (and, naturally, ejecting the driver into oncoming traffic) or clipping another driver's bumper and causing a major pile-up, which is a refreshing thing to see and usually makes you feel a lot better about the fine mess you made the last time you attempted a course. So, credit where it's due: they could've taken the low road here and potentially elongated the length of the game by an hour or so, but they didn't and the result is a somewhat less nerve-wrecking experience.

The mini-games you'll unlock while progressing through the single player mode, which were featured significantly in the game's promotional bits (and were probably single-handedly responsible for my own purchase) really aren't even remotely as much fun as they appeared on TV, and are limited at best. They really highlighted the "HAHA LOOK WE'RE PLAYING DARTS WITH PEOPLE" aspect of the game in these ads, but neglected to mention the fact that you get three tosses per game, with no option to play a legitimate game of 301, cricket or anything even partially entertaining. It's a straightforward three tosses, with the highest scoring player named the victor. The same goes for bowling, the long jump, the high jump, etcetera. They're like the mini-games of Super Monkey Ball 2, just significantly limited, drained of all the fun and difficult for new players to grasp. Oh yeah, and the multi-player aspect of these party games, evidently Flatout's big draw, only allows the use of a single controller. Yeah, instead of handing out four controllers and struggling through these short, dull little games, you're further punishing your guests by passing around a single control pad. Nice.

In-game controls are tough to think about without wanting to curl up and cry for a spell. Whether you're driving the cheapest car on the lot or the most souped up monster available, turning is almost laughably bad. Your cars don't turn, so much as they rotate and slide. Whether you're on a filthy patch of snow or fresh asphalt on a sunny day, your car handles exactly the same. Likewise, no matter which vehicle you're sitting atop, every single computer driver on the track is faster off the line than you are. I didn't think I'd noticed any change when I poured all of my race-earnin's into a new engine, guaranteed to deliver faster acceleration right out of the box, and sure enough, when I was driving the fastest car available with ever possible enhancement applied, I was still being kicked off the line by the slowest car in the race. It's always nice to have a handicap, I guess.

The graphics are par for the current state of the Xbox, which basically means they're the best part of this package. They aren't completely fugly, but they're far from the most impressive thing I've ever seen. Some of the particle effects are fairly well done, especially during and after a nasty wreck, but you're usually so preoccupied by your car's hesitance to take a turn that you won't even notice. The speed effects of using up some of your stashed nitro is cool, but doesn't really hold a candle to what Burnout did before Flatout's release. Ongoing visible damage is always nice to see (especially since freaking Gran Turismo has yet to do it) but gets to be kind of silly when the damage reaches its upper limits. I have a hard time believing the car with a running fire behind the grill could not only continue running, but make a big comeback and actually win the race. Still, I suppose it was a nice touch. The terrains and surrounding textures are imaginative, but very sparse, especially when you take away the standard break-away objects that litter the roadways and are shared by all courses. This isn't a game that's going to completely blow away your impressions of what a game can do, visually, and occasionally shows evidence of being hurried out the door in a state of incompletion.

Where Flatout's visuals are mediocre at best, the game's audio is a downright disaster. The revs, grinds and hums of the cars, engines and tires are far too loud by default, and again fail to distinguish one car from another. Is that my car struggling up the hill, or is another driver right up my ass, ready to make a pass? Don't look to the audio for the answer. While most racing games contain similarly lame, repetitive sound effects, there's just something about what Flatout brings to this table that's a little bit more irritating than its peers. That engine is a bit more piercingly shrill than the one I heard in Project Gotham, the tires much more vague, hollow and shy of personality than those I heard in the most recent Mario Kart.

If the sound effects should bother you enough to force a change of volume in the options menu, the in-game music punishes you for doing so. This is one of the most uninspiring collections of butt-rock and mullet roll I've ever heard. Fortunately, every time a new track starts, the bottom of the screen is eaten up by an MTV-style artist / song title visualizer. I wouldn't want to miss the opportunity to know whose music I'll be avoiding the next time I hit Tower Records. Naturally, the need for custom soundtracks was completely ignored. After about two hours of game play, I quit turning the receiver to my Xbox input, and instead tuned my digital cable to one of those uninterrupted music channels, left the speakers to play whatever those faceless DJs chose, and enjoyed that in its place.

Flatout isn't a finished product. It is, at best, a great concept stretched far too thin over a below-average mullet-themed racing title. It's barely worth a rental, and certainly not worth busting out at a party, for all to enjoy. The graphics are unrefined, the audio is the kind of garbage that forces fingers to race for mute buttons, the controls are completely ridiculous, and there's nothing around that's driving you to reach that next goal. If you enjoy crap, or are easily amused by floating human bodies, you've found the promised land, but if you're looking for a breath of fresh air in a crowded industry, your holy grail remains elusive.

On a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is poor and 10 is amazing...
Overall Score: 4.4

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