FlatOut has a notoriously chequered history. While the original games in the destruction racing series fell under a lot of people’s radars, fans regarded them as alternatives to the popular Burnout series and a spiritual successor to the classic Destruction Derby series. Original developer Bugbear Entertainment went on to develop Ridge Racer: Unbounded and new IP Wreckfest, leaving Team6 Game Studios to handle the FlatOut franchise.
The good news is that FlatOut 4 redeems the franchise and is a vast improvement over the last abomination – though that isn’t exactly a difficult achievement. FlatOut 4 is billed as a love letter to the forgotten franchise, and Kylotonn has done a commendable job taking the series back to its roots, capturing the spirit of the original games and pretending that FlatOut 3 never happened.
Boot up FlatOut 4, and there’s a strong sense of deja vu, from the menu design and driver profiles for you to hold grudges against (where are the Benton brothers from the original games?), to the blaring rock, punk and ska soundtrack featuring lesser known artists, though Scottish rockers Twin Atlantic seem to dominate the track listing.
Driven to destruction
Like the previous FlatOut games, causing carnage is just as important as finishing first in races. Rather than rewarding you for clean overtakes, smashing into scenery and ramming into opponents will fill your nitrous boost. It’s a simple mechanic, but it works well, adding a risk versus reward element that made the original FlatOut games so intense.
Races in FlatOut 4 are fast and furious, thanks to ruthless AI opponents that won’t hesitate to barge into you at every opportunity. Being constantly spun out by rivals tapping you from behind can get frustrating, but that’s the nature of demolition derby-style racing games.
This aggressive approach to racing can take some adjusting to, but it’s a welcome throwback to destruction racers that flooded the market in previous console generations. In a genre saturated with serious simulations, FlatOut 4 arrives at a time when there’s a strong demand for arcade racers that don’t take themselves too seriously, just as car combat games are starting to make a belated comeback with the recent releases of Carmageddon Max Damage and Gas Guzzlers Extreme, and of course the forthcoming release of Wreckfest when it eventually escapes Early Access.
The 20 tracks are well designed with a smattering of shortcuts and alternative routes to take advantage of to add variety, as well as dozens of destructible objects to smash into which has always been a staple of the series – it wouldn’t be a FlatOut game without barns to barge into and cones, tyres and fences filling the air during races.
Many locations from previous FlatOut games return, including the fan favourite Water Canal circuit from FlatOut 2 which has you racing through drainages, and the slippery snow track from the original FlatOut with ice patches which can spin you out, as well as lumberyards, factories, a new dusty desert environment and a nerve-racking figure-of-eight circuit designed for close calls and crossroad crashes.
While the sense of speed is exhilarating when activating nitrous, the tracks haven't been designed for the insane speeds you can reach. Unless you have super-human reaction times, the narrow routes, tight corners and deviously placed hazards make it difficult to avoid overshooting and slamming into walls and obstacles. Using the nitro in cautious short bursts helps, but it’s a conflicting design decision that causes unnecessary frustration.
There’s a satisfying sense of weight to the cars that makes catching slides and knowing when to use the handbrake is a skill which takes time to master, but the handling isn’t responsive enough to handle the excessive speed gained from nitro boosts. Racing wheel owners will also be disappointed to find that FlatOut 4 doesn’t offer any wheel support on console. While the cars feel weighty, the physics will have you believe they are constructed out of cardboard when you encounter bumps or hit debris.
Case in point: on one track, you cross over a stretch of railway, but unless you approach it at the speed of a snail clipping it will send your car spiralling into the air and bouncing around the track. Colliding into other cars at speed often has a similar effect.
Given the game's emphasis on all-out destruction, the damage modelling in FlatOut 4 also leaves a lot to be desired. Sparks fly when metal meets metal, panels flap open and detach, and paintwork gradually scrapes away, but the bodywork rarely deforms. Since this is Kylotonn’s first FlatOut game, it would be unreasonable to expect the damage to be as advanced as the spectacular soft body deformation in Wreckfest, but you would expect it to be an improvement over FlatOut Ultimate Carnage released 10 years ago.
The same can be said for the dated visuals. There are moments when FlatOut 4 looks fetching, particularly with the above average lighting effects, but the environments look unpolished. Generally, FlatOut 4 runs surprisingly smoothly considering all the on-screen carnage, but there are occasional frame rate drops as the game engine struggles to cope under the strain when clusters of cars pile into each other. This lack of refinement suggests that this is a budget release, yet FlatOut 4 is a full priced game – had the price reflected the budget, these blemishes would have been more forgivable.
Hitting a brick wall
FlatOut 4’s career mode is lengthy, comprising of three tiers representing the Derby, Classic and Allstar car classes, each containing racing championships known as cups, as well as one-off events such as time trials and arena deathmatches. There’s a surprisingly steep learning curve, however. Starting with a limited budget, you can only afford an underpowered rust bucket which inevitably gets dominated by the overly aggressive AI.
A wealth of upgrades is available to tune components including your car’s engine, gearbox, and chassis, all of which have a noticeable effect on your car’s performance and strength to make it more competitive, which is essential in later events. Frustratingly, however, cash payouts in the career are paltry, so prepare to do a lot of grinding before you can afford upgrades and new cars.
When you do eventually save enough cash to buy a new car, most of them remain locked – even if you’re consistently achieving gold medals in events. It would help if the game indicated the requirements to unlock cars in each class because it doesn’t take long before you’ve maxed out the upgrades of your first car and are ready to try something new. It’s the opposite issue to Forza Horizon 3’s overly generous reward system which showers you with money and new cars literally every hour just for playing the game.
