Thursday, August 17, 2006

FlatOut 2 Review

FlatOut 2, developed by Bugbear Entertainment and published by Empire Interactive and Sierra/Vivendi Universal Games.
The Good: Action packed racing, aggressive and challenging AI, very entertaining stunt modes, full featured multiplayer, excellent graphics
The Not So Good: Arcade-simulation hybrid handling takes some getting used to, some stunts are difficult at first, Gamespy-powered browser crashes when lots of servers are searched
What say you? A fast-paced, high adrenaline arcade racing game with enough variety to satisfy fans of speed-related carnage: 8/8

There are several reasons for the rise in the popularity of NASCAR. Some will note the split of the IRL and CART (Champ Car) as the beginning of the end of open wheel racing in the U.S. (with Danica Patrick being a temporary fix). Some will note the close, side-by-side racing. Some will note the use of cars that actually look like cars. And some will note the crashes. Nothing makes the fans stand up faster than billowing smoke, torn sheet metal, and screeching tires. Most racing games for the PC have tended towards the simulation/accuracy end of the equation, trying to replicate the intricacies of a particular form of racing down to every nut and bolt. But I know I was equally entertained while driving backwards on a track and slamming head-on into the pack, causing massive destruction. For those people, FlatOut 2 is your game, where you jump in a vehicle and destroy the ever-living snot out of your car, your opponents’ cars, and the track itself.

FlatOut 2 features some of the best graphics seen in any racing game, and the feat is made more impressive by the fact that everything in the game can be run into and destroyed (with the exception of solid buildings and guard rails). All of the tracks in the game are filled with copious amounts of things to slam into, and the tracks are completely trashed by the end of the race. This goes for the cars in the race as well: a comprehensive damage model is in place, showing progressive damage as the contact becomes more intense. The game runs surprisingly smooth for the amount of effects present, even at high resolutions (much smoother than some first person shooters with similar graphics in greatly smaller areas). The sound effects accompany the disturbingly pleasing visuals well: every crash and impact is clearly and painfully heard. The soundtrack of the game is a good collection of alternative rock (you need semi-aggressive music in a crash-laded racing game) from bands such as Alkaline Trio, Nickelback, and Fall Out Boy. “Symphony of Destruction” also makes an appearance, which I know how to “play” thanks to Guitar Hero (though the solo part kicks my ass). The songs will continue to play (without starting over) even if you restart a race, which greatly cuts down on the repetition element of licensed music experienced in most games. The only downside to the soundtrack is that the songs for stunt mode seem to repeat much more often than in other racing modes. Both the graphics and the sound of FlatOut 2 are definitely in the upper echelon of racing games.

There are several methods to wreak your unprovoked carnage on society in FlatOut 2. There is an enjoyable career mode, similar to most racing games in that you start out with some money to purchase a basic car, earn money through races, and purchase upgrades and better vehicles. You can pilot three classes of cars (robust derby cars, speedy race cars, and high-performance street cars) in any order of your choosing, as long as you have the money. The career mode in FlatOut 2 is much more streamlined that most games, and doesn’t relegate you to complete “beginner” races more than once in order to earn the money required for upgrades and more powerful cars. There is a ton of money to be earned in the races, and it doesn’t just go to the race winner. You can earn cash for destroying the most public property, having the fastest lap, or inflicting the most damage on the opposition. The upgrade options are comprehensive without being overkill (like in Xpand Rally). There are straightforward options in body, engine, exhaust, suspension, gearbox, tire, and brake enhancements, and you won’t lose the money you spent on your upgrades when you sell you car, either. I always hated it when I spent tons of money on upgrades for a car and then the sell price was lower than the price I spent just for the upgrades! Stupid car dealers. You can also progress through career mode by placing in the top three instead of having to win each race. This is a great thing for FlatOut 2 because of the numerous accidents that will happen during a race.

