There are racing games that reward perfect lines, and then there are racing games that do just the opposite. For many, Bugbear's original Flatout struck a near-perfect balance between the two, offering Destruction Derby-esque races and whacky ragdoll physics while still keeping the driving experience realistic enough to feel like a rally game with rusty, beaten-up vehicles.
But Flatout is no more. After its publisher and IP-owner Empire Interactive collapsed in 2009, the series was auctioned to inexperienced Team 6, who produced Flatout Wii and the horrible Flatout 3 for the PC. Bugbear could only watch from the sidelines as the series' reputation got wrecked. The Finns then turned to Ridge Racer but found no solid ground for their "modern take on the classic franchise", Ridge Racer Unbounded. Fans wanted a new rally game. And finally, that's what we are getting.
Next Car Game - not the final name, mind you - is essentially a return to Flatout's roots. Just like 10 years ago, you will be driving old scrap cars on backroad race tracks, using dirty tricks to gain positions and crashing the heck out of the vehicles inside the derby arena.
This isn't as flashy or speedy as Flatout's more commercial sequels, or titles such as Burnout and Need for Speed. It doesn't have to be, since Bugbear is making a game for its fans, and not for a publisher looking for a mainstream hit. The Early Access version is available to anyone who pre-orders (through Steam or the game's own website), and Bugbear is accepting feedback from backers to help them fine-tune and add more content to the game. According to the devs, the scope of Next Car Game is determined by the number of people buying it.
We took a hold of the game right after the first Early Access version was released in January, and we have been enjoying this early taster ever since. The game supports up to 24 cars racing simultaneously, which means there's always someone to challenge, someone to beat, and winning is never certain. One small mistake can cost many places, but gaining the next position is never too far away. The competition is up close and personal, fierce even with the AI, and we can only imagine how this translates to multiplayer gaming when the game is finished.
There's plenty of chaos. You will see cars bumping into each other with loud metallic thuds, if you're too eager in the exits you'll be burning rubber in the midst of a cloud of smoke, mass collisions with cars flying over the fences, and even concrete walls smashed into bits and pieces. Metal bends and pans based on the velocity and direction of the impact, ultimately leaving behind a four-wheeled carcass you can hardly recognise as a car. The destructive physics Bugbear has managed to create with their latest Romu engine (Finnish word for scrap) are second to none and will surely produce epic hits worththy of any highlight reel.
It's not just aggressiveness that's on the table, but also a hint of strategy, as you try to avoid the worst gridlocks and sneak ahead of competitors while they are fighting each other. Next Car Game does not attempt to be the most profound driving simulator, but it's not a pure arcade racer either. You won't stay on track, let alone win races, if you mindlessly push the pedal to the metal. The cars have a weighty feel to them, and you need well-timed braking, weight transfer and throttle control to initiate brave power-slides around the nicely undulating tracks. Body roll is particularly evident in the new interior view, which was missing in the Flatout series, although if you end up hitting someone head-on, you probably won't see much from behind the buckled bonnet.
In mid-February Bugbear updated the Early Access version with a new Figure 8 track and American Sedan which accompany the two cars (American muscle car, European mini) and three tracks (gravel, tarmac, arena) that were originally included. There are also a lot of smaller changes, such as adding reverse track layouts, different times of day, fixing bugs, enhancing physics and adding more tuning parts to install and try out. Progress is looking very promising.
Balancing between gamepads and wheels is still a bit of an issue, though. While the latest version brings these control methods closer together by giving pad owners more effective aids and removing the speed sensitive, stifled steering for wheel users, we still found racing with a pad harder due to a lack of decent vibrations offering feedback on what the car is doing.
What we definitely don't miss from Flatout is how you had to unlock the next races by finishing in the top three. At this stage it is too early to assess how Next Car Game's career mode will work, because the Early Access only contains single races and there is no progression. A proper single-player experience is on Bugbear's agenda, with promises of building your own car and choosing races from an "endless calendar". You are challenged to swap parts of your car throughout the career as they can wear down, and your favourite parts may or may not be available on the market when you need them. While the game may not include the biggest library of track locations, the team is aiming to offer a number of truly different layouts in each location to keep things fresh.
Still, it's the amount of content that is my biggest doubt regarding the game's summer-time release. The fun is already there. Smashing cars in Next Car Game just feels more brutal and solid than it did in Dirt Showdown, but it doesn't go over board with realism. The same goes for driving physics. We enjoyed playing with the weight transfer, but this not a hardcore sim which could deteriorate the derby feel. However, the game won't have legs in the longterm without a significantly broader range of content than what's available in the Early Access. Bugbear refuses to promise any specific number of tracks or cars, so we can only hope the end result is beefy enough to keep the game afloat.