Impressions: Next Car Game

By Adam Smith on January 16th, 2014 at 5:00 pm.

It’s been a long time since the FlatOut series last left a good impression. When development duties moved away from Bugbear, the franchise played a game of chicken with an eighteen-wheeler and turned into an unhappy metal pancake. Now, the originators of the smashing racing spectacle are back with the thrillingly titled Next Car Game. Having pulled into the pitstop of Steam Early Access yesterday, is the cars wot go smash simulator a bare-bones heap of junk or a rough but ready machine of destruction? Read on.

Three moments stand out from an hour and a half with today’s Early Access release of Bugbear’s Next Car Game.

1) Lurching, bones rattling, over a muddy hump on the track and seeing four cars scrapping for position on a distant bend. The joy of realising that those vehicles didn’t cease to exist as soon as they left my sight and that they are out there, locked in combat like a crash of furious rhinos.

2) A disconcerting refrain following from that same realisation. Two AI-controlled cars have slipped from the track and on each consecutive lap they can be seen, nudging at barriers like newborn sightless puppies exploring the boundaries of a room. They are doomed by a lack of intelligence and a seeming inability to ‘reset’ themselves onto the track unless overturned.

3) By the second lap of a race, the track resembles a battlefield. Tires, signs and barricades are scattered, and cartwheeling vehicles disintegrate, spreading debris far and wide. That is as in FlatOut titles of the past but even though there’s still a lightweight feeling to some of the physics, with tires bouncing like beachballs, every impact is capable of causing damage to exposed parts. And if you collide with a solid structure, parts of it may crumble and fall onto the track. Finally, the Red Faction of racing games.

the wall didn't crumble slightly to my right - I reversed and drove back in to try and get a better shot

The good news about Next Car Game is that it recaptures the best parts of the best FlatOut games. The bad news is that it’s still called Next Car Game. And that the current Early Access version has as much content as a demo – two tracks, one demolition derby arena and two cars.

While there isn’t a huge amount to play, I reckon this is a decent way to enter Early Access. The engine is solid and polished enough that what IS included feels complete, providing a good insight into how the finished game will play. It’s more than a proof of concept and the machinery is all functioning to a high specification and the racing game structure suits a gradual feed of new courses and vehicles better than most.

It’s important to note, for those who don’t have any experience with FlatOut, that Next Car Game is as much an actual racing game as its predecessors. While the demolition derby is a pleasant diversion and a fine demonstration of the cars’ destructible soft body physics, the heart of the game is in the jostling for position and the tactical use of vehicular violence.

At first, I was slightly disappointed by the somewhat springy feel to head-on collisions but during my second race, I discovered the sweet spot. Smashing and crashing, indulging in a spot of Carmageddon, is a sure way to end up wrecked and ruined. Next Car Game rewards well-timed nudges, not only with an improved position in the running and on individual sections of a track, but also with spectacular flips, spins and destruction.

It’s a slower and more strategic approach to smash ‘em up racing than that seen in Criterion’s Burnout and Not Burnout games. There, a collision is like a deathmatch kill, taking the opponent out of the picture for a short while. In Next Car Game, grinding an opponent down can be more important than aiming for a big takedown. On the gravel track in particular, fighting to keep your own vehicle from harm is a more urgent priority than seeking to deal damage to others. The lack of grip makes every drift through a curve an anxiety-inducing exposure, the vulnerable side of the car open to assault.

All of this contributes toward a surprisingly thoughtful racing experience. Finding the perfect racing line and timing for a locked-in handbrake is important but the positioning and aggression of the other drivers demands attention, making it impossible to fall into and rely upon a routine. A smooth approach to a difficult section of the course might be appropriate on lap one but as debris spreads, handling deteriorates and opponents pile up on all sides, the next run through the same bend or jump might require a completely different technique.

It would be a mistake to see the destruction as a spectacular sideshow or distraction from the business of being the first over the line. That’s what the derbies are for. Bugbear’s technique is to make the vehicular combat a meaningful part of the core challenge of reaching the finishing line before as many of the pack as possible. That might mean avoiding the cargy-bargy entirely or it might mean crushing the most nimble cars into cubes of unhappy metal.

Sadly, this is where the limitations of the Early Access version cut the conversation short. If the game is to reward varied approaches, it makes sense that different cars will suit different players and moods. At the moment, there’s a European style car and an American style car. The latter is more prone to losing its grip, leaving everything in the vicinity broken and scarred, but until there are more options it will be difficult to gauge how a mixed field changes a race.

And then there are the tracks. They’re both fine but there’s little invention on show. Short and simple, they mix brief straights with deep curves and the occasional hump. There are no deviously placed bottlenecks or alternate routes, and the layouts and trackside elements could have been plucked from many a racing game past.

