Retro Lab: FLATOUT (PC/PS2/Xbox)

Most of the images in this article are Steam screenshots captured at 4k internal resolution, so they may take a while to load. Click on them for original huge version. Some of the menus look a little weird due to the unofficial widescreen patch I’m using, so sorry about that.

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As we all know, the automobile was designed purely for two purposes: racing and crashing. Bugbear Entertainment is a Finnish development studio specializing in games that prominently feature both, currently working on a Steam Early Access title called Wreckfest (formerly known as Next Car Game). In the past, Bugbear has developed games such as Rally Trophy and Ridge Racer: Unbounded, but they are probably best known for the FlatOut series of destruction-oriented racing games. We are here to look (mostly) at the first game in that series, released all the way back in 2004 for the PlayStation 2, Xbox and PC.

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FlatOut and its sequels were never exactly massive hits, but what the fanbase lacks in sheer size it makes up for with enthusiasm, with people playing and modding the games to this day. In Finland, hype for the original FlatOut was quite heavily drummed up in the press for obvious reasons and the game did quite well here, but it never reached anywhere near the sales figures (nor had the budget) of Criterion Games’ and EA’s Burnout series. Unfortunately, when it came time for FlatOut 2, publisher Empire Interactive seemed to think the way to improve sales was to just make a Burnout clone. Some fans enjoy FlatOut 2 more than the original, I’m not one of them. I’ll rant about that later.

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FlatOut Man (who I creatively named DONGS on this profile) is very happy to be doing what he does, even when his car has seen better days. You can also select a female driver if you want.

At its core, FlatOut is a very simple banger racing game, where you make your way through three championship series, buy new cars and upgrade them. Well, “new” in this case refers strictly to the fact you’re buying a car you didn’t have before, because even the most expensive and best-performing car in FlatOut is a shitty old beater that hasn’t passed inspection in 20 years, just like a proper banger racer should be! It’s wonderful. You have a bunch of muscle cars to choose from, as well as what appears to be an old Volvo sedan that weighs about as much as a WWII battleship (and handles like one), and a couple of European hatchbacks. Generally, you don’t want to pick one of the lighter cars, because in races like these that is just asking to get knocked around and generally bullied by everyone else on the grid – although you’ll also want something vaguely responsive for the later races that are packed with tight turns.

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The start of a race is always intense, and it is often a good idea to hang back a little and let the AI drivers wreck each other.

Unfortunately, there really isn’t a huge amount of content in here — 36 races and 12 bonus rounds in total, which sounds like a decent enough number but the races are really just variations of a handful of courses that get progressively tougher, and you can complete the championship in a couple of hours if you know your way around a race track. Still, the hype wasn’t all for naught, as FlatOut did bring something to the table; the major selling point was the game’s physics engine, boasting hundreds of destructible and interactable objects in each of the game’s maps.

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The tire bundles seen here are a very good way to send your car cartwheeling into the scenery, usually in the final corner of the final lap when you’re leading.

Basically everything that isn’t a building, a telephone pole/lamp post, a tree, heavy machinery, concrete or armco can be smashed, and it falls apart creating a pile of physics objects you and your opponents can crash into. Tires get scattered around the track as cars plow into tire barriers, bits of wooden fences fly around and can get stuck inside your car, and the track ends up looking like a war zone by the time the race is over.

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Here’s what a typical FlatOut car looks like before you take it to a race. You can change colors between a few presets and choose between auto and manual transmission.

Car damage is dynamic as well and the deformation was indeed impressive for the time, although it still does not quite reach the standard set by Carmageddon II six years before. While the ROMU (that’s Finnish for “wreck”, appropriately enough) engine makes sure the cars in FlatOut get well and truly mangled and scatter bodywork all over the place (as physics objects that you can run over on the next lap and potentially crash your car again as a result) as they slam into the environment and each other, you can’t bend the chassis or squash the car like a pancake or shear the whole thing in half.

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The races occasionally get so hectic you might want to cool off with a relaxing swim. DONGS is demonstrating his diving prowess here.

