Ever since watching Deliverance we've had a real aversion to anything from the American Deep South. Banjos, fried chicken... hell, we can't even wear our Von Dutch trucker caps without wincing at the thought of poor Ned Beatty up against that tree. Empire's FlatOut has done little to abate these fears. Crunching metal, squealing wheels (squeal, piggy, squeal!) and yee-hawing Yanks - this is dusty, dirty, yet undeniably dazzling racing fun. And worryingly, we like it.
The hopeful hicks start their car-crushing career by picking a tasty motor from the dealership. Customising your car is a major part of FlatOut, and players have tons of modding options. Buy a cheap car and tweak the hell out of it, or purchase a more upmarket model that requires little modification. Like Blind Date, the decision is yours. Sixteen classes of cars are on offer (in shiny star-spangled colours), and you can visit your friendly, ball-scratching,
beer-swigging mechanic to upgrade its specs. Beef up the engine, tighten the drivetrain, toughen your bodywork and change the tyres, amongst other things, to gain the upper six-fingered hand.
If you're only into serious driving sims, stop reading right now. Technical cornering is flung straight out of the window (as is your driver - more of that later) in favour of pure balls-out, edge-of-your-seat, unbridled mayhem. Aiding this experience, and enabling FlatOut to stand out from its contemporaries, is the fantastic physics engine Bugbear has implemented. All the cars are completely destructible, as is the surrounding environment, and display brilliantly accurate gradual degradation.
Minor bumps result in the odd windscreen shatter or bonnet crumple and, due to the violent nature of the game, frequently occur before the green start light has even gone out. Bigger gut-wrenching shunts and slams (race-ending in other driving games, but quickly the norm in FlatOut) result in bonnets flying up, doors falling off, and cars catching fire, all in a disconcertingly enjoyable way. Causing damage to your opponents is a blast, as is knocking over the multitude of tyres, barrels and other assorted roadside objects. These will brilliantly remain on the track throughout the race, so players can effectively litter the road at a narrow chicane or bottleneck to scupper opponents behind them, and send them spiralling off the road.
This violent behaviour isn't merely a result of too much moonshine however - FlatOut's fender-bending gameplay positively encourages it. For every smash and shunt you get involved in, your Nitro bar will gradually fill up, enabling you to boost your way back on track at warp speed. But this great feature is something of a double-edged sword. Sure, it encourages demonic driving and is undeniably liberating, but it negates the purpose of thoughtfully driving round the track. What's the point of braking for a corner when you know you can just smash into it, fill your Nitro meter, then boost right to the head of the pack again?
But try to strike a happy medium between wreckless abandon and, well, controlled wrecking, and everyone's a winner. There's plenty for you hot-headed hillbillies to get your remaining teeth into. You can hop right in for a Quick race or tear round the Time Trial challenges, using any track and car you've thus far unlocked. However, Career mode is where the real money's to be made. Compete against seven AI opponents over several laps and, if you finish in the top three, you'll unlock the next race. The car handling feels suitably responsive, and getting the back out round most of the corners is a real joy. It all seems fairly simple, doesn't it? Well, it's not when each and every AI car drives with the aggression of a pre-menstrual Jerry Springer guest who's just lost Billy Bob to her sister. They'll prove to be both formidable allies and the source of massive frustration, as you'll struggle to recover from a nasty smash only to
be rammed, spun 180?, and relegated several places in the process.