EA's Burnout series has always dominated the over-the-top, smash'em just as much as race'em, arcade racer market. They've had it sewn up. The Flatout series, good as it is, has always played second fiddle to EA's offerring. With the last Burnout game on PSP released over a year ago and the newest Burnout quite a different beast to previous games in the series, the time is right for Flatout to have another crack at the crown - this time with its first incarnation on PSP.
Flatout is all about intense arcade action in a car. All sorts of race types are on offer, as well as kickass events like Destruction Derbies. Further than that, even, Flatout leverages both its extreme arcade bent and the killer ragdoll system to implement a number of minigames, such as bowling (eject your driver through the windscreen to take down the pins), an event where the goal is to splat your driver as high up a wall as you can and even a game where the goal is to skip your driver along the surface of a swimming pool as many times as possible.
The tracks are numerous, their layouts very good and the sheer amount of random track scenery that you can smash into, through and over is truly very impressive. If you've played one of the recent console Flatout games (particularly on a next-gen system), have no fear - the PSP sibling of those games seems to be able to crank out just about as much of the physics-enabled debris, without any slow down or ill effects of any kind. The game engine driving this thing is truly impressive, a top-flight demonstration of the PSP's capabilities stretched to the max. There’s lots of detail in the terrain, with lots of good looking environments tearing past your car at all times.
The controls, however, are the first place where Flatout Head On starts to lose its sheen. They're not very good, much like other Flatout games, in many regards and in no way helped by the PSP's lack of any real (usable) analogue controller. Even the analogue nub, as uncomfortable as it is to use, is implemented poorly. Much of this control weakness comes from an over-implementation of that classic racing game flaw of giving the player crap cars with crap controls at the beginning of the game; things get better (but never excellent) if you're prepared to grit your teeth to get through it. The net effect of these over-touchy controls is that you never really feel in control - you're a passenger, which is an excellent analogy as it feels like you're literally driving the cars from the back seat.
The race tracks, whilst excellent in general track layout, are another major problem for Flatout: Head On. There are FAR too many objects placed at right angles to the track direction, resulting in FAR too many dead-stops when driving around. This by itself would be only a minor flaw, if not for the fact that resetting takes too long and gives you far too large a position penalty. Combine that with the previously mentioned poor controls and all of a sudden you have a perfect storm of game design decisions that completely destroy the experience.
Flatout: Head On, at the end of the day, is a frustrating experience. What makes it frustrating is partly the poor game design decisions that impact your ability to enjoy the game but mostly the frustration that comes from the fact that the rest of the game is so damn awesome. If it wasn't for these (extremely poor) design choices, this would easily give Burnout a run for its money - no mean feat, given just how awesome the Burnout series is.
If you're really keen on minigames and destruction derby, it's probably still worth checking this out. The controls affect those games a little bit but it's no where near as soul destroying as when trying to win a race. Technically the title is extremely impressive too, so if you're looking for a title to sell PSPs to your friends, this might do it. The only other reason to recommend this title is for those of you out there with classic "phatty" PSPs, who are looking for a reason to buy a new slim PSP: when your existing PSP stops working because you threw it at a wall while playing Flatout, you'll have your reason. Just don't play it anymore after that.