I have always had a couple of pet peeves when it comes to console-based racing games, the first of which is the ubiquitous requirement that I “unlock” content that I have already bought and paid for. Running a close second is the cardinal rule that stipulates that I must always start at the back of the pack and get to the lead within three laps. This ultimately leads to a racing style that is more about brute force passes than it is about any type of sophisticated, skill-driven racing. Considering the effort that goes into creating nearly photo-realistic cars and racing environments, this always seemed to be a real shame to me. In my opinion, it doesn’t matter how pretty the cars or roads are if the quality of actual racing isn’t up to speed.
There is one notable exception to this model, though, in the form of a game that has taken the approach of trying to turn some of those particular weakness in the genre into being the point of the entire game. Flatout 3: Chaos & Destruction, published by Strategy First, seemingly makes it a point to be as antonymous to the more traditional console racers as possible. As we will see, they have managed to do that in more ways than they may have intended. While the name ‘Flatout’ might sound familiar to the first two games in the series, note that Flatout 3 is a completely new game developed by Team 6 Studios rather than Bugbear Entertainment, the original developer of the two preceding titles. The result has not been favorable - rather than be a good game, Flatout 3 ends up as the opposite.
The focus on being taking the opposite approach in nearly every way starts out fairly benignly, albeit somewhat jarringly. Gone are the posh, showroom-condition cars and the stunningly beautiful mountain tracks and complex city environments; Flatout 3 presents a dystopian world populated with cars that are in an incongruously undamaged condition, yet look as though they have survived three rough years as Top Gear’s Reasonably Priced Car. The scenery is also far more rundown and ragged looking than one would expect, except for Detroit, which is shown pretty much as-is. None of this is objectionable, although the quality of the rendering is severely below par using today’s standards. It’s not horrible, mind you, but it feels distinctly ‘five years ago.’
As mentioned, the contrarian approach also has a massive effect on the game play. Flatout 3 takes the concept of “rubbing is racing” to extremes, providing an experience that could better be described as “surviving is racing.” The underlying idea was sound: provide a racing model that puts a premium on the pushing, shoving, and outright wrecking of opponents. It’s the implementation of this idea in Flatout 3 that is a disaster. To cut to the chase: it is feasible to develop a good racing game that concentrates more on the rougher aspects of race strategy, but the game still has to be.... well, a good racing game. This is where Flatout 3 falls well short.
There are a variety of different racing types available, but the spot of primacy was most certainly intended to be the straight racing mode. This is the industry standard type of racing where the player starts dead last and has get to the front by either knocking opponents out of the way or by taking short cuts. Fair enough, but what is missing in Flatout 3 are critical items such as controllable cars, decent AI opponents, and a realistically achievable goal. Of the three, it is the latter that eventually becomes the most frustrating, although the first two issues are strong factors. The bottom line is this: if a first place finish is going to be the requirement to unlock content, it is only fair to provide the player with:
- a reasonably competitive base car.
- a decently controllable driving model.
- AI opponents that aren’t simply sociopathic, masochistically sadistic psychopaths. Or, to give the benefit of the doubt, far too stupid.
Flatout 3 provides none of these things.
The odds are heavily stacked against the new player from the very first race. The choice of cars comes down to “fast, yet more fragile than a soap bubble,” or “slow, but slightly less fragile than a soap bubble.” With one of these cars, the player is required to pass fifteen other cars, each driven by an AI that knows how to do only one thing: run into other cars. There seems to be no ‘I’ in the AI: they make no attempt use their car to gain a tactical advantage by advantageously timed contact that will put an opponent into a wall or cause him to spin out in a turn; instead, their sole goal appears to be to create the largest hairball of burning, wrecked cars possible. That is fun to see precisely once. After that, it simply makes it a good strategy to hang back at the start and just circumnavigate the inevitable fourteen car pile up. That leaves only one car to catch and pass to take the lead. It’s a good strategy, but it nearly always falls apart near the end of the race when the leaders catch up with the ravening pack of morons taking up the rear. At that point, the situation become one of sheer survival. Which is fun precisely... never.
Combined with the difficulties caused by the purely obstructive AI opponents is the oddly amorphous control of the car. Control inputs are less directive than they are suggestive. The cars are incapable of tracking a straight line and providing corrections to their wayward paths is roughly akin to trying to tell a pig how to drive a tractor: any turns made correctly are purely coincidental.
This looseness of control in the standard racing mode is, it seems, deliberate because in the “Speed” mode, wherein the player drives open wheel cars similar in appearance to Formula 1 cars purchased at a fire sale, the cars are far more controllable. Unfortunately, they are as explosive as Chevy Volts and as they are being driven by the same inept AI, none of them survive the first turn, if they even get that far. Within moments the careful player has ascended to the lead position and, absent a meteor strike, will have no problems with staying there. This provides an ironic opposite: instead of being ridiculously too hard, the Speed mode is unsatisfyingly too easy.
There are half a dozen other modes, each having its own unique weakness of implementation, but the most notable is the Stunt Driver mode. The idea in Stunt Driver is to propel the open-topped car towards a solid wall at the correct speed and angle to allow the ejected ragdoll driver to fly a parabolic path towards a bulls eye target out in the distance, often with at least one obstruction (like a windmill on a putt putt hole) in the way. At first blush, this sounds mildly creepy (it will probably be censored in Europe, as happened when Flatout 2 had to replace the driver with a crash dummy to achieve a 12+ rating) but upon reflection it seems to be fitting with a contemporaneous zeitgeist that includes the words “angry” and “birds” in its gaming/telephony lexicon.
At the fundamental level, the Stunt Man mode is really Angry Birds, except the player gets to be the bird. Again, the idea seems sound, but the implementation still requires absolute perfection to move forward to the next levels. Given how hard it is to even get near the target, insisting on a bulls eye to succeed is far too rigid. If success is to be that hard to achieve, it would be nice to at least be able to make repeated attempts without having the ‘Restart’ after each. After a few dozen futile attempts, the player could be forgiven for wanting to go all Happy Gilmore on that cursed windmill!
The flat out truth is that Flatout 3 misses the mark by a significant margin. The good news is that the premise of the game is strong; bad implementations can be fixed with sufficient effort, but bad ideas are forever bad and no amount of work will fix them. Perhaps if there is a Flatout 4, it will concentrate more on the fundamentals of a good racing game while keeping to the vision of game play that takes a different path that the rest of the pack.