Monday, October 08, 2007

FlatOut: Ultimate Carnage review

The FlatOut series started life on the original Xbox, with the original game being a fun but flawed off-road racer. The sequel beefed up the graphics and refined the gameplay, but came just a little too late in the system's life to sell in decent amounts. The developers, Bugbear, have based Ultimate Carnage on FlatOut 2, but used the extra power that the 360 offers to deliver vastly improved graphics and gameplay. What's more, the game is considerably cheaper than most new 360 releases. Is it a worthy alternative to the Burnout series, of just worthless scrap? Let's see...

Format: Xbox 360
Publisher: Empire Interactive
Developer: Bugbear
Genre: Arcade Racing
Region: Europe
Price: £39.99

Graphics: 9 out 10
Seriously, FlatOut: Ultimate Carnage is one of the best looking games I've seen on the 360 so far. Maybe not up there with the very latest games like BioShock but seriously impressive none the less. The tracks are excellently designed with tons of debris and destructible objects to plough through, as well as having many different routes with split and converge throughout. The amount of chaos that can be going on at any one time is huge, and I've never seen the game slow down once. The only thing that really lets the side down with the graphics is the slightly dodgy clipping. This is most noticeable in the Stunt mode where your drive will get stuck half way through a solid object, but can also occur in the racing mode when a garage door or some other object becomes embedded in your car. It's not a game-breaking glitch but it does spoil the sense of immersion somewhat.

Sound and Music: 6 out of 10
This category is a bit of a mixed bag for me. Maybe if you enjoy your crappy American teen rock you may enjoy the soundtrack featured here, but to me it just got annoying fast and that wasn't helped by the fact that there's only a handful of songs to begin with and they repeat ad nauseum. Thank god for the 360's Custom Soundtrack feature, it's a life saver. The game fares slightly better from a sound effect point of view. The smashes and crashes all sound pleasantly weighty and the comedy screams as your driver flies through the windscreen always raises a chuckle. My recommendation is put a half dozen or so of your favourite albums on the hard drive, leave the sound effects as they are, and enjoy (this may work better with more upbeat stuff - Enja might not go quite so well).

Your car becomes increasingly battered as the race goes on. This doesn't effect handling but if you do incur too much punishment you will be "wrecked" and out of the race. This is especially embarrassing in online races, unless you do it to someone else, of course.

This game won't be rated for Plot & Character because it's not relevant.

Game Mechanics: 9 out of 10
There are three different styles of gameplay to be found in FlatOut: UC, all based around the same physics engine. The first is racing, which pits you against 15 other computer controlled drivers, or up to 7 real life drivers over Xbox Live. As well as trying to finish in first place and progress through the various championships, there are also a variety of other awards that you can receive, which vary from causing the most damage to the other drivers, obtaining the fastest lap of the race, completely wrecking another car, and more. You will earn money for achieving these as well as unlocking some achievements if you do them enough times.

When you first start playing FlatOut mode, which is the main single player career, you will have to start in one of the slowest cars and to start with you'll have a hard time finishing in the top slots. So you have to cause as much carnage as you can instead, earning cash while doing so, and then upgrade your chosen car. Gradually, as you increase your top speed, acceleration, handling as so on, you will become much more competitive and start to win. You start off in the Derby class of car but when you get enough cash you can move up to the Race and Street classes, where the cars get faster but are less resilient as a result.

As well as racing, there's also Stunt mode, which consists of twelve different mini games that all involve launching your driver through the windscreen and on to some kind of target. The games include Bowling, Stone Skipping (where you have to press the A button as the poor sod hits the water to keep him bouncing along), and guiding the bloke through rings of fire. These are all good fun but a bit repetitive as they are all really variations of the same thing. They can be played both locally with friends or over Xbox Live.

Finally, there are the Deathmatch Derbys. If you ever played Destruction Derby on the PlayStation, you will remember the bowl stages where you and all the other drivers smash each other to the death. There are a variety of different stages, including the classic bowls as well as car parks, the top of a skyscraper and a figure eight circuit.

In addition to the FlatOut mode, there's another single player campaign known as Carnage mode. Instead of championships, there are various levels of individual challenges which could be a race, a Deathmatch Derby or a Stunt. You can earn Gold, Silver or Bronze, and earning all Gold gets you another achievement.

The achievements in FlatOut: UC walk the line between easy and challenging quite nicely. You will unlock your first few within hours of starting the game, while others such as 25 online race wins will take considerably longer. There's no nasty nigh-on impossible achievements like the ones in Ridge Racer 5, which is a relief. The other modes are Live, where you'll find the usually player or ranked options for each of the three game types, and Party, which is where you go to play the Stunt mini games with your friend.

This poor rag doll chap will meet his demise in many amusing and grisly ways, including getting burned to a crisp when fired through burning hoops.

Innovation and Cleverness: 4 out of 10
Because this game is the third in a franchise, and a remake of the second game at that, I can't give it a high score in this category. There's no doubt that when the rag doll man mini games made their first appearance in the original game they were both clever and innovative, but this is the third time they've been used now.

Value and Replayability: 8 out of 10
There is a nice range of things to do in this game. Just the FlatOut mode itself will take a significant amount of time to complete, especially if you want to get gold medals in all the events. Then you have Carnage mode, which is also pretty extensive, and when you've finished with that there's almost limitless replayability to be found from the multi player modes, both online and off. There was also no shortage of people to play online, even just after the release of Halo 3.

Overall: 9 out 10
FlatOut: Ultimate Carnage is pure digital fun. Never mind the small flaws, at it's core is a highly-polished, solidly designed piece of entertainment and is a welcome antidote to the serious, stuffy racers like Forza Motorsport 2. The Burnout series may be the more well known of the two, but FlatOut is just as good - better than the more recent offerings in fact because if you want pure racing without all of the other nonsense you can have it with the FlatOut mode, and if you want stupid mini games you can have those too.

Should somebody drive into one of the petrol stations that are scattered around the tracks you will certainly know about it.

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