One trick Carmageddon wouldn’t pull off until Reincarnation was ragdoll physics for the drivers. A big enough impact (or even a glancing blow if the angle is right) against something solid in FlatOut throws the driver through the windshield, which is funny a few times but mostly annoying by the time you reach the harder championships. The ragdoll feature is used to amazing effect in the bonus events, where you can subject your driver to all kinds of ridiculous nonsense such as high jump, darts and bowling minigames. In these, you simply press the nitrous button to launch the driver out of the car, no crashing is required. All the minigame events take place in a special stadium, and I’m not sure their safety measures are quite up to modern standards — there are safety nets and large mattresses around the stadium to soften your landing, but 99% of the time you’ll miss these and faceplant into a concrete wall or something.

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NIKO, IT’S YOUR COUSIN! WHY DON’T YOU TAKE ME BOWLING! Sure, you can drive and I’ll press this button.

Along with the physics minigames, the bonus event section features three demolition derby arenas and three special races. The first two are nothing to write home about, just your basic oval and figure of eight track races that are quite fun but not particularly exciting, but the final special race track you unlock is a thing of absolute beauty. “Crash Alley Run” is basically a long chute full of dirt with left-hand hairpins at each end, and there is nothing on the straight to divide the “lanes” so you have cars coming at each other from opposite directions on the same bit of track. Of course, the straight is also extremely bumpy. The end result is glorious to behold and probably the most fun you’ll have in this game, as it’s just utter mayhem. This race was popular enough to be included in FlatOut 2 as well as its enhanced remake, FlatOut: Ultimate Carnage. So far, it hasn’t made it to Wreckfest, but I wouldn’t be surprised it it emerged in an update or as a Steam Workshop mod at some point.

UPDATE NOV 2016: There is now a Wreckfest mod called “Very Track Pack”, which includes a number of very well made custom tracks including Crash Alley. Yes, you can drive on this track with 22 opponents, which is exactly as amazing as it sounds.

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Appointment in Crash Alley. This event always has so much chaos going on that it’s entirely possible to win in one of the starter cars against top level AI, as simply making it to the finish without too many crashes will probably get you into the top 4.

The core gameplay in the original FlatOut is a fine mix of arcade and simulation racing. You can actually choose between “normal” and “simulation” modes, the latter of which has a more nuanced handling model but the feel in general is definitely more Wreckfest than Burnout, meaning that the game may still be an arcade racer overall but has its roots in sim racing rather than the balls-to-the-wall arcade insanity of Burnout from the third game onwards. Going… uh, flat out in FlatOut is often a really bad idea and boosting can be an even worse one, as these tracks require serious precision driving if you want to win all the gold medals or even reach the top three, which is required for progress in the championship. The tracks are full of obstacles and tight corners you have to navigate in cars that aren’t particularly well suited for precision maneuvering and have a tendency to slide around at the best of times. One crash can very well ruin your race, because you’ll end up far behind the leaders and/or smash up your car so badly that it’s practically undriveable.

To be quite honest, in some of the later races you don’t even need to crash because the tracks themselves get so bumpy your suspension turns into jelly by the final lap and the car begins to shake all over the place and bodyroll itself around the corners (hopefully you didn’t neglect the reinforced chassis and suspension upgrades). You can’t completely wreck your car here, as the engine will keep running and all wheels will stay on no matter what, but by the time your car is constantly pulling to one side and the engine is on fire you’ll generally want to restart anyway. The races can be made slightly easier by using the various shortcuts on most tracks, as the AI never bothers with those, but many of the shortcuts are incredibly dangerous and can lead to major crashes if you get your line slightly wrong.

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Driving underneath the trailer is a nice shortcut, just be careful unless you want to smash your face into it.

As you may have gathered by now, FlatOut can be very frustrating at times. The game is challenging from start to finish, but some tracks may as well be traps devised by Satan and can require many, many attempts even if you’re good at the game. The dynamic nature of the races doesn’t always help either; you can drive perfectly for the entire race, only to hit a curb or a stray tire on the final lap and roll your car into a lake because the physics decided you hit the object just a little bit wrong. At least there is no rubberband AI here, at least not in any noticeable way. Some of the AI drivers can and will catch up to you very fast if you let them, but driving well enough will keep them at bay and it’s not too hard to build up a lead for the most part.

