FlatOut: Ultimate Carnage
As PC gamers we probably shouldn’t be saying this, but sometimes it’s hard to understand the appeal of hardcore racing sims. A flight simulator like Falcon or Ubisoft’s Silent Hunter submarine series makes sense: the chances of us ever being given control of a multi-billion-pound war machine are about the same as spontaneously sprouting wings to go and collect our lottery jackpot cheque while Angelina Jolie gives us a backrub. It’s just not going to happen. The chance to drive a car very fast is more likely to present itself, and not just in the kind of drunken japery that results in a starring role on Police, Camera, Action! A gift package from your local WHSmith will let you fling a Porsche around a race track at unsafe speeds, which is why it’s difficult to see how the more complex racing simulators like Forza and Gran Turismo have such massive appeal, particularly in the case of latter, where, ludicrously, you have to pass increasingly frustrating ‘licence tests’ in order to progress. Somehow, being told you have to stop a car within a very small box for the nth time just so you can do some more racing isn’t that much fun.
The magic of games is letting you do stuff that just isn’t possible in real life, and when it comes to cars that means two things: very high speeds, and lots of crashing, both of which FlatOut has in spades. This is the third game in the series to appear on PC, and it has changed a great deal since FlatOut 1 in 2004, an unusual racer that earned the unofficial title of ‘Burnout’s redneck cousin’. Where Criterion’s Burnout is fast, slick and modern with trendy pop-punk music, FlatOut featured beat-up banger cars, dirt tracks in lumber yards and alternative rock soundtrack. Heavily influenced by Psygnosis’s Destruction Derby, the cars were creaking wrecks that you were encouraged to slam into the opponents and scenery, and its simple, but very funny gimmick was that the unfortunate drivers apparently forget to buckle up before a race and would be sent careening through the windscreen when you crash. It wasn’t without its problems, however. The cars felt sluggish and were difficult to control, which was somewhat at odds with its lowbrow arcade racer image. FlatOut’s windscreen-smashing gimmick could also be frustrating as it didn’t take much to launch the hapless driver into the road and was too slow to reset so the race could continue. FlatOut 2 was a major improvement, toning down the physics and taking a leaf out of Burnout’s book by making the pace faster and introducing a wide variety of tracks and vehicles, which included traditional racing cars as well as more special events and stunts.
Ultimate Carnage is split into several modes. FlatOut mode is the core racing game, Carnage mode a series of challenges such as time trials and stunts, Live is the online component, then there’s Party mode and Single Event, which are self-explanatory. FlatOut mode is the single-player tournament, divided into three classes: Derby, Race and Street. Derby is old-school FlatOut, lots of dirt tracks and junky cars that rattle along at relatively slow speeds. Race has faster vehicles, further city tracks and introduces desert courses. Street features traditional sleek street-racing cars that are weaker, but much quicker, and gives you the motor raceway tracks. Every class includes three levels containing two or three cups with a varying number of tracks and laps. Completing cups unlock special events in that level, and finishing a level gives you access to the next stage and some new cars to buy.
Races in FlatOut Ultimate Carnage are a thing of chaotic beauty. The tracks are wonderfully detailed – city courses take you through shopping malls and construction sites, the dirt-track countryside courses have trailer parks, greenhouses and lakes, and then there are the desert maps, one of which goes through the middle of an airplane graveyard. The tracks have multiple shortcuts and alternate routes, some offering an advantage of a few seconds provided you can negotiate a tight turn, others granting a nitro boost over a jump. The best part is that much of it is destructible. While some games might have a route through an abandoned shopping mall, FlatOut has you smash through the glass doors, slam into furniture and displays, then blast out the other side. The motor raceway courses take place on a typical race track, except for the fact that the track is undergoing construction, which means you’re dodging bulldozers and splashing through muddy ditches.
On the first lap the scenery is where it should be – cars are parked at the side of the road and tires stacked neatly – then track furniture gets scattered by you and your fellow racers, and by the final lap the course is littered with debris that must be dodged or simply knocked out the way. At times there is an immense amount of junk on screen, all simulated with realistic physics, and the engine takes it in its stride with barely a knock to the frame rate. Unfortunately, as impressive as it is, we’re sad to report that FlatOut 2’s problems with inconsistent physics and objects haven’t been fully resolved. It may only happen occasionally, but it is still frustrating to lose a race because a cardboard box flipped your car, or a signpost became lodged in the windscreen. Sometimes the handling seems to be thrown off and you’ll be unable to turn for a few moments or AI drivers will get stuck to the front of your car. These are all issues that were present in FlatOut 2 and the Xbox 360 version of Ultimate Carnage and they really should have been ironed out by now. It is worth mentioning that if you only played the original FlatOut the driver-through-windscreen feature has been toned down. It takes a good solid smash to send him flying, and you can quickly reset to a rolling start. Still very funny, though.