At the moment, Next Car Game is content light and, true to its name, lacks a distinct personality. But the handling, physics, and clever marriage of impressive vehicular brawling and tactical racing hold great promise for the future.

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34 Comments »

  1. Syphus says:

    After seeing the Nerd Cubed video of the tech demo I really want to play this.

  2. bit_crusherrr says:

    Why would you want alternate routes? It looks like Next Car Game is a more serious destruction racer. Having shortcuts and stuff would ruin it. I would like to see some crossover sections on the track though that might make for some good smashes.

    • Adam Smith says:

      That’s probably worded a little badly – I didn’t mean alternate routes as in large branching portions of track. Just some segments that offer a high road and low road for a brief moment, or a choice between two risks. Jump vs bottleneck and the like.

      • bit_crusherrr says:

        Ah right. I agree with you then.

        • PoulWrist says:

          They were in FO1 and 2, quite neat how you could do a bit of risk management depending on the qualities of your car.

        • Tinytacohead says:

          I was about to post exactly the same bit_crusherrr, and was equally happy to read Adam’s reply. Flatout2 was an absolute blast!! (could do without nitro IMO) I’m alllmost ready to pull the trigger on this, though haven’t quiite yet as I’m unsure if they’ll have enough racing courses to keep me happy. (they probably will/I’ll likely purchase shortly though, haha!)

      • ElRato says:

        A game like this screams for some figure 8 style tracks with the “intersection of doom” as well. I’m sure that will come at some point though, as they’re a staple of these sorts of races in real life. And I seriously hope they add busses at some point: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TO9qYVM1e0c (only in America, and possibly Top Gear UK do you see this kind of insanity)

  3. Hunchback says:

    Sounds good to me. I tend to like car games, but also horribly suck at them too, so it makes for an awkward playing experience.
    Maybe this type of “racing” will fit me better?

    • DatonKallandor says:

      I’m in sort of the same boat – the arcade racers don’t appeal because they’re just too simplistic, the realistic racers are too fiddly.
      A month ago I grabbed Flatout:Ultimate Carnage, which I understand is the “best” version of Flatout. And it’s awesome – one of the very few racing games that understands that AI is incredibly important.

      The AI in Flatout makes mistakes! It’s not perfect. It’s not rubberbanding (except, perhaps reverse-rubberbanding but I couldn’t confirm that – only suspect it). And almost every race is won by entirely different drivers – making racing series actually interesting and tense even if you happen to lose a race or place 2nd or 3rd in others.

      Then there’s the brilliant boost mechanics. It’s an anti-snowball mechanic at a time when that wasn’t a thing developers knew they needed – and it’s something even current racing games still don’t have. You get boost when you mess up! It’s brilliant – it means you don’t need to race perfectly. It means if you bump someone off, they get some boost to catch up.

      So the question I have for the people that bought Next Car Game:
      Does it have the brilliant boost mechanic (or an equivalent anti-snowball mechanic) FlatOut had?
      Does it have the well crafted fair and interesting AI FlatOut had?

      • LionsPhil says:

        Flatout:Ultimate Carnage, which I understand is the “best” version of Flatout

        Hell no. Get yourself the original two from GOG. The second is a bit more arcadey than the first, but I personaly highly rate them both. There’s no reason not to have both, since there’s no track overlap that I can remember, so it’s just more game.

        (I *suspect* AI drivers in FO2 rubberband a bit by gaining extra nitrous. This works brilliantly, if it’s doing what I think it is, since they’ll make daring boost overtakes of you—then crash out, unable to make the next corner, especially with that little nudge you gave them.)

        • DatonKallandor says:

          Wikipedia claims Ultimate Carnage is just Flatout2 with upgrades – is that not the case? What would make Flatout 2 vanilla worth getting if I’ve got UC?

          • LionsPhil says:

            Ah, I was thrown by “third game” on that article, and got it mixed up with FO3. UC did replace LAN play with GFWL, but it’s possible that that has no impact on you, in which case, probably not.

            I’d still look up Flatout 1, though. It’s a tougher beast (snow and ice tracks!), but good in the same ways.

