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A 'hair's breadth' from being legendary, reckons our Pat...

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It’s rare that a game picks up heavily from preview to review code. It really is. You’d be surprised. Half the time you’ll find the preview disc is merely limited finished code, or is so obviously indicative of the final game that the sighs and depressing inevitability accompany the writing of the preview. “We’ll wait and see,” we see. “Plenty of problems to fix,” we say. “Won’t succeed if these issues aren’t addressed,” we say. And so it was with Flatout, the physics-heavy mud-racer developed by the team behind Rally Trophy, Finnish perfectionists Bugbear Entertainment. “Promising,” we said. “Good fun,” we added through gritted teeth trying to be positive as the physics engine threw us into another lake, perfectly aligned with the arc of the joypad's flights across the room in fury. The bets remained firmly on it being a bit rubbish.

Then the review code turned up. It may as well have been a different game on the disc. Just like a man who’s just been thrown through a car window at 70MPH, we’re a little stunned, and our noses mysteriously resemble Steve Bruce's after a brawl.

From the off it looks rounded. You construct a profile, pick a male or female driver, get $4,000 and a take your pick of a selection of five cars of various weights and power.

All this could be yours

There’s a Tuning section, which consists of buying parts for your car’s engine, drive train, exhaust, suspension, tires (sic) and body, obviously with a view to increasing horsepower and efficiency. Little is available when you first wander 'round the garage, and if you bet the farm on your initial car purchase, you’re not going to be able to buy anything. You get cash for placing well in races and completing challenges. Even at this stage you can see that plenty of effort’s gone into lifting Flatout away from the mediocre. Like an orphan with his nose pressed against the glass of a cake shop, you salivate at the array of upgrades laid out temptingly in the garage, locked. Put some effort in, son, and all this could be yours.

But, obviously, the proof’s in the playing. You get a choice of Bronze or Bonus mode, the former racing on tracks against opponents, the latter killing your driver and attempting to blow up other people’s cars. That’s right: the chap driving your car won’t have much get up and go after you’ve chucked him through a windscreen and 100 metres down a track in a perverse take on Longjump (you also get Highjump, a Destruction Derby clone and Circle of Light, which amounts to racing on a figure of eight). The Longjump and Highjump challenges require driving really fast at a brick wall or ramp, then pressing the B button at the required point to eject the driver. The rag doll physics are suitably sick. There are at least another eight unlockable Bonus levels to get into as well, including Darts, Bowling and Super Roundabout. There’s plenty here to divert from the main event (six rag doll games, three destruction derbies and three dirt rings – phnaar – in total). Kill your chap especially well for high scores and cash to spend on trinkets for your car.

The racing proper is hard. It takes a good few hours to get used to the differences between driving on mud, tarmac and grass. It’s you against seven opponents in stock car madness. And it’s in this section that Flatout truly succeeds.

Find out how we can squeeze a Zelda reference into a driving game review...

With races varying from woodland to tarmac to road works, the race challenges are long, tricky, sometimes frustrating and ultimately rewarding. This is hardly surprising considering the development team’s pedigree, but it’s the way elements have been so neatly sewn together that impresses overall. Flatout wields extreme detail, physics and damage modelling, speed rewards, humour and exceptional AI that works as well as Link throws around his Master Sword. Well, maybe not quite that well, but it’s very good, nonetheless.

In the preview build, Flatout was frustrating and half the time, unplayable. The final code is thrilling and polished. Tracks are littered with movable objects, such as logs, barrels, hoardings and so on, all of which can be smashed around and all of which have real weight. The more you crash into things, the more your nitro builds up (activated with a push of the B button), but this is little consolation when you first pick up the game when you pile into a pack of barrels and suddenly get overtaken by everyone else on the track.

It seems unfair at first, but you soon realise that all the cars are actually in the same boat. You’ll be winning, then hit a heap of logs on the third lap out of four, suddenly to find yourself in sixth, then seventh position. Exasperated, you push on, heavy on the nitro. About 30 seconds later you scream past a pile up and into third position, enough to crack the track and move onto the next round if you hold the place. The more you play Flatout, the deeper it feels.

Caution: greatness ahead

The nitro button adds strategy. You get increased levels of nitro depending on how much you crash into other cars and scenery, so do you go for absolutely clean lines and avoid all contact, or carefully crash the car to keep your nitro meter topped up for easy overtakes on the straights? Or a combination of the two? You can also, obviously, ram cars off the road, force them into the same awkward lines that dog you when you’re first getting to grips with the game, and so on. You become a wily, oily person. Which is probably a sign that Bugbear has done something right.

There’s plenty of it, too. The Bronze challenge obviously gives way to Silver and Gold (and hidden extras), giving you 36 tracks in total, all of which are well designed, exhilarating and good, good, good (if a tiny bit soulless) fun. Good.

Xbox Live is supported as well, letting eight of you duke it out online. It just tops off an excellent package. Honestly, Flatout is a hairbreadth away from a 9, and legendary status. There’s just a tiny something lacking. Maybe it’s the way the handling feels just a little too light, or the way the EA-style blocks that pop up telling you who’s playing what music hint at what Bugbear would like Flatout to have been. But really, we’re picking holes. You won’t be disappointed by this at all, even if you’ve already shelled out for the likes of Burnout 3. It’s a different beast, and a highly commendable one. Thumbs up, say us.

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8 / 10

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