It took me 30 minutes solid driving at 120mph to get from Fuel’s first camp to the second. There’s 19 such camps. Oh my.
At 14,000km2, Fuel is undeniably huge. It makes the recent ArmA II’s 225km2 seem paltry in comparison, and flattens Fallout 3’s wasteland under the wheels of very large trucks. It really cannot be overstated just how huge the environment is. It covers everything from vast mountain ranges, to gloriously pretty forests, to windswept highways running through the desert. The sheer variety of terrain never feels contrived either; you wont jump off a desert straight into a forest, but move through transitional zones where two environments merge, brought to a spectacular height with the mountain areas, which are staggeringly huge, and for once actually fell like mountains rather than just hills labeled as such in pretty much any game I care to name. The result is a startlingly real looking landscape, set to the theme of global warming driven weather chaos. One thing that disappoints me about so many “open world” games is the terrible claustrophobia they encourage; Fallout 3‘s wasteland, for example was, for all its strengths really quite condensed. With enemies under every rock, it often felt almost too alive for a game set after the end of the world. Fuel, on the other hand, takes the opposite approach, and is consequently a genuinely refreshing and realistic take on the ye olde wasteland of gaming yore. You can go for miles just seeing pure terrain, without being hindered by anything asking you to bat it over the head. When you bear this in mind, as Fuel’s primary draw and main strength, it can be quite love-hate. You’ll either admire the staggering beauty of its map, or just find yourself bored by the lack of things actually going on around it. There is more to Fuel than its map, but other aspects all come back to exploiting it.
It’s quite ironic on that come global-apocalypse by global warming, the stubborn gits who stayed in afflicted areas were probably the ones who caused it in the first place in Fuel’s alternative (or future?) Earth. They’ve decided to celebrate the depopulation of vast swathes of America by racing around it in those very harbingers of doom, and burning plenty of fuel in the process. There’s a wide variety of race types including small scale quad-bike circuits, or vast “raids” which take you speeding off across the landscape into the horizon in muscle cars or monster trucks. They’re only superficially varied however. They essentially revolve around getting from A to B either against the clock, AI, or online opponents, and not a lot else. The situation is further hampered by the dim-witted and moribund AI which seems incapable of embracing the open world, off road philosophy that most races are really about, and his rendered a little dull by a shallow driving model. There’s no adequate steering wheel support; no simulation of gears; hell, sometimes you can go whole races without braking at all. You really do have to ramp it up to the hardest setting to really find any sort of challenge in Fuel. Even then, difficulty seems to be gauged towards forcing you to get a better car to progress. There are other niggling inconsistencies. In one race, I was repeatedly robbed of winning by one bush whose physical properties were wildly disproportionate to its appearance, stopping me in my tracks like a concrete wall rather than the thin burned out husk it looked like.
Winning “Career” races unlocks new vehicles, apparel for your character, and “Doppler Trucks” which enable you to have vista points, vehicle livery and “Challenge” races (which give you fuel, to buy new vehicles) marked on your map, as opposed to finding them yourself. Importantly, while you can drive to any region in Fuel’s vast game world, until you’ve gained enough stars earned by completing the aforementioned Career races, you can’t fast travel or race there. These rewards are quite slim, but the intent is quite clearly orientated to using Fuel’s primary strength; the huge game world. This is fundamentally important to finding the strengths in Fuel and seeing where the fun is to be had. Upon first loading Fuel up, I was really quite disappointed. It throws you in a rather dull environment, with an equally dull race. Playing more of it however, it starts throwing you more opportunities to get on the road and just travel. The anecdote I opened this review with was spurned on by an achievement requiring you to drive from the first camp to the second; and I’m genuinely glad I did, because without it you can’t really appreciate the vast scale Fuel has to offer. The more you play, the more involved the new zones become. The second is based around a beached oil tanker, while later ones take you to a half buried city in the desert. Bit by bit, Fuel becomes braver, and starts really using the environment as it should, and this is also (thankfully) embraced to improve the races.
