Version tested: PSP
FlatOut for PSP is an exciting prospect. We liked FlatOut Ultimate Carnage on Xbox 360, because it drove without a licence, drank too much, and encouraged reckless behaviour. Its arrival on powerful hardware allowed four extra cars per race, thousands of added objects to smash, crisper and more detailed visuals, and more realistic physics. FlatOut: Head On, inevitably, strips out the extra cars, halves the object count, dips in visual quality and loses the performance grunt, but even at that it should have enough left to power through to your wallet. Should.
The content in Head On is split into two main modes: Carnage and FlatOut. The former is extra-curricular activities based around points and achieving bronze, silver or gold cups. The latter is proper tournament racing. Both were sandwiched together in Ultimate Carnage, which meant the monotony of jostling for grid positions was broken up, helping alleviate frustration. The segregated approach in Head On brings problems into sharper focus.
First is the unforgiving difficulty. Finishing last as a newcomer is understandable, but after hours behind the wheel it seems ludicrous. Part of the problem is the elastic AI, which won't let you get too far ahead but makes no bones about leaving you far behind. And falling behind is ever so easy. Just clipping a competitor is enough to send them or you spinning off into the scenery, which is particularly frustrating if you've been leading for the majority of the race.
Thank goodness for the triangle button that resets you with a rolling start then, eh? Except that the time it takes to reset is often disproportionate to the mistake you make: ploughing into a wall gets an instant reset, but spinning out of control or driving off course sometimes robs you of several seconds. The result is a drop down to second or third before you're back up to speed, which surrounds you with other cars, which knocks you off again. Down to fourth or fifth. Whoops, another knock. Press Start. Reset Race. Try again. In fairness, your adversaries do crash into each other and the leader from one race might not go on to win them all, so you're still in it, but this is small consolation.
Particularly since it's all rather unhelpfully furnished by banana-skin handling, unpredictable physics and inconsistent road rules. You're never quite sure what you can and cannot smash: some poles are flung high in the air while others refuse to budge and leave you decorating the road via your windscreen. Seemingly perfect landings often throw you off at awkward angles, and crashing into other cars can leave them stuck side-on to your bonnet, your only option to turn off at a suicidal angle or stop, reverse and manoeuvre around them, and we're scared of doing that because Brian Harvey ran himself over. The same stickiness applies to walls and immovable objects, so track-resets are the fastest way to recuperate. Triangle, triangle, triangle: it becomes such a staple you will soon be thumbing it after the slightest knock. On top of all this, the game world is cluttered in a way that the PSP's relatively tiny screen struggles to sort through, forcing you to memorise track layouts or rely on blind luck.
It takes much longer to familiarise and settle yourself with the way the game plays and the types of course on offer than it should. You can spend nearly an hour perfecting one tournament if you're picky about your results, which seems ill-suited to portable thrills. Once we'd bought the best of the second-tier cars - about half of the game's total - we'd had quite enough. Even purchasing fresh vehicles makes little difference, except that faster cars are harder to control. Statistics claim that upgrading the exhaust, tyres and brakes, gearbox, body, nitro, and suspension has a significant effect, but with the AI growing at a similar rate the changes have little impact.
Thankfully Carnage Mode puts Head On back on track. This offers four main events and deals you a different car and track for each challenge. Variation at last. The best event is Deathmatch Derby, which starts you in a circle and tasks you with smashing up the others. Points are awarded for big hits and staying alive, with power-ups available to add a layer of tactics. This is absolutely smashing and never gets old (eat your heart out, Michael Jackson).
Stunts make up a large chunk of Carnage Mode, and are broken into challenges based around the same formula: drive car down ramp, dodge some obstacles, then launch driver at something. Success depends on the angle of launch, direction you're facing, how fast you're going, and manoeuvring once airborne. Tasks include soaring through rings of fire, skimming along water, knocking down pins and so forth. You'll feel like you've tired of Stunts rather quickly, but thanks to the number of variables you're still oddly compelled to keep going.
The other two main events are racing-based. Carnage Race is the first and puts you up against seven others with nothing but a time limit to stop you. Checkpoints extend this a little, but the big points are awarded for a mixture of leading the pack to acquire multipliers, and wrecking the other drivers. The balance is a tricky one to strike. We've always maintained that they're not dodgems but bumper cars, and our smash-and-crash approach worked wonders. We got a gold cup for this one. The other event is Beat the Bomb, which refreshingly has you racing on your own as you struggle to reach checkpoints before the fuse runs out and you blow up.
Given that Carnage Mode puts you in different cars on different courses and keeps the challenges fresh, there is really little to entice you back to the FlatOut tournaments. It makes us wonder why the two were split up in the first place. Bolstering the main game-types is Multiplayer, but regrettably you can only branch out as far as your local network and race three friends on either one, or a collection of tracks in a tournament. We're at a loss over the absence of Deathmatch Derby here. You can also pass your PSP around like a hot potato in Party mode, and take it in turns to out-score each other on various Stunts. There are also Single Events, which do as you'd expect, but with Carnage Mode offering more or less the same thing we have no idea why you would bother.
Overall then, if you can forgive the rude introduction then there's lots to do and fun to have while doing it. Smashing into people is exciting, and made us shout "bosh" (illustrating our complicated emotions). Technically the game makes good use of the PSP, too, with passable loading times and a solid frame-rate despite lots going on and rather complex visuals. But the overriding feeling is that Head On belongs on more powerful consoles. Without the added bells and whistles, its core racing mechanics and their shortcomings are bare, obvious, and will struggle in a genre that is stacked to the rafters on PSP. There is certainly a place for its red-necked charms, particularly for those fed up racing politely, but that place is probably at a reduced price point to soften the impact of its inconsistencies.
6 / 10