There aren't many racing games like Flatout. With almost everything else in the genre (bar Mario Kart) drifting towards becoming a more "realistic" simulation, as developers spend all their time making sure everything from the physics of the tyres, to the glistening of the paintwork are "just right", Flatout is a game that takes its autophilia in a slightly more destructive direction. This, is a game that's all about crashing. With cars that look like the by-product of an era when the only air bag that'd cushion your impact was one of your own lungs, crossed with the body style and detailing of Mad Max, Flatout has always been a game about fender bending, metal mangling crashes. And Fl4tout: Total Insanity (shudder) is no different.
With a new developer at the helm (again - the game's been passed around developers ever since Flatout: Ultimate Carnage, which was essentially Flatout 2), Flatout is a game divided into two chunks. For those looking for something substantial to sink their teeth into, there's a beefy main "career" style mode, where you'll compete in races, put your foot to the floor in tricky time trials, and yes, even take part in some destruction derbies. Yet despite its best efforts, Flatout is still one of those weird kinds of games, like Super Monkey Ball, where the bit you're meant to play barely gets touched, and the throw away silly mini-games, where you'll use your poor driver as a projectile to compete in a variety of nutty contests, are the things that end up stealing your life. But more on that later.
If we're totally honest, while it may be expansive, Flatout 4's main career mode is a little bit underwhelming. Kept completely separate from the mini-game mayhem, the career mode instead sees you buying (and upgrading) a car, as you take part in a huge range of mini-tournaments, with each offering 2-4 races for you to trade paintwork in. Finishing higher up the rankings will earn you money, which in turn lets you buy more upgrades, and brand new (or, less old?) cars.
However, the racing in Flatout 4 isn't quite as fun as you'd imagine. Although the courses you'll be racing round are certainly up to snuff, as they're packed with multiple routes, many a shortcut, and plenty of destructible scenery, the majority seem to have been recycled from the earlier Flatout games. What's really new here is the handling - and that's what causes most of the game's problems.
Although your cars may look like they weight a veritable tonne, they tend to handle like they're made of jelly instead. The slightest knock from another car is enough to send you pirouetting, while even gentle bends can see you spinning completely out of control, especially on wet, or muddy surfaces. For a game that's meant to be all about the crashing and smashing, it's actually quite hard to do too much that's too physical, because you'll just find yourself spinning out all the time. If we put on our sleuthing hat for a second, this may have something to do with developer Kylotonn's history - having worked on WRC 5 and 6, this is a team that's used to putting together realistic rally sims, as opposed to mad arcade racers - and that may have meant the "realism" slider ended up more to the one side than it really should be.
The desctructible scenery here is more than just for fun, though - in fact, it's nigh on essential to your progress through the ranks. Crashing into scenery, from cones to crash barriers, and from store fronts to fork lift trucks will earn you boost power, which you'll need to use if you want to reach the front of the pack. However, while it sounds like it makes sense on paper, in practice, it doesn't work quite as well as it should do. For starters, if you find yourself at the back, you'll likely find that a lot of the destructible items have already been destroyed by those in front of you - and the few that are left will be that little bit too far off the beaten track for you to be able to easily hit them. Crashing into other cars will earn you boost too (if anything, you'll get even more from this than you will from the scenery) but again, that really only benefits the people in the middle. If you're out at the back, there won't be anyone around for you to crash into anyway, while if you're out in front, you'll find it tricky to stay there, as there's no one around for you to use to top up your boost.
Also offered are three different types of destruction derbies - a "keep the flag" mode, survival, and a kind of deathmatch - with how much fun you have largely depending on which stage you're playing on. Sticking with the Mad Max theme, by far the best destruction derby stage is actually themed like a kind of upside down Thunderdome/globe, with the curved base meaning your cars all tend towards the centre, making for some pretty incredible crashes.
The problem is, none of the other stages are anywhere near as good, as they don't seem to actually lend themselves all that well to a destruction derby, and the crashes that should follow. For starters, they're far too large, meaning it's hard to line up a decent slam on your opponents, because they end up having far too much time to move out of the way. Secondly, most of the levels are littered with small ramps and bumps, which only serve to make it even harder to line up your attacks.
Much more impressive is the selection of mini-games. As in previous Flatout games, how well you do in these mini-games will depend on how you make use of your driver - by which we mean, as a projectile, rather than as any form of driving skill.
Each and every mini-game here follows the same basic format, ensuring they're all at least reasonably easy to pick up and play - all you need to do is blitz it down an initial ramp, before holding A to start filling an angle meter, and letting it go when you want to fire your driver. After that, it's a simple case of using the analogue stick to gently tweak his flightpath, with an additional "nudge" (oof!) available on A, giving you a last second directional change (or height boost) should you need it.
And yet that all makes it sound a lot more complex than it really is. Whether you're destroying an elaborate wooden block castle in a kind of humanoid take on Angry Birds, trying to score a goal after dribbling your car past rows of defenders in football, or simply aiming for a hole in one in the game's take on golf, almost every single game here is a barrel of laughs - and better yet, each and every one can be played either on your own, in online multiplayer, or in the game's "pass the controller" multiplayer mode, which lets up to eight players play on the same console!
Other games include a long jump (where you can use giant metal fans to regain your height), billiards, Finnish pins (which we had to look up instructions for online), cup pong (bounce your dude off the table, then land him in one of the cups to score points), rings of fire (get your angle right to sail through a procession of flaming hoops), high jump, curling, stone skipping (using a human rather than a stone, obviously), and baseball. While we don't half miss some of our older favourites, like darts and bowling, the mini-game offering here is still pretty robust to say the least.
In all, then, how much you get out of Flatout 4 will depend on what you're looking for. If you're after the fender bending racer part, you can expect to be at least mildly disappointed, due to the somewhat spin-happy handling and lightweight cars. If you're here for the destruction derbies, you'll likely be pleased, but only on certain modes, and on certain maps. But if you're looking for a great pass-the-controller mini-game collection, of which there are precious few available at the moment, then Flatout 4 is well worth adding to your collection.