FlatOut: Head On

Size matters.

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.

2

Hit me at 30 and I might survive.

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.

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