The car selection is varied, ranging from nippy hatchbacks and rugged pickup trucks to powerful muscle cars and a novelty ice cream van. Each vehicle has unique attributes – sportier cars have obvious speed advantages, whereas the ice cream van is so strong it can obliterate anything in its path. Any incentive to progress through the career diminishes, however, when you realise that every car is recycled in each class a with a reskin and better performance – it’s a cheap way to pad out the vehicle selection. There are 27 cars in total, but really there are only nine that are unique. Combine all this with tracks that get repeated far too frequently (half of the tracks are also mirrored versions) in each tier, and FlatOut 4’s career becomes a chore to play far sooner than it should.
The inconsistent AI behaviour doesn’t help, either. Usually, you’ll either leave the pack in your dust and finish several seconds ahead or languish in last place without any hope of catching up. That’s because FlatOut 4 doesn’t appear to have AI catch up slowing the opposition down to help you make up time if you fall too far behind, or rubber banding to speed them up if you gain a significant lead. Normally, these mechanics would be a cardinal sin in a racing game demanding driver skill, but they’re crucial in car combat games where the focus is on causing carnage. If there isn’t action happening around you all the time, the racing quickly becomes dull.
Consequently, if you get taken out by the AI (which you frequently will) the time it takes to reset back onto the track will lose you several places, leaving you reaching for the restart button. There are no AI difficulty settings to help ease you in, either. FlatOut 4’s uneven difficulty, erratic physics, and slow career progression often make it more frustrating than fun to play. Sadly, most players probably won’t have the patience to persevere through the overlong and repetitive career.
Fortunately, the additional FlatOut mode helps alleviate some of that frustration, since it doesn’t suffer from the same pacing problems as the career. Instead of struggling to earn enough cash to buy cars and upgrades, you play through a series of quick-fire rounds with pre-determined cars and unlock events by earning high scores. There’s a better variety of game types too, which makes it less repetitive than the career.
Returning players from FlatOut: Ultimate Carnage will recognise modes like Beat The Bomb where you have to keep your distance from exploding bombs, and Carnage mode where you rack up high scores and combos by smashing into scenery and opponents.
Keeping with the light-hearted spirit of the series, the fan favourite Stunt mode makes a welcome return, allowing you to abuse your hapless driver in a variety of ridiculous ragdoll physics mini-games. It’s slightly sadistic, but unapologetically silly: using a jet-powered car, you speed down a ramp and eject your driver through the windscreen to knock down structures, fly through rings of fire, or aim for a hole in one in a round of driver-flinging golf.
These mini-games were an amusing novelty before and are still entertaining, but they seem a tad dated now, and the techniques to improve your score aren’t always intuitive. Stunt mode provides plenty of laughs in the local multiplayer party mode, however, where the mini-games have more lasting appeal, but it isn’t playable online which is a missed opportunity, as is the lack of traditional split screen multiplayer racing.
Arena matches also return, where the objective is to simply destroy as many opponents as possible or be the last surviving driver - veterans of the classic Destruction Derby series should find this familiar. In FlatOut 4, the anarchic arena events crank up the carnage considerably, but they also highlight the disappointing damage modelling. It will pass the time if you’re in the mood for some mindless fun, but there isn’t much strategy required: you take a sturdy car and simply boost and bash into opponents as fast as possible until they explode. It’s a stark contrast to FlatOut Ultimate Carnage where your damage meter showed the strong and weak points of your car, forcing you to be tactical.
Of course, these modes offer nothing new for FlatOut veterans. Unfortunately, attempts to innovative in FlatOut 4 fall flat. New to the series is Assault mode, which adds Mario Kart-style power-ups to the mayhem. Using a similar system to the underrated Split/Second, preserving your boost unlocks power-ups like bollards which appear on the track to create obstacles for unsuspecting opponents, or sticky bombs, flaming wrecking balls, and radial blasts that flip over nearby rivals.
While taking out multiple cars with a well-timed shockwave leaves you with a smug sense of satisfaction, defending yourself against incoming attacks is virtually impossible. The action also gets so crazily chaotic that winning is often a case of luck rather than skill. It’s enough to lose you an entire cup after a winning streak, but Assault events don’t appear in the career too often, thankfully. You can’t blame the developers for trying something new, but it feels too forced - powerups simply don’t belong in a FlatOut game.
Online multiplayer offers the same destructive thrills as the single player, with the added satisfaction of being able to smash into human opponents. The action remains smooth throughout, but it needs fleshing out. In contrast to the single player, every car is already unlocked and there are no online rankings, which means there’s also no matchmaking to group players with similar skill levels.
With no unlocks or recognition for achievements, there isn’t much here to keep you coming back online. That means it’s down to the racing action to keep you engaged, but online events are restricted to only eight players, resulting in secluded races and arena battles - particularly as it’s rare to find a full lobby of players even close after launch, and there’s no option to fill the empty slots with AI cars. Battling against online opponents should have been a highlight in FlatOut 4, but it lacks the intensity of the single player.
FlatOut 4: Total Insanity repairs the damage done to the series by its diabolical predecessor, but it's not quite the return to form it could have been – it simply doesn’t do enough to innovative or improve the games that came before it and struggles to find its own identity. There’s fun to be had in the reckless racing and driver-ejecting ragdoll physics mini-games, but the damage modelling is too primitive for a crash-centric racer, the physics and AI are frustratingly inconsistent, and the repetitive career suffers from serious pacing issues. FlatOut 4 fills the void of light-hearted arcade racers for now, but if you’re looking for a game to satisfy your appetite for destruction, you’re better off waiting for Wreckfest.