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Every racing game has some level of frustration. Boosting ahead of another racer only to realize they have just as much nitrous to spare. Trying to sneak by a pack of crashing cars only to have one clip your car and send you crashing. Approaching the finish line just as the driver in second place edges past you. It’s part of the charm, but little frustrations can pile up. FlatOut 4: Total Insanity goes very, very far into the fiefdom of frustration, where it rules with an iron fist.
FlatOut has been around for over ten years, and has shuffled from developer to developer. The latest entry is developed by Kylotonn, who previously worked on the WRC racing game franchise. FlatOut 4 is an arcade racer focused around going very fast, slamming into opponents, building up boost, and desperately hoping something terrible doesn’t happen. We’ll get back to those terrible parts.
There are two main modes in FlatOut 4: Career and FlatOut. In career you’ll race through several rule sets which are mostly focused on winning cups. Each cup is structured like a Mario Kart grand prix, wherein each racer is awarded points based on their finishing position in each race. Do well enough across the three or four races and you’ll win the cup, unlocking more cups, cars, and races. The career mode is segregated into Derby, Classic, and Allstar modes. The modes seemingly have no discernible differences besides requiring different categories of cars to participate. In Derby you’ll be driving a bucket of rust, in Classic you’ll be sitting in a muscle car facsimile, and in Allstar you’ll be in an angsty teenager’s dream car, complete with giant engines and spikes. The cars handle and feel a little different, and you can upgrade them with earned in-game currency, but you’re still on the same courses and in the same cups.
Whereas career is the straightforward, focused racing mode, FlatOut should be the fun, all-out mode, and you can tell it really tries to be that. You’ll shuffle through a handful of different rule types called “Stunt,” “Deathmatch,” or “Carnage.” These modes live or die by the guillotine that hangs over this entire game, the physics. Without a proper physics engine a racing game can feel a little off. FlatOut 4 really bares its fangs in Stunt mode, when you’re supposed to gain as much speed as possible before tapping or holding A and launching your driver out of the car. Without any indication of your launch speed, angle, or trajectory, you blindly launch into objects to knock them over and earn points; if you can. In the first Stunt level, you have to knock over a wooden block castle. After many failed attempts to even reach the castle, I finally scored a hit. The castle then slowly dominoed, collapsing small sections at a time for nearly a minute with no rhyme or apparent reason how. My next attempt hit it again and the castle section didn’t budge. Another attempt: different spot, no movement.
The physics issues don’t stop there. In Deathmatch, you’re placed in a destruction derby and forced to drive a small VW bug. The VW does well enough, unless you want to steer. Any sharp movement on the analog stick resulted in my car flipping over, sometimes several times. These major moments of irritation then bleed over into the other modes. I started to notice that when I was lightly bumped, I’d be sent spinning into a cliff face or slam into debris. Even small bumps in the road would alter my direction and force me to clip a wall.
Thankfully FlatOut 4 isn’t just a series of physics accidents, it actually has some brighter moments. Even some of the irritating FlatOut modes put you into interesting places like the far end of a beer pong tables or in a death cage with the other cars. It’s a bit of a shame that the Xbox One graphics don’t look as sharp as they do on the PC, but it does keep a stable framerate, which is vital for any racing game. Also, the music fits the game perfectly, balancing harder rock with a punk sound. All these pieces help refine FlatOut slightly and softens some of those physics based blows.
Racing in FlatOut never truly feels fair. It never feels like I’m being rewarded for driving the fastest, or the most efficiently, or ruthlessly. In one race I can take a bunch of shortcuts and still be in sixth, if I take it slow and steady I can find myself somehow alone in first. Everything in FlatOut 4 probably started out as a good idea, but it just feels harrowing when you actually play it. There are bits and pieces of fun to be had in FlatOut, but with so many other options out there, no one should have to settle for a game that’s this unfortunate.