      • Hunchback says:

        The MAJOR problem in racing games for me is, that 99% of them kinda REQUIRE you to be in the top 3 to “qualify”. I find this serious bullshit and stupid. That’s why i recently gave F1 2013 a try, knowing that you actualyl can finish like 15th and still be ok. It has awesome meta game, with the team, research, race seasons etc etc… However it’s probably THE most hardcore racer on the PC, which makes it waaaaay super hard for me :(

        I’ve been playing some Euro Truck Simulator 2 on and off, it’s not really a racer but there’s driving and it’s fun and different. But also fails to scratch the need for speed (sry, not my fault they called a game that). I know, it’s not meant to either :)

        I guess the best ever racer for me was Carmageddon and NFS5: Porsche Unleashed. No one has ever made such a game as those two, since they were made. Carmageddon for the sheer silliness, destruction, and fun, and NFS5 for the great meta game (playing through the ages, unlocking stuff for your porsches, etc) and great simulation/arcade mix. Or maybe i just missed them.

        • DatonKallandor says:

          That’s why Flatout is so great: It not only doesn’t require you to always place in the top 3 to win a series (though it doesn’t hurt), but it also gives out a ton of cash for fancy crashes. It happens frequently that you lose a series, but make a lot more money than if you had raced with less crashes and potentially won the series.

          • 3del says:

            Isn’t the whole point of playing racing games to finish 1st?

  4. Sp4rkR4t says:

    I found plenty of alternate routes with my more blasé approach to direction control.

  5. JonClaw says:

    This is the only Early Access game I’ve bought into, more so because Bugbear is behind it. I’m very anxious for this game’s full release.

  6. epmode says:

    Did you try the destruction tech demo? It’s ridiculously fun.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3SvRZpykS6s

    • The First Door says:

      Yes! That is a silly amount of fun, especially when you start playing around with the physics cannon. It seems odd not to mention it when discussion early access! Then again, it’s odd that it’s ring fenced from the Steam Early Access game and you can’t get to it (at least last time I played) from the main game!

  7. Zogtee says:

    My problems with it so far is that everything feels kinda soft and bouncy, rather than hard and heavy. Also, the fact that you take damage from everything and the floaty “I’m an ice-skating princess” controls.

    • LionsPhil says:

      As long as that’s because the suspension is working hard, that’s kind of Flatout’s home turf. FO1 is a constant fight for grip and making the correct velocity adjustment in the moments where wheels push against ground hard enough. (Then you get a snow and ice track and even that betrays you.)

    • DatonKallandor says:

      Do the cars have non-uniform weight? In other words, when you hit a jump, does the car just sail along like it was a block, or do certain parts of the car pull down harder than others?
      That was one of the parts of FlatOut that really showed they cared about their physics. Different cars had different weights in different locations. And almost all of them had the driver-side pull down faster than the other on long jumps, giving them a dangerous tradeoff – a hard to control landing.

  8. LionsPhil says:

    This sounds more Flatout 1 than Flatout 2, then?

    I look forward to going “aaaaa”, then “eeeee”, then “ohshiiiiearggghghfffffff” around corners when it’s done.

    Edit: Probably the most important question, though: is the Nitrous system back in? Because that was a brilliant balancing feedback-loop: the more you mess up and crash, the more boost you get. (Or the more risks you take to smash into stuff rather than just race the optimal line, the more boost you get.)

  9. PopeRatzo says:

    Wot I have Learned: An unfinished game is unfinished, and buying “early access” does not guarantee that you will get an actual complete game at some point down the road.

    TDOTY! (Tech Demo of the Year!)

  10. tomeoftom says:

    This is the first driving game I’ve been enthusiastic about in a long time. Also: why haven’t they paid you for and adopted the new title “Cargy-Bargy” yet?

  11. wodin says:

    The bugbear Flat Out games are my favourite Car Racing games. Just great fun and even I can win the odd race which is saying something as I’m useless at other more serious race games. The only Car game I’ve enjoyed more is DarkWind. So looking forward to seeing how this pans out.

  12. Mittens89 says:

    Im super excited for this! It sounds like they are doing this reboot (come on, you know its true) the right way by sticking to what they’re best at, close racing and great physics.

    Can’t wait to buy it. Id even exceed my usual gaming budget (generally dont buy anything over a tenner these days) to play this. Because im MENTAL.

  13. BLACKOUT-MK2 says:

    I managed to get the alpha and it’s a ton of fun. If you’re one of those people who complains about every racing game that has terrible car destruction, this one’s for you!

  14. Papageno says:

    I hope that this includes a rally racing mode like their wonderful game Rally Trophy from back in the day. Nothing like tearing around a dirt track in a Morris Mini pushing 70 MPH.

  15. snugglez says:

    All I can think about when I see this engine is how amazing a new interstate 76 would be with it.

    Racing is fun. Racing with guns is funerrer(er?).

  16. rickenbacker says:

    I have never spent as much time on a broken (really, really broken before the patches) game as I did with the first Flatout. And after a quick spin in NCG, I can come to only one conclusion: It’s back!

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