In what is surely the best year in history for Xbox 360 motorheads it's fair to say that FlatOut: Ultimate Carnage is coming in on the blindside when compared to its other higher-profile, more established rivals. And with its street price rocking in at a tenner less than our usual (over-priced) 360 titles you'd be forgiven for assuming Bugbear's third racer wouldn't be competing with the big boys. You'd be right. But that's not to say that F: UC (oKay, that's awesome!) isn't a good little game.
Ultimate Carnage operates on a simple formula. Buy and upgrade a selection of cars, blast 'em through rough and ready tracks, and smash and crash your way towards to the number one spot. But what FlatOut does to separate it from the crowd is the evolution of a physics engine that powers 8000-odd individual pieces of, er, crap that will break-up and fly around you as you race. Bugbear have created the sort of normal arcade circuits with the odd shortcut you'd expect and then littered it with jumps and a whole lot of destructible scenery. Everything from stacks of tires to glass-fronted shops can be driven through, meaning that every track will play differently each time.
The persistent debris also hinders those driving in your wake and as an extra incentive to smash the place up you'll earn extra nitrous for being the first to trash a section of scenery. Added to a nitrous bonus for making mad jumps, Flatout takes on a level of strategy that belies its arcade-y looks. Sure the traditional racing line is important, but you'll have to mix it up with catching ramps, finding shortcuts and driving through scenery to earn crucial zoom.
It's also competitive. Sure, get your nose out in front and stay there and FlatOut, to be honest, loses much of its charm. But this is a racer that comes alive when you're battling against other drivers, navigating your way through traffic and a ton of rubble. With a clear road ahead of you, it can become a bit of a procession. But for the most part it's a challenge for even veteran racers. Your rivals might not have been programmed by robotic experts from academia like Forza, but they're bloody quick and happy to give you a firm, but fair, slamming.
Of course, you can turn the tables on them completely and smashing into your opponents will also give you a burst of nitrous. Unfortunately, the reward system here is woefully unbalanced. In Burnout, executing takedowns is calculated, a skill-rewarding mechanism. In the physics-powered world of FlatOut, such tightly defined maneuvers would obviously stick out. But some sort of concession to skilful takedowns should have been made. Pulling off a successful "crash" is rarely worth the risk. Turning a car entirely around and dropping him down a number of places won't earn you anything, and smashing into a car hard is just as likely to knacker up your own progress as your opponents,' since it's rare that the nitrous awarded to you will compensate for your loss of speed. It's really infuriating.
They've nailed a lot of this game but failed at this fundamental and annoying hurdle. Consequently, during "normal" racing events you might want to take out an enemy for kicks - but you certainly won't do it in the hope of a rewarding advantage since you'll always run the risk of losing more than you'll gain. And at the end of the day, progression is about winning.
A bit of a fundamental, ruining flaw for this sort of game then. And the other problem with Bugbear's commitment to its physics system is that, like in previous Flatout efforts, there's a seeming lack of consistency when it comes to the effect that debris has on your car. Some you'll power through, then something seemingly small and insignificant can throw you out of your stride. Maybe it is powered by a mathematically sound algorithm, but it's difficult to pick your way around things when you're doing over a ton. It's a problem that's plagued the series, and while it may be less prominent than before, it's still bloody annoying that you could be flipped out at any time.
So those are our major gripes. Yet in spite of these fundamental and infuriating problems, FlatOut is a game that gives and gives. There are three classes of racers (bangers, street and racers) to be mastered over each environment, and there are a ton of different events. There are all the stunt events and also Deathmatch Derby (an inspired, riotous jamboree enhanced by the inclusion of power-ups), Beat the Bomb and Time Trial races (both variations on racing against the clock) and Carnage races. And it's in the Carnage races that FlatOut is shown at its finest. Points matter here - you'll get a multiplier for being further up the pack but it's the points that matter, which you earn from, well, causing the carnage. Here the nitrous is dished out more liberally, meaning that you'll fly through at near supersonic speeds, struggling to hang on to control whilst you're absolutely loving the chaos unfolding around you. And thanks to the speed at which you race, crashing into other cars doesn't cause the same sort of problems it does in the normal races.
In FlatOut Mode (the main Career events) there's a heavy rotation of similar tracks and while the cars can be upgraded, you can't help but feel that the customisation options - especially given FlatOut's admirable and extensive Live integration - could have been expanded. Handling is spot-on and when you get through the gears, blasting through circuits and combo-ing your nitrous bursts of speeds together, it's as pure and genuine a thrill as you'll experience in any racer. Yet the irritating crash model and occasional random bit of breaking scenery that leaves you hurtling stupidly out of contention sells the rest of the game short and will leave a terribly bitter taste in your mouth.
Our conclusion? A good racer, at an appealing price, that runs out of gas just before it hits top gear.