Friday, January 13, 2012

FlatOut 3: Chaos & Destruction Review

FlatOut 3: Chaos & Destruction, developed by Team 6 Game Studios and published by Strategy First.
The Good: Multiple game modes
The Not So Good: Unpredictable physics with inconsistent damage and poor car handling, annoyingly stupid AI drivers, most innovative stunt modes removed, uninspired track design, nearly impossible to place first and unlock new content
What say you? The latest entry in the arcade racing series is a sad shadow of its former self thanks to truly atrocious racing: 2/8

One of the better arcade car racing game series of the past was FlatOut. The combination of fast speeds, lots of environmental destruction, online multiplayer, and highly entertaining physics-based minigames (my personal favorite was the poker game where you had to eject your driver through the windshield towards playing cards to make the best hand; curling is a close second) produced a unique title. Well, the series is back, under the direction of a different developer, in FlatOut 3: Chaos & Destruction. Well, the game certainly promises both chaos and destruction; let’s see if it delivers on both counts.

FlatOut 3: Chaos & Destruction manages to have worse graphics than Ultimate Carnage, which came out three years ago. Overall, this entry lacks the crispness seen previous games in the series, through the overuse of bloom, imbuing all of the tracks and cars with a soft fuzziness that doesn’t work well. The car models are quite poor, especially when damaged, lacking crisp textures and decent effects when crashing begins. The repetitive explosion effects become tiresome, and the bland track designs lacks the varied trackside detail of before and are also inundated with inadequately detailed texturing in some cases (although some locations, such as Rome, don't look too bad). The sound design is along the same lines: grating, repetitive sound effects and forgettable music accompany the on-screen mayhem. The switch to a different developer certainly didn’t keep the graphical fidelity of the previous games intact.

Following in the footsteps of its ancestors, FlatOut 3: Chaos & Destruction is an arcade racing game with fast speeds and destruction a-plenty. While the game lacks a career mode following a single character, there are plenty of game modes to choose from: the standard race, a series of specific challenges, a damage-based offroad mode, nightshifts (a one-on-one mode in rain that makes the handling even worse, if that was ever possible), speed (fast cars without a handbrake, where you go just as fast in the sand as on the track), monstertrucks (all one word), demolition derby, and a stunt mode that removes all of the entertaining minigames found in the previous games. There are six locations (in exotic locations like “Vienna” and “Detroit”), usually with two tracks and two reverses of those two tracks each. The tracks are nothing special: layouts occasionally feature crossovers like a figure eight race (a great idea in a game such as this), but then require you to drive a car up stairs (a terrible idea in any situation), so it all balances out in the end. Unfortunately, you have to finish first to unlock the next race, something that is next to impossible (unless you put the game on easy with four AI opponents) given the number of cars per race and the propensity of the AI drivers to continually run into you. You can join and host races online, which is easy to do thanks to the game browser, but (not surprisingly) the online population is quite low and thus races are tough to come by.

Racing games would be quite boring without cars, and FlatOut 3: Chaos & Destruction has some, divided into several classes and rated according to handling, acceleration, speed, and strength, although I did not see any noticeable differences between cars in the same class. You can also automatically tune your car for added speed or strength, further customizing your ride. One significant problem for FlatOut 3: Chaos & Destruction is that the cars are not fun to drive. At all. The problem is cornering: every single car in the game grips the ground at all times (except when airborne, of course), requiring you to go really slow or use the handbrake when turning. There is absolutely no drifting (unless you equip the "drift" tuning kit, and then the cars are impossible to control) without manually pressing the handbrake button, and even then it’s pretty understated. This goes for any of the game options: the slower "classic" mode, the fast "chaos and destruction," and the setting in the middle. I realize it’s an arcade game, but when I crank a wheel all the way to the left when going 150 miles per hour, I might spin out just a bit. Or actually turn. So much for going “flat out”.

The physics engine is just as bad. Running into things (a goal of the FlatOut series) is not recommended, as it might send you spinning or crashing in some seemingly random direction. Jumps are also inconsistent: sometimes landing will be fine, but most of the time you'll fly off at some insane angle. It used to be fun running into stuff along the track. Now, you'll probably flip over or go airborne, so it's best to avoid everything you see. Boost now is mainly gained by passing checkpoints rather than causing damage to the environment: boring. You’ll probably want to avoid running into other cars, too. In previous FlatOut games, the car that was traveling faster would deliver more damage: very predictable. Here, it seems to be completely random: you might broadside a stationary car and deliver 1% damage while getting 30%, or gently scrape another vehicle and completely destroy it. The woeful AI doesn’t help matters: the first thing the computer drivers do at the start of any race is head towards the closest car and instantly explode. Seriously: I started a “speed” race and half the field blew up three seconds into the race in a gigantic heap at the center of the track. The AI would rather run into each other than actually drive towards the finish line, which is not the best tactic during a race. Demolition derbies become a mass of cars in the center of the track, running into each other in a gigantic heap, causing randomized damage to each other. In the objective-based monstertrucks mode, your teammates have no idea what an "objective" is and would rather run into you the entire time. When AI cars are away from one another, they are competent drivers, staying on the track and driving at appropriate speeds. However, get two cars near each other and all bets are off. You really have to see this stuff to believe it. It borders on comical how inept the AI drivers are in FlatOut 3: Chaos & Destruction.

When a racing game has poor AI and random driving physics, what are you left with? A whole lot of nothing, that's what. First off, the AI is terrible: they would rather ram into each other than actually race to the finish, which is detrimental in a racing game. You can very easily get stuck against an AI car or any number of alleys by the track side, plummeting your position in the race. The physics are unpredictable; I certainly don’t mind over-the-top jumps and flips common in arcade racing games, but the results have to be consistent or the game loses all validity. FlatOut 3: Chaos & Destruction actually discourages chaos and destruction, as the consequences of running into exploding barrels and other objects are random at best: you might be fine, or you might flip over and have to respawn. One of the best aspects of the series, environment damage, has been essentially removed. And since the game requires you to finish in first place to unlock the next event, it's better to simply avoid everything instead of having fun making a mess, part of what the series was all about. Damage is woefully inconsistent: slight crashes may cause little damage or completely total your car, and slamming into the competition seemingly involves random dice rolls to determine who gets destroyed, instead of relying on predictable methods like who was traveling faster. Car handling is weak, as high grip makes cornering impossible without constant use of the handbrake. Cars will never break loose when taking a corner, and staying glued to the track means each car in the game is outrageously painful to drive as you must take each corner very slowly. In addition, FlatOut 3: Chaos & Destruction actually looks worse than its predecessor. It’s not all bad news: FlatOut 3: Chaos & Destruction comes with eight racing modes, some of which aren’t direct copies from the previous games (although my favorite stunt modes are curiously absent). Also, online racing is handled well, if there were more people to race against. But, in the end, there is absolutely no reason to get FlatOut 3: Chaos & Destruction instead of FlatOut: Ultimate Carnage, as it adds nothing new and actually offers significantly worse racing. In short, FlatOut 3: Chaos & Destruction does not deserve the once-proud moniker of the series.