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 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.