Version tested: Xbox 360
It's not exactly a new or innovative phrase, but there's one line that springs inevitably to mind every time I try to think of a way to describe FlatOut: Ultimate Carnage. The series - now in its third incarnation - has been called "Burnout's Redneck Cousin" before, and will undoubtedly be called that many more times over the coming weeks.
Not only does this description have the benefit of being entirely true; it also seems likely that that's exactly what the developer was aiming for. Where Burnout has you racing through gleaming cityscapes and exotic global locations in a progression of increasingly shiny and improbable racing machines, FlatOut is all about ripping through rough tracks and hillbilly back-yards, weaving a trail of astonishing destruction in muddied, roaring old rustbuckets.
If you're thinking, "well, that actually sounds like more fun" - you're not wrong. Feature for feature, second for second, crash for crash; FlatOut is, quite simply, a better game than any of the recent incarnations of Burnout. It's a gleeful, wanton rampage of a racing game, an orgy of vehicular destruction and high speed which makes Criterion's well-loved series look sedate and old-fashioned. That, alone, is recommendation enough to turn the heads of any arcade racing fan - and we give that recommendation with only one caveat.
The caveat, sadly, is somewhat significant; significant enough, perhaps, to be a deal-breaker for many people. But more on that later. Let's stick to the positive for now; let's talk about the basic commandments of FlatOut - Go Fast and Break Stuff - and exactly how well they're implemented.
The structure of FlatOut: Ultimate Carnage isn't remarkably complex. The game has three classes of vehicle - namely Derby, Race and Street - which progress from slow but deliciously smashable old rustbuckets in Derby, through to gleaming speed demons in Street. Within each class, there are plenty of events (ranging from straightforward races and time trials to "last man standing" destruction derbies) to take part in, and multiple cars to unlock and purchase with your winnings.
Each car can be upgraded by spending a bit more money on parts in the "upgrade shop"; at first, this seems a bit confusing, especially to those in the audience who aren't car nuts (and therefore haven't entered a catatonic state due to playing Forza Motorsport 2 and forgetting to eat, sleep or watch Top Gear for the last fortnight). However, it quickly becomes clear that each upgrade you buy just fiddles the statistics of the car slightly, and you can see exactly the effect it'll have on things like top speed, acceleration, weight and handling on a convenient set of bar graphs.
That, in a nutshell, is the progression system of the game - but unlike many other racing games, FlatOut does a fine job of making sure that there's quite an enjoyable, different experience available at each level in the game. Certainly the cars get faster as you go along, but each class has unique attributes aside from speed. You may well find that even after unlocking the later classes, you voluntarily return to Derby class for a fun, exciting destruction event, or to Race class for the stronger vehicles which allow you to zip around with a little less care than is needed in Street class.
Although there are a variety of game modes open to you, the heart of the game, unsurprisingly, lies in its races. Each one of these is a delightful festival of carnage, with the game taking the now commonplace approach of building multiple tracks out of a relatively small set of actual locations. This has allowed the developer to lavish detail on each location, and it shows - FlatOut's tracks are among the most visually impressive and astonishingly detailed we've seen in any racing game, ever.
Much of that detail comes courtesy of the insane number of fully interactive objects which are littered around each track. The developers estimate that there are 8,000 interactive, breakable, smashable objects on every single track, and we don't doubt that figure for a second. Cars in this game don't bounce off the stacked-tyre barriers at the roadside; they smash through them, scattering bouncing tyres all over the track. Chain link fences, picnic furniture, boulders, electricity poles... They're all fair game. Everything goes flying, causing a massive, glorious, physics based mess.
Aside from the obvious improvements to the graphics and physics afforded by the move to next-gen, one of the most noticeable upgrades in Ultimate Carnage is a 50 per cent increase in the number of cars on the track. 12 vehicles now zip around each racing and destruction derby stage. This, admittedly, may not sound like much of a change to the formula, but when you consider that each one of those vehicles is also a physics object, capable of tearing, smashing and destroying the track around itself, or of slamming into other nearby vehicles, you suddenly start to appreciate how much difference four extra cars can make.
Perhaps most impressive of all, the game doesn't stutter for even a second when confronted with all of this frantic action. Twelve cars, 8,000 physics objects, and absolutely gorgeous scenery with amazing lighting, reflective water and high-quality textures... No sweat. Ultimate Carnage sings along at a high framerate, just as you'd hope from a hi-octane racing title. It's great to see a game which really utilises the power of a next-gen console, but doesn't sacrifice the basic requirement for decent framerate in the process - a fine balancing act which the developers have managed almost perfectly.
In terms of actual racing quality, Ultimate Carnage is arguably the finest game in the series so far. The handling of the cars feels slightly loose to begin with, and you'll certainly find yourself sliding out of control regularly in the first few races. However, we quickly adapted to the control system - it's all about learning how much pressure to put on the acceleration trigger, with the brakes only coming into play on incredibly tight corners. The game is still tough, and small mistakes can be punished incredibly severely, but the controls are largely speaking consistent and solid.
The question of difficulty edges us a little closer to this review's major caveat. Despite being presented as a fun game that doesn't take anything too seriously, there's a punishing difficulty curve at work. This is partially due to the handling, and the need to work out for yourself what balance to strike between racing and combat (money is awarded partially for doing well in races, but also for slamming your opponents and generally being aggressive - the two goals are frequently hard to reconcile). However, it's also due to some rather unfair AI behaviour, which allows cars in front of you to get a long way ahead, while keeping cars behind you closely bunched up with your rear bumper.
