So farewell then, Flatout. An at times great crash-em-up that began six years ago on PC, this third entry was only announced the other week - and smashes the franchise into a brick wall. If this has been in development for more than a year, I'll drink engine fluid.
Flatout 3 is developed by Team 6, which was also behind the Wii's uncontrollably bad Flatout, and picks things up from there. Veterans of Bugbear's Flatout 2 and Ultimate Carnage will recall tight handling at high speeds, sophisticated damage modelling and bouncy but tight physics - and those things remain a memory.
The first of many unwelcome surprises is using a 360 controller. Remember that mission in Grand Theft Auto 4 where you had to drive while a passenger was trying to wrench the steering wheel away? Play with a pad and you will - the car jerks left and right randomly, like an iron filing surrounded by weak magnets, jamming itself into the scenery again and again.
What, you think the reset button will help? Hahaha! The reset button is part of the plan! After pressing it things drag on for a few more seconds before your car respawns on the track. But half the time it's facing backwards. Or you're plonked in front of a giant rock. This is not a feature that's been sloppily implemented; it's like the game is messing with you.
Using the keyboard is essential for any semblance of control, but further exposes a set of brutally unrefined handling models. Flatout 3 is at first glance jammed with different modes and ways of playing, and the different rules sometimes bring different ways of driving - the 'Speed' mode, for example, removes the handbrake. They're all over the place but share certain characteristics: massive oversensitivity, terrible collision mechanics, and cuckoo physics.
Bad enough, and there's more. Flatout 3 is much faster than its predecessors, and it's far too fast. Steering is a combination of guesswork and luck, like riding a sledge, where things can be undone in an instant by capriciously crap physics - sometimes you'll be driving straight and the car turns right for no reason, hits a pebble and launches sideways into a dumpster.
"If this has been in development for more than a year, I'll drink engine fluid."
It's not just the invisible springboards disguised as rocks, or the fact that ramps don't act as they should. It's not even the times when your car randomly explodes without an opponent nearby, or the damage model that bears little relation to on-screen impacts, or the even bits of track that drive like they have uneven surfaces. It's all of these things and more - the car never, ever feels right on the track, and you always know it's only a few seconds away from another spasm.
As for the opponent AI, it can't even be described as idiotic - that would imply some illusion of control. When you see a pack of AI cars in Flatout 3 it's just Brownian motion. Why did that car jack-knife into a bush? Why are they all driving at each other rather than racing? Why does it seem like they're blind to obstacles? Why does a car driving at top speed suddenly freeze when you're behind it? Why did that one flip around a corner?
The cherry on the cake as far as physics goes is the way the game calculates damage - it seems, as far as I can tell, to pick a random number. Land on someone in a monster truck from a 50-foot drop? 3 per cent, mate. Brush past a sedan? BOOM 60 PER CENT, PENCILNECK. It makes the two destruction-orientated modes totally pointless, and adds to the general ruination of everything else.
You won't believe this, but multiplayer sees things take a nosedive. The matchmaking system sometimes works, which is the highest praise anything in this game gets, but in-game the same old tricks start up again. Cars flash out of existence in front of you, reappearing 50 metres up the road, bounce off walls, glitch through obstacles, and yet despite this many races devolve into giant pile-ups. It's just a mess every time.
Still, at least the races start - few of them end. Of 15 online matches, six finished and the rest were either crashes mid-race or the terror of the void. If you crash during a Flatout 3 multiplayer session, you'll often respawn in nothing - permanently tumbling through limbo as the race goes on. If this happens to someone and they don't leave the game, then when the other players finish the game simply waits. Forever, presumably.
Flatout's selling point, such as it is, is a wide range of modes and a continuation of the series' destruction-themed options. Racing on its tracks brings home how good other driving games are at guiding your eye - Flatout 3's tracks are samey and confusing to navigate, and their number is fewer than the bonanza of modes suggests. Most are mirrored at least once, or used under different weather conditions.
But reusing content is the least of Flatout 3's problems. In terms of its modes Stunt Man, Big Battle and Battle Arena are more or less unplayable - though Stunt Man has a ramp where it's easy to test those physics and goggle. Race mode replaces the old Flatout career with six tracks, Speed mode's handling wouldn't be out of place on a tilt-to-control game, and Monster Trucks in these conditions feel pointless. Offroad's perhaps the least bad mode, and that's just because it's the closest Flatout 3 gets to bland.
You could go mad trying to rationalise Flatout 3. It is not bad in the way that a game like Boiling Point is bad, where things coalesce into a kind of awful greatness. This is a tacky and technically incompetent production with no redeeming features whatsoever, devoid of fun and an insult to the name it bears. Flatout once burned bright, but now is gone - and if there is a driving hell, this is surely it.