Back in the days of the original Playstation launch when everything was grey and better than it is now a small company by the name of Psygnosis gave the world Destruction Derby, the gaming equivalent of every car chase in the original Blues Brothers movie and Smokey and the Bandit 2 (the one with the elephant) rolled up into one smashtastic explosion of races and death match bowl arenas, where getting to the end of a race or even coming close to winning an arena was akin to throwing a box full of knitting needles into the air then throwing a flock of sheep up after them and expecting a full set of wool blankets and pillow case covers to come back down.
It was challenging, certainly, and looking back maybe it wasn’t the most realistic in terms of physics, but it never felt like it was the games fault you lost for the thirty ninth time, and it’s not every game that can manage to capture the feeling Bambi’s mother must have gone through one second after the first shot, and one second before the last, as the finish line limps into view and the final red section of your car gives up the ghost and starts flashing.
So it was with some expectation that I handed over my two English Queens pounds to the till troll, and picked up the a genuine launch copy of another contender in this complicated ballet of smashy crashy manliness, Flatout; Ultimate Carnage for the XBOX 360.
Bugbear take the accolade as the developer wanting to throw their oily rag into the petrol tank of racing, and although this is the first title in the series of three ‘Flatout’ releases I have played, I’m not sure whether I would want to go back and play the first two based of this ‘next-gen step in the series’ evolution.
The anarchic destruction of the bastardized off-springs of Henry Fords initial inspiration is about as far removed from ‘original ideas’ as baby baiting is from enjoyable family pastime, but ever since somebody decided using pixels to represent a car going around a track was where ‘it was at’ gamers have been using their initiative to send those self-same pixels hurtling down the track at full speed into the nameless faceless opposition.
With ‘wrong way’ flashing up on the screen, blocking the view.
And by the light of the silvery moon there is definitely something sweet about this flawed masterpiece that harkens back to those halcyon days of yore. Flawed, because like all arcade racers that have ever been produced since 1996, they seem to have taken a large portion of game play inspiration from the brains of someone else – someone who may have actually understood the idea of falling down stairs made of roads using faces made of cars to effectively claim ‘mine is bigger than yours’ a little more clearly. Yes, once again, we can see the ugly rash appearing before our very eyes as Mario Kart Malady leads an unhealthy march across our hungry-for-gaming satisfaction pink round bellies.
Every time you charge an opponent from behind and carry on with ne’er a concern or backward glance at their resultant pinwheeling through a shop front window, there will be a tenfold return visited upon your brow in a manner known as the ‘Bastard Move’.
Essentially, once the console tires of your ham fisted attempts at guiding one of its junk-yard jollies around the track you will become the centre of every other racers attentions and affections, any notion you had of winning gone along with your rear end and side panels, and only by some magic aligning of the planets will you ever see the front-runners again this race, pal.
As with Mario Kart, a first place lead on the final lap can turn into a last place reset yards from the line with one carefully aimed prang, and for any who still doubt the awesome power of AI then instead of watching some old man being taken for a mug by Megatrons chess loving brother they should observe the habits of the combatants within Mario Kart and force Will Smith to come to the rescue in possibly a jet fighter or a black suit with some massive life-turning-upside-down Fresh Prince flair to wipe this evil of silicon contrivance from the face of the Earth and the history of man-kind itself. And then write a rap about it.
As usual any lead you attain is from crawling your way out of last place on the starting line, and by colliding with other racers or taking chunks out of the breakable scenery you slowly fill a nitro meter that sends you from last place into a brick wall with one swift, deft button press. Careful mastery will go some way to helping you finish in the top three with regularity akin to a harvest festival collection being three quarter full with no label out of date tins. However, due to some impressive programming every piece of roadside furniture has a sense of weight, and as such can send you seriously off course when ploughed into at speed.
It’s as if the developers couldn’t decide which was more important, real world physics or actual game play fun, as the very items you are meant to crash into to replenish your nitro will inevitably end up slowing you down, and therefore become an annoyance rather than a joy to send skyward across your bonnet.
