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TVG crashes through the windscreen of BugBear's racing/crashing sequel...
Organised chaos, that pretty much describes the experience of BugBear's FlatOut2, a game that can be best defined as the illegitimate off-spring of Destruction Derby and Full Auto, with (dare we even say it) a dash of Burnout. Expanding upon the gameplay offerings dramatically compared to its surprise hit of a predecessor, BugBear hopes to push FlatOut2 beyond the original's boundaries, with new modes, car classes, and a refinement of what made the original a dark horse title to begin with.
Though players can access quick Single Events from races to stunts, the main meat on the bone rests with the Career Mode, which sees players rise through the ranks of destruction from barely roadworthy Derby vehicles to high-speed Street racers. Set across various environmental locations across the US as diverse as forests, deserts, and cities, FlatOut 2 isn't grounded solely in the traditional jalopy dirt tracks of old, despite its 'demolition derby on a track' style gameplay. Beginning at the bottom of the pack and sat behind the driving wheel of a rust-bucket with seven other vehicles, players have to race their way through the different levels of championships in order to progress. So far, FlatOut 2 doesn't sound like the sort of game that stands out from amongst a crowd of other racing titles, but this is what does (especially on the current-gen platforms) - physics.
As with its predecessor, the implementation of a realistic physical world, where pretty much everything can (and after the first lap, usually does) shatter across the track and affect the race. It's something that was seen in SEGA and Pseudo Interactive's Full Auto on Xbox 360 earlier in 2006 to great effect, and is even more impressive in FlatOut 2 simply because of the technological limitations of the current-generation systems. Earlier statements made by BugBear put the number of per track destructible objects somewhere around the 5,000 mark, a figure that we can certainly believe. Beams, fences, gates, glass walls, and traffic cones are just some of the obstacles players will come up against during their time on the track.
Assessing the use of drag has to be factored into the addition of such stringent physics; racing down the street with a carwash brush seemingly fixed to the car's bumper obviously slows you down to a sedate pace, allowing competitors the chance to overtake. The concern is of course whether these occurrences increase the levels of frustration felt by gamers; players could almost be forgiven if they committed violent acts after losing an annoying race thanks to a rogue barrel slowing them down. Thankfully, such frustration is limited, with carefully balanced elastic-AI making it possible to claw your way back up the grid over the course of a single lap. It doesn't mean however that a woefully unlucky player is guaranteed a win, in fact FlatOut 2 races are difficult to win (something that could alienate non-racing fans), but BugBear has been keen to deliver a balanced level of challenge by the AI and it does justify the physicality of objects in the game.
However the implementation of physics goes beyond the ability to get caught up behind bits of demolished objects; the damage models of the cars are also quite a feat to achieve on the current-gen machines. Vehicles can be deformed across forty places, from bonnets being torn off by the winds, wobbly wheels, and lost wings, so there's a strong feeling of impact allowing players to see the chaos. The rag-doll drivers of course make their triumphant return in FlatOut 2 also, so high-speed crashes or collisions with immovable objects (like reinforced concrete supports) generally means a short flight out of the windscreen - something that players can follow first-hand with a rag-doll camera.
BugBear has gone to some lengths to try and create strong personalities for each of the drivers in the game, giving some justification for their driving styles and attitudes throughout races. Whilst some, like the aggressive Jack Benton aren't afraid to push for a win no matter the circumstances, others such as Sofia Martinez, use their skills to bide their time. Such personalities are evident on the racetrack, which at least creates some sort of illusion that you're not racing against robotic AI following a pre-determined race line. It also means that races seldom repeat their outcomes, as AI competitors do crash aggressively into each other and the environment when they feel the need. It's immersive, which is exactly what we all strive to experience in a videogame.
Demolition Derbies form a secondary level of gameplay in FlatOut 2, and allows AI and players alike to focus on a different kind of objective: the wanton destruction of the other competitors. Set in locations such as car parks and petrol stations, these winner takes all derbies can end up with explosive consequences, and can prove quite a challenge at first. The strength of the vehicle being used is key, together with dodging that cheeky attempt at blindsiding you; so don't forget to improve the 'Strength' attribute of your chosen ride.
Purchasing new vehicles with your winnings is the only way of unlocking the higher car classes, but FlatOut 2 also allows gamers to upgrade their vehicles to a limited amount. Engine upgrades, weight reduction kits, and new steering and braking systems, all allow players to create a more competitive vehicle, and obviously affect the outcome of races and derbies alike. Changing the attributes of the car will also have a detrimental effect on other features; so improving the level of strength for instance, will lower the acceleration. It's obviously a careful balance of optimising the vehicle to suit the purpose, and thanks to the inclusion of a garage, players will be able to manage a number of vehicles at one time. That said, this isn't a game with car customisation as a major gameplay feature, so don't expect a grand selection of options to tune and tweak; it's relatively basic but deep enough to have clear effects.
FlatOut was also known for its Rag Doll mini-games, which naturally make a comeback in the sequel. Doubling the number from its predecessor, FlatOut 2 continues to inflict bone-crunching experiences onto the characters in a series of events adapted from real-world sports. Whilst hurtling down the slopes of ski-jump before timing the angle of the character's trajectory as it smashes through the windscreen might sound a little different to the Curling mini-game, the fact is that most boil down to a game of 'get the angle right'. On the face of it the mini-games can be quite fun, especially in short bursts, but they hardly expand on the longevity of FlatOut 2 for particularly long. They're nice enough features that act as another unique characteristic of the franchise, but they won't really detract from the main Career Mode for hours on end.
The soundtrack is exactly the sort of bag of tracks that you'd expect, and most of them even have titles that could relate in one way or another to the FlatOut 2 experience. The likes of Megadeth's Symphony of Destruction or Supergrass' Road to Rouen, just two examples. Regular gamers may recognise one or two of the tracks from other titles, with the overall sound a fairly generic action-racing track list. No doubt it'll help win over new fans in the US, and it does suit the game as a whole, it's just a bit too expected.
Earlier in the year TVG took FlatOut 2 for a test drive, thanks to an early preview build. Whilst it certainly gave us a sample of what to expect in the final game, there was no denying that there was plenty of work for BugBear to carry on with in the interim. Upgrades with no statistics on screen to allow comparisons to be made, light handling, unresponsive vehicles, and the ability to jump ahead of competitors thanks to a bug in the "Return to Track" function, were just some of the glitches picked up on during our time with the preview. Since that build, BugBear has obviously been hard at work, the result being that FlatOut 2 is far more balanced than it was earlier in the year. The cars feel far more weighty than before and more responsive, with the 'Return to Track' function now corrected. Players may be able to retain their position if a competitor is far back enough, but they certainly won't be jumping ahead of the pack as in the preview.