There are several kinds of races you can enter in the career mode, which are also available as single races against the AI or in hot multiplayer action. There are your basic lapped races in six environments (including city, fields, desert, and woods) which all racing games have. You can also participate in destruction derbies, where wrecking out other cars is your primary goal. The winner of the destruction derby races is not necessarily the last car remaining; points are awarded for being one of the last three cars, but more points are given for eliminating other cars and causing damage. This means that avoiding contact in order to be the last one standing won't result in a win, effectively removing that particular exploit. There are also special events, such as figure eight races (a favorite pastime at short tracks across the nation). But probably the most memorable aspect of FlatOut 2 are the stunt races. Each stunt race type has the same basic premise: you launch your driver out of the front window, aiming for some sort of target. The target varies according to the particular mode you are playing: examples include bowling pins, field goal posts, basketball hoops, dart boards, soccer nets, a baseball bat, and a curling rink. Even though each type of stunt is basically the same, it feels different because of the setting and rules changes. Some of these modes are quite challenging and require good skill and timing in order to even come close to the high marks set by the computer opponents. Each stunt is preceded by a non-interactive tutorial where you can see what you’re supposed to do, and these tutorials give adequate hints on how to accomplish your goals. The stunts are quite fun and play out a lot like the real sports; for example, in the case of curling you can knock the stones of the other competitors out of the way (as long as you're playing against human competition; for some reason, the AI turns don't appear on the game board). You won’t find any other racing game with the amount of mini-games present in FlatOut 2, which fully expands upon the basic racing of the game and takes it to new heights (well, new if you didn’t play FlatOut 1). As I alluded to earlier, there is great fun to be had with other people in FlatOut 2, as the game ships with full-featured multiplayer options through GameSpy. This makes finding and joining a game extremely easy, and you can compete in all of the game modes mentioned earlier and even set up multi-round tournaments of different events. It should be noted, however, that if Gamespy finds too many servers the game crashes, so you should limit the types of servers you're searching for. This is more of a Gamespy issue than a FlatOut 2 issue (the same issue has cropped up in other games), but it's frustrating nontheless. You can also play the mini-games against other people on the same computer using the same controller (because the mini-games are turn-based) for those people who have actual friends (I know there are a couple of you out there).

The physics of FlatOut 2 lie on the arcade side of the equation, but the cars are more difficult to control than purely arcade racing games like Trackmania or the Need for Speed series that feature unrealistic levels of grip. If you have a background in simulation racing titles, the driving model of FlatOut 2 has a slight learning curve: the game self-corrects any slides. I was counter-steering for slides (which I learned from simulation racing games), but this caused me to slide in the other direction since the game was straightening me out automatically. It takes a while to “unlearn” all of those skills from simulation racing games, but in the end, the cars in FlatOut 2 are easier to control because of it. The races of FlatOut 2 are the most frantic and action-packed events I have ever experienced in any racing game. Your cars are going entirely too fast around tracks full of dangerous obstacles and other competitors out for blood. The game rewards you for wrecking into other cars and objects scattered around the tracks through nitro, which you can use to quickly accelerate towards the front of the pack. There isn’t a single moment of any race in FlatOut 2 where you can relax and take a deep breath. Those more peaceful drivers need not apply; you’ll probably just get wrecked into a tree anyway. The AI of FlatOut 2 is very aggressive and will remember if you’ve been aggressive towards them and take action accordingly. AI in most racing games (especially simulation games) has always been to passive for my tastes and too easy to defeat, but this is definitely not the case in FlatOut 2. And the AI doesn’t just gang up on you, either: they will take each other out. You might be tempted to restart whenever you wreck badly, but the AI wrecks each other and is mistake-prone, making for a more exciting race in the end. You can end up going from first to last to first in a single lap because of the large crashes and the other cars that can become collected in them.

Those people looking for continuous action in a racing game have found a winner in FlatOut 2. Surrounded by the outstanding graphics and sound, FlatOut 2 features aggressive computer opponents, numerous game modes, multiplayer, and tons of crashes. I’ve never felt bored when playing FlatOut 2, which is always a good sign. Simulation games can get quite tedious after the first few laps of a race, but FlatOut 2 never lets up. Plus, the game is responsible for an above-average level of screaming at my computer monitor, showing that the player gets quite involved in the game (and showing that I may need some professional help). FlatOut 2 is a definitive arcade racing game, and anyone who prefers exciting racing over dreary driving should unquestionably check out this game.