It’s all about the tornadoes. When they kick up a (regrettably scripted) fuss in races, the environment is torn about in spectacular fashion, bringing down pylons crashing down in front of you, or caravans smashing across the road. The moment you glimpse a rickety looking barn up ahead of you, knowing exactly what’s going to happen is particularly spectacular. Especially when it flings a rusty old truck towards you to boot as its fragile structure is ripped up into the atmosphere. This is when Fuel is at its best: When it’s being big, and bold about using its environment and setting. It doesn’t do enough of this unfortunately, and I can’t but help it holds back too much, filling in these spectacular races with a lot of poorer ones, especially early on. The “challenge” races suffer particularly from this, and they seem to be a bit of a chore at times to progress in gaining fuel. I’d be lying though however if I said I didn’t enjoy many of the career races, for the simple reason that they’re stupidly brilliant to look at. I don’t think I’ve hammered my screen shot key in any game more than Fuel. It lines up stunning images over and over again. I’m sure some of the races were planned out specifically to bring out the best of the engine; whether it be the way sun inks through a misty forest in evening, or illuminating the sky dramatically with flashes of lighting in the distance. I would say one of my major irritations with the game is the lack of functioning anti-aliasing though. If they implemented it correctly, I could say without a doubt that Fuel is the most beautiful game out there. As it is, it can look a little ugly at the wrong moment. I’m looking at my notes, with “UGLY, UGLY, UGLY” written at the top, presumably when I was presented with the disgracefully crap, jagged starting area. Thankfully, once you’re in motion and in more interesting areas it’s a lot less noticeable, but it is a definite detraction from an otherwise stunning looking game. Just sort that AA Asobo!
I think really, it’s quite clear Fuel isn’t about the cars; it’s what’s going on outside them. The vehicles themselves are generally a mixed bag of entirely made up bikes, trucks and muscle cars, each with different stats for different races. It’s not particularly deep on any level. It’s perhaps telling that over half of the races are off road, using bikes, quad bikes or buggies, with the challenge coming in the form of navigation as opposed to driving skill. Fuel isn’t really interested in complex damage modeling or physics. It’s not really trying to compete on that level with other racers, though I can understand that petrol heads out there will be disappointed that it doesn’t deliver on these levels. But it is genuinely good at forcing you to think on your feet in getting about; time limits or other drivers are really just there to keep up the pace. Speaking of other drivers, it’s probably worth noting the online component is a little weak; or rather, there’s not many people on it really. It operates based on allowing you to play on the main map with other players, but really, you don’t see many about. There are functions for allowing you to set up races, but being based on Games For Windows Live, it’s a frustrating and obscure system. I’ve yet to connect using “Quick Race” once. So online really is a muted experience. If I have any better experiences I’ll update the review accordingly, but so far it’s a bit of a bleak picture.
Fuel is perhaps the equivalent of buying a Jag and only taking it out the garage to drive around the countryside every so often. It’s a genuine pleasure to just hit the road and pick a spot on the map to drive to. I have a feeling there’s actually places on this map that no-one will ever visit. It’s just that huge. I would absolutely love Asobo to take the engine they’ve created further: I’d definitely welcome a potential Fuel 2 which gave it some much needed depth to the grander scale of the game, rather than a list of races to work through. If you’re looking for an open world version of DiRT, this is not the game you’re looking for. You’ll be disappointed, and probably clamour for a refund, so the simple advice is simply to just not bother. But if you’re the kind who can appreciate that sometimes, graphics can be game play, then Fuel is actually quite unique and worthwhile purchase. It’s got a sense of environmental scale simply unparalleled out there. It gets a lot of racing game basics wrong, and that can’t be ignored. But I have, for all the niggling flaws enjoyed Fuel so far, and I look forward to playing more,
Excuse me while I hit the highway ogling the horizon.
It’s a hit.
But read up on it carefully to see if it’s really what you’re looking for.
Quick Techie Bit
I’m running on a Phenom II 945 at stock speeds (3ghz), with 4gb of DDR2 RAM, a Radeon 4870 512mb edition on Windows 7. Performance is generally excellent, with occasional dips to the 20fps level when things get hectic in some of the more effects heavy races. No crashes at all. Anti-Aliasing does not work for anyone at the moment.