But not to worry, because it seems somebody at A+R was on a Red-Bull binge that day and decided the best way to counter this was by making it harder than a pit-bull with a Union Jack tattoo across its privy parts to get to first place. On my first few turns of the gaming wheel, I put my lack of position finish down to needing a period of adjustment to get to grips with the games individual and no doubt highly technical mechanics. After a few hours though, I decided to have doubts.
Like hookers and heroin the analogue stick and triggers on the 360 pad go together like a perfect partnership. No other pad can match the control in racing games for me, and the only way it could be made better would be to have those triggers made real so I could shake their tiny little hands at a job well done and if they wanted their friend little Tommy Analogue to sleep over then I’ll make up a bed and there’s some sugar and spoons in the cupboard.
But it seems someone must have been cutting the sherbet with Ritalin, because when you tire of using the scenery and other cars to bounce you across the finish line and actually try some in-game driving, the whole thing falls face first into its own sweet chocolate pudding, quietly blowing little bubbles of sticky brown sludge from one working nostril.
It’s as if the cars handling gets bored or forgets what its doing halfway through you attempting to get your back street MOT pass around a bend in the road or another competitor, and whilst you can usually temper bad handling with some fancy dabbing of the accelerator and fifty-pence it round the track, it seems even the good cars on the early levels are hell-bent on showing off your rag doll.
Oh, yes; the rag doll.
As amazing as this generation of in-game character detail and representation is, somebody should have told the developers that seeing your driver go flying through the cars windscreen once is funny – after that, it’s annoying. The dexterity required to press the reset button could hardly be considered an elephantine challenge, but the ability to quickly tap a single circular dot on the pad becomes honed to a fine point, such is the monotonous regularity some races eject your dolly skywards in a manner that could be considered realistic if cadavers were allowed drivers licences and sherbet, and I’m not joking when I say only the determined or those who paid full price will be bothered enough to see this game through the first slew races to where the cars finally become more like cars in the real sense and less like dodgems full of nitro-glycerine and Spam.
But fear not, for those who prefer their misery to be served through the machinations of interactive electronic stimuli, because someone along the line decided that rag doll flinging was rather a jolly good wheeze, and shouldn’t be reserved to just races and arena matches. Thus, wrote the sages, was the Party Mode born.
A handful of stages await the brave and bold and taken at face value they all seem to offer something different from the normal expectations delivered by games of this particular genre. Skimming, darts, even bowling all fail to appear in even the most lauded of racing games, and thinking any initial surprise at such obvious tricks being missed could be gained from these games then at least there’s reason for hope – but if only you happen to be playing Scrabble and have a spare -‘less’ handy and are going for that triple point bonus square.
Every single one of them revolves around you driving fast enough to launch your avatar-realised-you back into the clouds and rainbows, a perfunctory ‘nudge’ button making your character look like someone in the onset of Parkinson’s as you attempt to guide them towards some imaginary spot marking ‘X’ far away and far off your ability to hit. No doubt a few weeks could be lost in these games alone, and it’s tempting to stick at them to at least try to get somewhere decent on the scoreboards if I felt it would actually achieve something.
And that sums up the whole game for me, really. As fun as it can be and as imaginative and brave the developers have been – re-hashing a game they had a crack at twice before and bringing it to the market dressed all in shiny next-gen visuals and with a streak of malicious humour not seen since Shiny Entertainment were in their hey-day – I just can’t see the destructive racer going much further. As a portable racer on the PSP it’s a much better beast of buckled bonnets and BANG, and I cannot recommend enough grabbing a digital copy via the PSN.
But for two quid there’s not a whole lot one could reasonably expect, and for an afternoon’s knock-about it does the job well enough. Any longer though and even the novelty of rolling around in a burnt out, three-wheeled husk on fire becomes like the clown invited to a child’s birthday party on recommendation from a neighbour you see only in passing; it does what you expect and has a few novel surprises, but all the balloon animals and custard pies can’t disguise the fact a party at McDonalds is what your child really wanted.