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Yep, that certainly looks like some Finnish countryside. You can’t cut the track too much or you’ll be penalized, but technically there’s nothing to stop you from exploring the map.

Of course, FlatOut 2 went “Fuck that noise” and had the most blatant bullshit rubberband AI in the history of video games (with the exception of Mario Kart 64), because being able to gain a big lead in races wasn’t exciting enough or something. Thanks lads. FlatOut 2 might as well have been made of pure disappointment. Obviously, they screwed up the handling there as well, making everything feel like you’re on rails. But hey, it’s faster and more intense and look, you have these shiny sports cars and everything! Bugbear is a studio with a lot of talent (even after the unfortunate financial issues of recent years), so I don’t know what went wrong there. I want to blame the publisher.

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If you drive well enough, you may be able to recover from an early crash. Later on, you’re screwed.

FlatOut‘s graphics were amazing in 2004, and they still hold up quite nicely. Naturally, the environment geometry and textures look a bit dated by now and there are no fancy modern effects like ambient occlusion here, but everything looks nice and clean (despite generally being dirty) and crisp. Post-processing effects are used sparingly, and even though the game was released in 2004 there’s no sign of the obnoxious “let’s fill the entire goddamn screen with bloom lighting so you can’t see shit and mute the color palette because REALISM” trend that plagued so many games from that period. Three guesses which game has the worst case of the aforementioned Next-Gen Filter I’ve ever seen! (Hint: It’s FlatOut 2, although Burnout Revenge tried its hardest and the Need for Speed games from that era look equally unpleasant).

As for the console versions and their technical performance, it’s the same story as a lot of other multiformat games from that generation – the Xbox release looks sharper and cleaner than its PS2 counterpart and also plays better with the analog triggers. I want to say the lighting in the Xbox version has a slightly different vibe than the other versions, being somewhat darker and moodier in general, although without a side by side comparison it’s hard to tell for sure. Still no excessive bloom, though.

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The atmospheric lighting still looks good to this day, even if the meshes and textures are showing their age a bit.

The soundtrack consists mainly of indie buttrock, but it somehow fits the style of the game pretty well and there’s a couple of songs I genuinely like on there. The Xbox version doesn’t support custom music for some reason even though most other racing games on the system have that capability, but on PC it’s trivial to add your own songs or replace existing ones. Just add the songs to the music folder as .ogg files and edit the playlist file so the game can see them. I put in Megadeth’s “Symphony of Destruction” and the Rob Zombie tracks from FlatOut 2, as well as the Iron Maiden songs from Carmageddon II and a few other ones.

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The bloom actually doesn’t look too bad in this shot. It’s also in 1280 x 1024 because I didn’t bother installing the widescreen fix for FlatOut 2. Those also aren’t cars I normally associate with FlatOut.

As you might have figured out by now, the original is easily the best game in the series in my opinion. I’ve complained about FlatOut 2 a lot in this article, but some fans of the series swear by it to this day and it’s not really a bad game, it just doesn’t feel like the original game at all and has more of a Burnout vibe, just with the ragdoll physics and more environmental destruction. The handling feels a bit wrong; gone is the original precision and the cars barely turn until you hit some arbitrary threshold of grip and begin to drift. Damage no longer seems to affect performance, even though you can now lose wheels and the visual damage in general looks pretty nice. You can at least wreck other drivers’ cars and take them out of the race, which you should do to Jack Benton because that guy is a cheating prick and the epitome of unfair rubberband AI. You now exhaust your boost meter in a couple of seconds, and since boosting is obviously very useful you have to spend a lot of time smashing into environmental objects and other cars, which of course tends to slow you down. At least you now also gain boost from jumps, as well as crashes that send the driver (yours, that is) flying out. You now earn extra points for smashing into opponents as well, complete with Burnout-esque popups saying things like “SLAM” and “POWER HIT” because this is now an EXTREME racing game.

