Flat-Out is one of those games that spent it's fair share in development hell. I believe this was originally supposed to be released in 2003, but was delayed to 2004, and then further delayed until 2005. It was one of those games you kept hearing about, but you never knew when the hell it was coming out. Finally in the summer of 2005, Flat-Out sees the light of day, but was it worth the wait? "Demolition derby"-styled games really have a spotty record on consoles, either because they're too short, too limited or have really bad gameplay. Flat-Out does emerge as the best of the "demolition derby" type of games so far, but it has some of it's share of problems. It's a fun game, but it can also be pretty difficult and frustrating. It's one of those games that has a handfull of good things about it, only to have a couple of problems to bring it down.
As I've said a few times, Flat-Out is a "demolition derby"-style racer (I'm getting sick of typing this as you are reading it), but it's not like what you've seen in games such as Destruction Derby or Test Drive: Eve Of Destruction. The game is broken down into two halves: racing and minigames. Racing is pretty straightforward: place 3rd or higher in a race to unlock other courses, and complete all courses to unlock a new championship. The minigames are made of traditional demolition modes, as well as interesting events where you launch your driver out of the windshield such as high-jump, darts, and bowling.
The racing itself isn't so bad if it didn't have a couple of nagging problems. The handling of the vehicles feel okay for what the game is, especially when most of the courses are offroad, but everything feels a bit too "bouncy" and light. During races, you're encouraged to smash objects around the courses, like fences or signs, to fill your boost meter. While it's fun smashing into crap, some of that fun is taken away due to the fact that some collisions either spin you around, flip you backwards, or launch you out of your car. If you fall behind in a race just a little, you'll basically spend most of your time in either 7th or 8th place. Sometimes it's possible to make up lost time, but too much of the time you can lose balance from jumps or objects that make catching up hard to do. Sure, the AI do make mistakes, but it seems like they are quicker to make up lost time and catch up if they do screw up. I found in many races that the best way to win is to try and drive the cleanest race possible, which is hard to do in a game that encourages destruction.
At least things are a little more relaxed within the minigames. Here, you have events such as demolition arenas, compact mud races, and events that involve launching your driver out the windshield. While having your driver fly out of your car becomes a bit tiring during races, at least there's some fun to be had in the minigames. You can participate in events that maim your driver in humorous ways, like the long jump, the high-jump, darts, bowling, target and the clown board (like you see at carnivals, with the bean bags). Some of these games work out pretty well, like the long-jump or the high-jump, where you can actually pass the 1st place score. Other games seem like good ideas, but really don't work well with the lack of percision you have by launching your driver out of the windshield (such as the dartboard). They're all fun and amusing to play, but in the end, some events work out better than others.
Visually, the game doesn't look too bad. For a game that is basically designed from the PS2, the textures are decent and the tracks have a good amount of detail. The car models are okay, but the level of damage and deformation modeling in here is pretty good. The physics are pretty good, as you can see from when your driver flies out of your car, flopping around like a ragdoll. Although the ragdoll physics are a bit of a gimmick for a racing game, it's also pretty funny, too. I've had some crashes that had some pretty painful results for the driver, such as flinging him out, only to hit the wall and have the car come crushing down on him. The particle effects are great, almost comparable to the Burnout titles (I'm suprised that they didn't use Renderware for this game), and there's a lot of crap to smash into and destroy. The lighting is decent, athough it's most par for the course in racing games these days. The framerate is solid, but the sense of speed could have been a little faster. I have noticed that the overall look has this subtle "blur" throughout the entire game, almost making the game flow a bit slower than it should. I'm not sure if it's a special effect or not, but it would have been nice if it just wasn't there. Also, with all the damage your car takes, why doesn't the damn thing ever blow up?
The audio doesn't get the same prasie as the graphics do. With the exception for a couple of songs, the soundtrack is pretty bad. The roster is made up of nothing but independent artists, and some tracks are just plain hideous. What's even worse is that there is no custom soundtrack support for the game, which would have been really nice to have. Why is it so much to ask for soundtrack support? At least you can just turn the music off. The sound effects are okay, but lack the punch you would expect from a game like this. I know that this isn't a big budget game, so expecting Burnout 3-like sound effects might be asking for a bit too much. But some of the impact when you hit another car could have been much stronger, and the growl of the engines could have been louder and more varied.
Flat-Out is a game that defintley has some fun ideas that are pulled off well, but are brought down by some frustrating collisions and an overly smart AI. The destruction and driver-maiming keep the game fun, and as a multiplayer game (online or off), this game can be entertaining for awhile. Hopefully a sequel will be released with most of it's problems ironed out. Bugbear does have a solid foundation for a good "demolition derby" racer (there I go again), and as it stands now, it does put other games in the genre to shame, but if you want people to have fun destroying the environments, you shouldn't have to be punished by poor collision reaction.