Money is earned for winning cups and finishing a level, but also for your behaviour in the race. Every race has prizes for the driver who crashes into the most scenery, destroys opponents, smashes into other cars and gets the fastest lap. You don’t get anything for just coming first, though, so if you’re looking to get a bonus you’ve got to deliberately smash into cars and static objects as much as possible. The money is essential, not only for better cars but also upgrades to improve handling, speed, acceleration and other factors, but as FlatOut UC is an arcade racer this isn’t complex in the slightest as the increase (and sometimes decreases) in your car’s abilities are displayed using simple bars and numbers. It isn’t meant to be simulating the true effect of these upgrades beyond ‘engine thing makes car go faster’, but does add some depth and enables you to save money for a better car later on. There are 34 cars across the three classes, ranging from flimsy hatchbacks to beefy 4WDs and you have access to about half of each class when starting, the rest unlocked after each level. Cars are stored in your garage so you can view or drive them anytime, and old vehicles can be sold for cash. In addition, there are several bonus cars to be unlocked upon completion of various goals, which includes silly examples like a rocket car and a school bus.
As you progress through the levels and classes the difficulty ramps up, your CPU-controlled opponents racing smarter and faster and the courses become tougher. The enemy AI in FlatOut is some of the best we’ve encountered in a racer. It will take shortcuts, attempt to knock you and other cars off the track and drive a perfect racing line to hold onto first position, but it makes mistakes, too. You can spend an entire race in second place and sneak into first when the lead driver clips a wall, or overtake and smash them into a tree. Speed clear of the pack and the AI racers will scrap between themselves to get ahead. It feels lifelike and there’s no rubber-banding, so it’s possible to catch up when you spin-out, or lap an AI driver. One particularly nice touch is each car has a named driver with a distinct personality that comes across in their racing style. As you begin to recognise these characters you can start to really hate some of them, sacrificing a winning position just to wreck their car. This works well in conjunction with the points system used to determine the winner of a cup – if you are just a few points behind the leader on the final race then all you have to do is finish at least one place ahead of them, or just prevent them from finishing at all.
It’s not an easy ride though, Ultimate Carnage can still be damn tough, particularly in the latter stages of the Street class. One or two drivers will zoom ahead at the beginning and you don’t stand a chance of catching up, resulting in consistent second or third-placings until you’ve saved enough cash to buy a superior car or upgrades. Where they were making mistakes before they’ll race perfectly for four laps, though admittedly it does make for some nail-biting moments when you do finally get behind them to fishtail their car just moments before nipping over the finishing line.
The single-player mode, with a vast number of races in each class plus special events, will provide many hours of super-smashing racing fun, but when you’ve completed all that it’s the multiplayer that will ensure FlatOut has a permanent place on your hard drive. Online games are hosted by other players who can choose a normal race, take part in destruction derbies, compete in stunts or play a series of races, derbies and stunts with points to decide the overall winner. All tracks are available, plus reverse courses, and online matches offer the full roster of cars, including bonus vehicles, resulting in some hilariously manic school bus vs batmobile vs truck showdowns. Derbies will be especially welcomed by those with fond memories of Destruction Derby. The stunt events are also far more enjoyable online as you aim for the highest score by launching the driver out his car to skip across water, dive through rings of fire, knock over bowling pins and other ridiculous activities. As a ‘Games For Windows’ title Ultimate Carnage utilises Microsoft’s Live online gaming service, but only ranked matches are unavailable to those with free accounts, you can still take part in the standard online play, and if the Xbox 360 version is anything to go by those will be the most popular anyway.
In case you weren’t aware already, FlatOut Ultimate Carnage, rather than being an entirely new title, is a remake of FlatOut 2. EA and other publishers have been heavily criticised for rereleasing the same games each year so it’d be unfair of us to ignore these same problems with Ultimate Carnage. Anyone who has played FlatOut 2 to completion has seen all the tracks and cars on offer in Ultimate Carnage, so there’s nothing to report in that regard. What we have got is a huge and impressive overhaul to the visuals, an updated interface, new gameplay modes and improved multiplayer, which is the best reason for FlatOut veterans to buy this. If you didn’t enjoy FlatOut 2 then Ultimate Carnage is unlikely to change that opinion, but it was fun before and it’s still fun now, except everything looks better and there’s more to do. Next time we’d like a proper sequel, but until that happens it’s one of the best racers around.