Demolition racing gets a reboot - but is it more Burnout than crash and burn?
I really, really wanted FlatOut 4 to be good. So many modern racing games take themselves too seriously, and Total Insanity offers the promise of a destructive something different.
For those unfamiliar with the series, FlatOut is all about carnage in cars - from nerfing fellow racers into violent crashes to performing stunts that see your ragdoll driver flying through the windscreen.
It’s not highbrow, then, but the games of old, though frequently flawed, offered fun in spades.
FlatOut 4 is very much of that ilk. It’s far from flawless - in fact, it offers roughly as much frustration as it does fun - but there are also many moments that will make you laugh maniacally as you nitro blast over the line and obliterate your rivals.
Want the gory details? Read on for our full review of FlatOut 4: Total Insanity.
FLATOUT 4: GAME MODES GALORE
Fire up FlatOut 4 and there’s every chance you won’t know where to begin. This is a game with heaps of ways to play. In fact, there are so many options that at times things barely feel tied together - almost as if the developers had a host of concepts and, rather than refine them into something meaningful, they threw them into a crucible and gave you Total Insanity.
Besides the career mode, which is essentially a series of races and time trials in various unlockable locations, there’s also Flatout mode, a collection of mini games and stunts, and Quick Play. The latter offers up the likes of Carnage and Assault, which are closest to what you’d expect from FlatOut.
Carnage means scoring points by destroying things (and your rivals), while Assault tools you up with weapons, Mario Kart style. There’s also a multiplayer option, too, while most of the game modes serve up online rankings after each effort.
So far, so full of content, then - but it all feels rather hashed together and lacking in continuity. See, while the career mode feels like the natural place to start, it’s also perhaps the least fun; conversely, the arcade-style modes are a good laugh, but only operate as standalone forays.
FLATOUT 4: THE WRONG KIND OF REALISM
Perhaps the biggest problem with FlatOut 4, then, is its indecision: this demolition derby can’t seem to figure out whether it’s a serious racer or a carnage-packed romp.
See, while the destruction is violent and the nitro boosts rewarding, FlatOut 4 is also incredibly hard to master - largely because it’s so damn unforgiving. In fact, at times the learning curve feels as steep as the one in Dirt Rally, despite the fact that this is a series famous for hurling people through windscreens.
Handling is a lot less arcade-like than you might expect, with understeer a common problem, especially when you’re carrying a lot of speed. Because the courses are all off-road and weave through odd environments (such as industrial plants and muddy forests strewn with farm equipment) reading the road is quite a challenge, and encounters with walls are commonplace.
Even if you’re good, you’ll probably end up replaying the first round repeatedly until you finally manage to place in the top three. Yes, it’s rewarding (and relieving) when you finally nail it but, boy, does it take some effort.
Part of the problem is the lack of a flashback button like the ones we’ve come to expect in Codemasters titles. While this does mean winning is a real challenge, even on the lowest levels, it also creates vast frustration when you plough into a solid object and wreck your vehicle within sight of the finish line.
FLATOUT 4: HARD OBJECTS HURT
And that’s a lot more likely than you’d think. Despite the promise of destructible environments, what it actually delivers is mostly destructible environments, with incredibly solid and irritatingly placed obstructions frequently hidden behind them.
See, while it’s great fun to clatter through pallets and destroy sheds, you’ll soon become petrified of doing so: run a little wide, aim for a shortcut and - bang! - you actually hit an immovable metal pillar indistinct from all of the destructible items. And you probably wrecked your vehicle.
Without a flashback option, there’s no way to rectify the result, either, other than re-running the entire race. If you’re a glutton for punishment, this might appeal but, on my sixth attempt at the same race, it started to grate.
The problem, really, is more about object placement and rendering generally. In the carnage, it’s often very difficult to distinguish what’s destructible from what isn’t, and also what’s a legitimate shortcut from what’s a race-ending object or out-of-bounds area. This is particularly problematic given that it’s only by hitting these objects that you can charge your Nitro bar.
This all serves to take away from the skill of eliminating someone or avoiding a shunt from a rival, and turns many career races into five-minute sessions fraught with fear and danger, lest you accidentally smack into an immovable obstruction.
FLATOUT 4: CLUMSY EXECUTION
Things don’t improve much elsewhere, either. There are glitches throughout the game that tend to mar the experience just at it gets thrilling.
Hit an object or get spun around by a competitor after you’ve performed a huge boost and there’s a good chance you’ll spin uncontrollably, repeatedly, and high into the air. Similarly, hit water sections wrong and you might be flipped into the air - as I’ve been a whole bunch of times.
It’s not enough to ruin the experience, but it takes the edge off. In a game where you should be fearful of other drivers and focussed on smashing them, it often ends up that you’ll want to tiptoe around for fear of the environment itself shafting you into oblivion.
Similarly, if you head into Carnage mode, it’s annoying how often you hit solid surfaces, which discourages you from risking smashing through stuff, while in Assault mode it’s frustratingly hard to handle, let alone land any blows with, your weapons - and the effects of receiving attacks is seriously unforgiving.
In the end, it’s not all that much fun. Yes, certain modes - such as ‘beat the bomb’ and ‘pong’ - are enjoyable, but these feel like amusing add-ons to a generally flawed game that would best work as a tournament.
FLATOUT 4: NOT ALL BAD
That said, all of the above means that eventual victory in FlatOut 4 comes with a great deal of air-punching. With a host of upgrades available, as you feel your car get quicker and your skills improve you’ll gradually put more love into the love-hate relationship you’ll have with Total Insanity.
I didn’t get much chance to try multiplayer as there weren’t many lobbies available pre-launch but, from what I saw, the modes worked well when played with online lunatics. Similarly, online ranking for the Flatout mode’s mini-games added a little something extra. I’ll add some further thoughts on the multiplayer once the full game is out and the lobbies are full.
It’s also worth mentioning that the levels look sublime. Glitchy they may be, but these race routes are wonderfully realised - from the claustrophobic canyon to the muddy forest.
Conceptually, the levels are nothing new, but the rendering, together with the very real sense of danger, makes them places you’re happy to hare around. In fact, were it not for the general carnage, this could well be a proper rally title.
FLATOUT 4: TOTAL INSANITY VERDICT
FlatOut 4, then, is a difficult game to rate. It’s undoubtedly riddled with flaws - from indistinguishable solid surfaces to environmental glitches to a general lack of thread with which to tie it all together - but it’s also a game you’ll, perhaps reluctantly, want to master.
Where the career feels like it needs total commitment (and even that isn’t always enough), the other game modes feel like they’ve got a potential that’s squandered by cobbling them together like a series of mini-games. It’s all a bit perplexing and, in all honesty, feels unfinished.
I have a sneaking suspicion, though, that Total Insanity will find its calling online. Despite its several negatives and general clumsiness, it’s a title that’ll feel good to be good at and probably won’t allow any one person to run away with - if for nothing else than the fact that a leader can lose because the water didn’t like them.
At first, the humour you expect from a FlatOut title just doesn’t feel present because Total Insanity is so hard and there’s no escaping that it would do well to take a few cues from the Burnout series. Fire up the broadband, though, and I can see FlatOut 4 becoming a niche hit, with its realism, violence and excellent locations. Time will tell.