Fuel is a fantastic idea: an open world racing game that offers 14,000km2 of post-global warming wasteland in which to roam, race, explore and dominate. While it’s a best-selling concept on paper, though, myriad problems prevent Codemaster’s latest from ascending to the same heights as its many hills and mountains.
For a start, the much-vaunted 14,000km2 figure, which has been parroted in endless previews, is worth nought when such a large expanse of land has so little to fill it. The first zone, for instance, looks promising – your first camp is set on a beach beside what looks like some classic all-American forests – but, after a few minutes driving around, it’s clear that there’s little substance to match the undoubtedly positive first impression.
That’s because, while it is undoubtedly a great expanse of forest, there’s very little to actually do. Head back to your camp to choose races and you’ll find that this area, which surely must encompass at least a hundred square kilometres of Fuel‘s world, most likely more, offers three races and four challenges before the next zone is unlocked. And those three races are based around the same section of track, albeit slightly altered each time.
The second zone, a beach-themed affair, is little better. While the game may still boast of a great open-road adventure, much of the area is made of dull sand dunes. At one point I was informed that a Vista Point had been added to my map and was assured by the vacuous American narrator that it’s an area of outstanding natural beauty and that I should visit.
Cue 15 minutes of driving across repetitive, empty sand dunes, during which the only attraction was the addition of a few trees. When I got to the Vista Point, it turned out to be a huge inland sea stretching off to the horizon and a few hills to brighten my day. It was dull. And that’s par for Fuel‘s course.
Compare this empty, dull and vapid vehicular open world to the greatest open worlds the genre can offer: Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas may also have plenty of open land with little to do but, thanks to its keen sense of style and fantastic radio stations, driving around the countryside doesn’t feel like a chore.
Fallout 3, meanwhile, was pregnant with the promise of something interesting always lurking over the next nuclear hill. Burnout Paradise may not have the same size of world as Fuel – as the developers have always been keen to point out – but Paradise City was crammed with detail and exuded endless personality.
While Fuel‘s disappointing location may be all talk and no walk, it could be saved by some solid racing action but, unfortunately, that’s lacking too. Like MotorStorm, you’re given access to a roster of vehicles that stretches from bikes and buggies to larger cars and trucks – in fact, the selection is far wider than MotorStorm offers – but, unlike Sony’s exclusive racing series, none of these vehicles have their own discernible personalities.
The bikes, for instance, are merely a bit nippier and turn a bit quicker than the buggies which, by contrast, are slightly more manoeuvrable than the Mad Max-lite cars, which feel as if they’re sliding around on a sheet of glass, offering little connection with the surrounding environment. At least the buggies feel suitably bouncy, offering some of the sensation that you’re driving around on dirt, mud or tarmac.
Win a race and you’re given fuel – supposedly a rare commodity in this futuristic landscape, even if the story is barely referenced at all aside from the opening – to spend on more cars, vehicle liveries and clothing for your driver.
Upping the difficulty level lets you win more fuel, but the difficulty curve is far too skewed to provide a consistent challenge: our races on the first two levels were often won without taking fingers off the accelerator and by a wide margin from our nearest competitor. Tackling the hardest level, though, unleashed a torrent of perfect drivers who never make mistakes meaning that, to even have the slightest chance of victory, you’ll have to drive a flawless three laps.
The game also suggests that knowing when to reset your car to the track can make the difference between winning a race and coming last although, in practice, we found it distinctly one-sided: resetting after finding yourself in trouble simply throws you to the back of the pack, staring at the dust-clouds of your rivals as they streak off into the distance. Use one reset and your race is, effectively, over, as you’re punished too harshly for doing something that Fuel enthusiastically encourages.
Take on a jump, meanwhile, and your driver will perform a trick – although there’s no way to control what tricks he performs and no way to make any sort of gain from it. Ride near someone else when you’re on a bike or ATV and your driver will lash out at competitors although, again, there’s no incentive or reward to be gained from knocking someone off their bike. The minimap is also defective: too small to make any sense of, other drivers disappear into a mess of blobs and it’s difficult to locate anything in your immediate vicinity.
Fuel‘s open world can’t stand up on a graphical level, either. It’s not that ugly – some of the smaller vehicles look decent and the drivers are well-animated – but the world is devoid of detail, and anything that is included is often ugly and blocky. There’s the occasional token piece of traffic when you’re driving around, but this seems restricted to the same generic truck multiplied a couple of hundred times. When racing, Fuel‘s graphical deficiencies seem hidden behind an awful lot of motion blur.
The damage model isn’t very sophisticated, either: crash into a tree at 100mph and your car will bounce backwards, shrug its shoulders and go on without as much as a crash, and knocking into other cars sees them both bounce away without losing any speed or paintwork. Compare this to the supreme crumple zones of Race Driver: GRID or MotorStorm‘s endless mayhem and it’s clear that Fuel is lagging behind.
And, unlike MotorStorm, there’s no licensed soundtrack either. Instead, the same four or five identirock tracks grind around and around the world, soon becoming as tedious as the landscape you have to drive over. Thankfully, you can at least teleport to a different zone to save you from falling asleep as you drive to it manually.
While there is the germ of a fantastic game lurking here, Fuel is caught between some poorly-animated rocks and a barren, empty hard place. Its main open world driving rival, Burnout Paradise, doesn’t have the same sense of scale but is vastly better in every other area: the world itself, its graphics, the cars that inhabit it and how they drive.
Traditional racing games, meanwhile, consistently offer better driving experiences without resorting to open world gimmicks: both MotorStorm titles offer a similar Mad Max-style vision of future racing but are far more enjoyable, fair and competitive, and Fuel offers a similar level of quality, even if both these games don’t come with open worlds attached. Dozens of other racing titles, while not being off-road, are more enjoyable: GRID, Forza, PGR, Ridge Racer, and even the old PS2 versions of Gran Turismo and WRC are more satisfying and absorbing.
In short, then, while Fuel has a superb concept and idea, its poor, immature racing, lacklustre, empty world and consistent annoyances mean that it’s not worth bothering with unless you’re a die-hard racing fan.