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.