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Ultimate Carnage still mutes the colors a bit at times, but overall it looks far more pleasant than FlatOut 2.

Some of the issues of FlatOut 2 were rectified the following year in the enhanced Ultimate Carnage remake for Xbox 360 and PC (as well as PSP, which I completely forgot — that version is named FlatOut: Head-On), which tones down the next-gen filter (except in menus, where it’s somehow even more hideous) and also seems to feature less obnoxious rubberband AI (if you’re good enough and your car is sufficiently fast, you can win by absolutely gigantic margins even in the top tier races) and tweaked handling with a bit more nuance, making it a more enjoyable experience than the previous release. It also increases the number of drivers in each race from eight to twelve, making events like Crash Alley Run even more ridiculous. Unfortunately, the bonus minigames were “improved” for FlatOut 2, meaning that in an attempt to make them more spectacular they’ve tried to fix what wasn’t broken and add extra features to basic events like high jump, completely ruining them in the process. Well, maybe not all of them, not completely anyway, as bowling still manages to be pretty fun despite the increased complexity and learning curve. I think I had played the minigames in FlatOut 2 and Ultimate Carnage for about 15 minutes total before writing this article.

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I have my problems with the gameplay and aesthetic, but Ultimate Carnage does look really damn good at high resolutions.

If you want to try FlatOut 2, Ultimate Carnage is the way to go even though the PC version uses the dreaded Games for Windows Live, and the difficulty is as punishing as it ever was in this series. It also replaces the music from well-known artists like Rob Zombie and Megadeth with more of the indie rock we heard in the first game but more generic (I miss the Killer Barbies), but that also means you don’t need to put up with the underwhelming likes of Nickelback and Fall Out Boy. Swings and roundabouts, I suppose. Music replacement can still be done the same way as the previous games, so if you’re willing to fiddle with some files it’s a simple process. The FlatOut games are often 80-90% off during Steam sales, so you’ll probably be able to get them all for a very affordable price in the next big sale, not that they cost more than a few bucks in general. The console versions should also be easily found in second-hand shops and on eBay, and won’t cost a fortune either.

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This is a screenshot I found on GIS, not one of mine. I’m not touching Carmageddon TDR 2000… I mean FlatOut 3: Chaos & Destruction with a ten-foot pole unless I get it for free.

After Ultimate Carnage, FlatOut disappeared for a while and Bugbear went on to work on other projects. Empire Interactive went bust, and the FlatOut rights bounced around for a while until eventually being acquired by Strategy First. They published FlatOut 3: Chaos & Destruction in late 2011 without Bugbear’s involvement, with somewhat underwhelming results. As for Bugbear, they’ve been working on Wreckfest for a number of years now, and progress has been unfortunately slow (including the implementation of an entirely new game engine in mid-2014) although the game itself is a very enjoyable banger racer that feels like a slightly more realistic take on the original FlatOut, with various elements inspired by other games such as Street Rod and Destruction Derby.

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Speaking of Destruction Derby, one of the top Wreckfest mods on Steam Workshop at the moment is the mod that adds in all the tracks from DD1 and DD2, replaces the default driver names (generic “Player #”) with the opponents from those games, and makes the cars more durable so you can actually survive a race on one of these tracks. Even before the mod, I thought Wreckfest could easily pass for a Destruction Derby sequel and only needed the license slapped onto it.

In April 2016 it was reported that Bugbear had filed for bankruptcy (which they were already facing in early 2014, but the early access release of Next Car Game/Wreckfest did well enough to bail them out and also went viral on YouTube with its tech demo that showcased the potential for destruction, earning Bugbear three times the cash they had anticipated), although this turned out to be a false alarm and the game remains in development, with regular content updates. Bugbear Entertainment may not be as famous as some of the other development studios from Finland such as Remedy, but that aside they are very good at what they do and it would be an absolute shame to see them bow out. Of course, if this worst-case scenario were to come true (which it hopefully won’t), we’ll always have FlatOut.

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