The net effect is that while staging a final-lap catch up is often outright impossible, it's perfectly easy to make a single mistake while in the top three, and get knocked back to 10th or 11th place as punishment. What's worse is that the punishment is generally not proportional to the mistake you made. Actually smashing headlong into a solid object, sending your driver flying (hilariously) out of the windscreen in the process, will allow you to reset on the track instantly. Slightly misjudging a turn, however, or getting tapped on the tail of your vehicle by a rival at a key moment, can send you into a spin that won't give you a chance to reset on the track until the entire pack has sailed past you, leaving you in twelfth place.
When you're on the third lap of a lengthy, difficult circuit, this is mind-bendingly frustrating, and normally requires that you simply reset the race and try again. To add insult to injury, the game even unlocks a 5 Gamerpoint Achievement ("Perseverance") when you reset a race for the umpteenth time - suggesting that the developers find the fact that much of their game relies on gritting your teeth and resetting funny. We can assure you that by the time you see that Achievement pop up on screen, you won't be laughing. In fact, it feels a bit like a kick in the teeth.
On its own, however, we wouldn't really hold this aspect of the game up as a major problem. While it's unquestionably harsh, and sometimes utterly disproportionate in its punishments for player errors, the fact is that the game is enjoyable and challenging enough that you will press reset, rather than stabbing the Xbox 360 power button. There's a place in the world for hard games, as long as they're hard in a way that challenges you to overcome them; FlatOut certainly belongs in that category.
There is, however, an additional problem to add into this mix - and here, we hit the big whopping caveat to which we referred at the start of the review. The problem is this; Ultimate Carnage has some seriously, shockingly dodgy physics in places. Most of the time, the physics is fine; overstated, certainly, with many items seemingly weighing almost nothing, and cinematic, over the top destruction being favoured over realism, but that's exactly what we want to see in this sort of game. However, in a significant number of cases, the physics is just broken - and in some of those cases, it's broken enough to ruin an entire race.
So, for example, when a physics bug makes a piece of destructible scenery spin around uncontrollably on the track for no reason - that hardly matters, since most objects on the track don't affect the handling of your vehicle anyway. It looks odd, but it's not a major problem. However, when an annoying and altogether too regular quirk of the physics system forcibly sticks a rival car to the front of your bonnet, thus essentially halving your speed and removing any chance you had of winning a race, that's rather a lot more annoying.
If this had happened once or twice, it would be forgiveable; but this appears to be a common bug which is endemic to certain situations in the game. One of the most useful "attacks" in this kind of racing game is to nudge the rear sides of a rival car, sending it spinning off at an angle; however, at least one time in five, doing this will make the car flip sideways, and then stick fast to the front of your bonnet in this sideways position. Again, the only solution is to reset the race and start again; it's a physics glitch which is thoroughly broken, utterly annoying, and shockingly common. How this escaped the testing process for the game, we'll probably never know; but it's a huge shame, because this one, glaring bug is enough to drop the mark for the game by at least a point.
Being confronted with a bug like this which genuinely detracts from your enjoyment is absolutely tragic - especially when it's in a game like FlatOut: Ultimate Carnage, which is otherwise so damn close to a 9/10 that it can almost touch it. With no pretension and a maximum of joy, FlatOut delivers the best arcade racing experience we've ever played - but such a basic, glaring flaw, combined with our misgivings over the difficulty curve, sees the game falling somewhat short of what it could have - should have - achieved.
However, for the vast bulk of Xbox 360 owners, we still fully recommend this game. Xbox Live players, in particular, are in for a treat; the game sports full support for eight player racing, and even throws in some additional multiplayer modes which aren't available in single-player. Our personal favourite, beyond a doubt, is a brilliant creation which flips every car around 180 degrees at the end of each lap - resulting in head-on collisions, mayhem, and the kind of high pitched, cackling laughter we haven't heard since, well, the bit in 28 Weeks Later with the helicopter in Regent's Park. It's so wrong, and it feels so good.
It's also worth mentioning that the game sports a number of mini-games, which are a bit like a vehicular version of Super Monkey Ball. The idea is that you drive at high speed into a target area, and then send your driver (fully animated with ragdoll physics) flying out the windscreen; he needs to hit a target, or go through some flaming hoops, to score points. It's quite a nice idea (having debuted in the previous FlatOut title), but lacking in depth; the chances are that you'll fiddle around with the minigames a couple of times, decide they're "okay", and then go back to the racing and forget about them.
And that, perhaps, is the crux of the argument - you'll always go back to the racing. Maybe a couple of harsh punishments, or run-ins with the elasticated AI, will leave you seething; maybe you'll drop the controller and stalk off in a rage after a few crippling physics bugs too many; but you'll always go back. FlatOut: Ultimate Carnage isn't perfect, and doesn't quite live up to its promise; but it's sitting on the doorstep of absolute, legendary greatness. Everyone with a spark in their soul for high speed, ultra-destructive fun should play this game, and cross their fingers that just that tiny bit of extra care can be lavished on the next game in the series.
8 / 10