Despite the fact that I played and still completely loved 2006’s FlatOut 2 as early as last year, I never played its 2011 sequel FlatOut 3: Chaos and Destruction. By all accounts, this was a sanity-preserving oversight as the bug ridden third game in the popular arcade smash-em-up car racing franchise – this time developed by Team6 instead of originators Bugbear Entertainment – is considered by many to be one of the worst racing games of all time. And with the franchise bar thus dragged so low as to be chthonic, new developer Kylotonn really didn’t have to do much for the newly released FlatOut 4: Total Insanity to be an improvement on its predecessor. And in many ways, they actually didn’t.
I don’t necessarily mean that in a bad way though, as Kylotonn has essentially just returned the series to its fun bump ‘n grind racing roots as you sling a number of vehicles around a track or arena with reckless abandonment while a playlist of never-been rock bands cheer you on enthusiastically with almost subliminal guitar riffs. Anybody who last played FlatOut 2 (or its Ultimate Carnage enhanced edition) should immediately feel right at home as everything from the game’s menu screens with its chevron tape motifs to its main gameplay options evokes an immense sense of nostalgia.
The problem of course is that once you get past the game’s throwback nature, you’ll find very little in terms of new ideas here. Even the game’s ragdoll physics based stunt modes – which all have you building up speed with your car before ludicrously launching your driver out your vehicle and into/over/through a serious of obstacles in minigolf, pong, bowling, etc. – may have been a novelty ten years ago, but here they’ve lost their charm and merely serve as fleeting diversions from the game’s racing.
As for said racing, anybody coming here expecting anything even remotely close to a driving simulator will quickly find their expectations flung bodily through a windscreen. This is pure arcade bliss – the full extent of the automotive tweaking you do here is using the money you win in races to upgrade various components of your chosen vehicle, like the engine, tyres, exhaust, chassis, etc., all conveniently corresponding to one of the game’s easy to follow stats. The big ones here are your speed/acceleration, your handling, your nitro and your chassis. The latter two are of special interest as driving destructively (or catching some air) will build your nitro meter to allow you bursts of pure face-melting speed, but if your chassis is not tough enough then expect your vehicle to get wrecked pretty quickly as you slam into opponents.
Most of that admittedly enervating slamming and speeding will (at least initially) take place in FlatOut 4’s career mode which is broken down into three tiers. Each tier will start with you purchasing one of two available cars in the specific class before engaging in a series of points based cups that requires you to attain at least bronze position to unlock the next. As you win races you earn money to go towards your upgrades or purchasing of new vehicles. The latter option is a sore point though as the game is frustratingly stingy, resulting in the bulk of the early experience seeing you with just enough cash to either upgrade one car to keep up with the competition, or limp along for ages to eventually buy a second vehicle that’s already outclassed, but never both. At least pumping your cash into just one car as I initially did will result in a rather fun machine to throw around, as the game offers nice weighty handling that actually feels pretty solid.
FlatOut 4’s racing is set across a series of environments that should be incredibly familiar to franchise stalwarts: dusty forests, lumber yards, industrial areas and snowy passes. Even newcomers to the series will rapidly develop some familiarity though, as the game shows a regrettable lack of variety. It claims to have about 20 tracks but at least half of those are just mirrored versions of earlier tracks while half of the remainder merely offer slight route variations. That sameness continues on an even higher level, as FlatOut 4’s three tiers are just copies of each other, but with progressively faster cars.
The advantage to all this though is that you’ll rapidly gain an intimate knowledge of all the tracks by figuring out all the various shortcuts and alternate routes. And you will need every little advantage you can get your hands on as races very quickly become nerve-wracking exercises of part skill and part blind luck that the game’s manic artificial intelligence hasn’t targeted you for annihilation.
Said AI is rather inconsistent though, sometimes impossibly so. One race the enemy racers will just drunkenly careen back and forth across the road with no intentions of winning the race but rather just to trash your car, while other times they will take off like lightning bolts from the starting line and literally be uncatchable even if you drive perfect laps. Perfect laps that are not easy to come by though thanks to parts of the environments actually being “fully destructible” as advertised, while slamming into other indistinguishable sections will bring your car to a race-ending halt. Even more aggravating though is that sometimes you won’t even need a disguised immovable wooden post to end your championship dreams – many times my car would screaming down a flat road at breakneck speed, only to sudden lurch sideways or straight up into the air, as if I had driven over some invisible booby trap.
Not that there there aren’t booby traps as FlatOut 4 also offers Assault Mode, a Mario Kart-esque where you can use power ups like magnetic bombs and shockwaves to crash opponents. There are also Time Trials, a Carnage mode in which you just try to destroy as much as possible, a Beat the Bomb mode where you play a game of explosive hot potato and more. You also have a number of Destruction Derby styled arenas in which many cars enter but only can leave as you try to do nothing but wreck each other. Furthermore there also the return of FlatOut Mode, a catch-all affair that combines the stunts and various racing types into an 8-player pass-the-controller local party mode. Nearly all of these modes are also available for online multiplayer, but thanks to the fact the servers are practically ghost towns, I unfortunately can’t give much feedback in this regard.
With 10 different game types, 27 vehicles and 24 cups spread across 3 tiers though, FlatOut 4 is certainly not left wanting for single player content as far as arcade racers go. Its biggest problem though is that as fun as much of this content is – both on its own and as a nitro-boosted jaunt down memory lane – it all loses its shine too quickly. Nostalgia can only drive you so far. The game’s graphics is the same type of mixed bag. It boasts some genuinely fantastic particle and lighting effects – especially when you’re caught in a competitor’s snowdrift or dust cloud as rays from the setting sun pierces the vehicular chaos – but most of the environments and car models look just decent at best, and last generation at worst. Franchise fanatics will certainly get a rev out of this return to form, but its limited appeal combined with its patchy AI, shaky race physics and inconsistent design quality, makes for a game that I can’t recommend as a flat out success.