Developer: Asobo Studio
Publisher: Codemasters
Release Date: Out Now
Players: 1, 2-16 multiplayer
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FUEL is the latest in the line of Codemasters' hip revamps of existing racing franchises and slots neatly between GRID and DIRT. Looking like a cross between Motorstorm, Burnout Paradise and Smuggler's Run FUEL has great potential but can it live up to its bold promises?

The world in FUEL is intended to be completely open and Asobo have created 5,000 square miles of American countryside for you to run around in. This terrain varies greatly, from dusty dirt tracks and sandy beaches to tree-lined mountain trails and rolling fields and even an abandoned city. The explanation as to why the area is almost completely deserted is weaker than the plot in a Jason Statham film: in a post-apocalyptic future people race across the rugged landscape in order to earn Fuel, which is now the only currency. It's best to ignore the fact that you burn a lot of fuel racing 20 miles across mountain ranges and are brought in by helicopter for the start of the race.

The graphics are impressive at first sight but come with many caveats. The lighting effects seen through a sped-up day/night cycle are truly amazing and really bring the environment to life with deep reds at sunset and dazzling glare at midday. The weather effects (including a tornado) are also quite spectacular at times, but don’t figure in the game as much as the pre-release videos suggested. Some areas which have rarely-used tracks are packed with detail which overwhelms you as you rush past in whatever vehicle you've chosen for a free ride. However it really is only impressive if you speed past; slow down and the textures look a lot rougher and the pop-in is more noticeable. With 5,000sqm you'd expect there to be filler and sadly a lot of the environment feels like this - a lot of the landscape is bland and plain with nothing of interest worth slogging for ten minutes to drive to.

However with the environment as the starting point of freedom the game starts to buckle under its own weight and instead of providing a truly free experience it reins the player in a lot more than I'd like. Races and challenges are littered across the landscape but given the size it's completely impractical to drive to each of them, so the easiest way is to scroll through them in the menus. The only real incentive to explore the landscape yourself is to unlock new challenges and paint jobs for the cars. New coloured cars didn't interest me and as soon as you get within a few miles of a challenge it appears on the menu, so you don't even have to find it.

This is completely different to other open-world racers such as Burnout Paradise and Test Drive Unlimited (a personal favourite), the difference being that both games were crammed full of things to do and exploration was rewarded with a new race or challenge, which is not the case here - most are already given to you and there is little else to do in FUEL.

The races were quite different from what I was expecting, especially given the massive environment and wide range of vehicles available - from bikes and quads to buggies and monster trucks. Races are always A to B or laps, the only variation being the number of opponents that you go up against. The courses laid out feel exactly like that - courses. Races feel like you're constantly being herded down narrow paths and through strict checkpoints, which is brought to your attention when there are massive crash barriers with chevrons pointing the way in the middle of a field. Very little of the racing is done off-road and the races are centred around jumping between the tarmac or dirt roads littered across the landscape. This negates the point of rendering 5,000sqm of land if you're hemmed in to 3 miles of it and the massive world simply feels like a nice background that you can't often use for shortcutting, and don’t really need to explore.

Unlike Motorstorm there are no alternative routes that can be taken, although sometimes the route will split in two for a few metres or so. Deviating from the path is also penalised, despite it being what I thought would have been the main focus of the game, by clever placement of massive trenches, wooded areas or long grass which slow your vehicle down like you've driven into a field of treacle. These problems are slightly mitigated by the inclusion of a race generator but not much - it's an effort to use and I shouldn't have to make my own races because the developers did a poor job themselves! This is an arcade game which I want to jump in and out of, not spend hours designing my own tracks.

Despite the wealth of vehicles available for the various classes the game for some reason greatly restricts what you can actually choose for a race. Not only are races restricted by class, so bikes can't race with cars or trucks, but also the game tries to tell you what vehicle to take based on the terrain, restricting your choices to only one car at most points, even though you might already own five or six others in the same class. The game will basically behave like this: “if you want to compete in this race you have to buy this vehicle, if you don’t like the look of it, or think you already have one that’d do then tough!” This is the worst type of restriction as it feels almost arbitrary, as if the developers don't want you to have your own fun. Surely if you do not have any real choice in which vehicles you use this makes the main premise of the game (trading FUEL won in races or found during exploration for new vehicles) redundant?

The races themselves are hit and miss. The handling feels right for some classes and the buggies slide around loosely like they should in an arcade game. However the bikes are unnaturally rigid they don’t “feel” like bikes like the ones in say, GTA IV do, there’s no weight shifting and the handling all feels a bit primitive and simplistic. The larger vehicles handle as they should: they take forever to get up to top speed and corner very badly. However with no open racing I see no point for them as they are no fun and really only serve to crank up the difficulty unnaturally. The courses also seem badly designed for each vehicle: trucks are forced through narrow orchards where bikes would be more appropriate and bikes are forced into a 20 mile endurance run along boring highway roads.

Where jostling with the pack is an essential in most racing games, particularly the Burnout and Motorstorm series, it is almost non-existent in FUEL. The AI racers are mindless drones, sometimes slamming into trees or getting stuck on hills, but are generally about as much competition as the clock on the time trials, i.e. not much. The difficulty is that in races you only are awarded for coming first, so anything less is failure. This perfectionism isn't bad in itself but becomes annoying when you run an endurance race for 20 minutes in first place only to spin or hit something near the end. The reset function is very strict and always shunts you to the back of the pack again, meaning most of the time you'll be restarting races rather than finishing them.

FUEL is a game which starts off with such promise but never delivers on that promise - an open world, sandbox driving experience. Although the massive environment is impressive it is lacking in detail and more importantly anything to do. The races are far more restrictive than they should be and although I found enjoyment in a few races more than often they felt like a chore, slogging through to hopefully unlock a bike that doesn't handle like Mad Max-style criminals have shot the rubber from the tyres. If you want a great open world racer then I would recommend Burnout Paradise and Test Drive: Unlimited a hundred times over this, but fans of off-road racing will have to wait a little longer for the 360's alternative to the Motorstorm franchise. Fingers crossed Rockstar will pick up the brilliantly underrated Smuggler's Run series and update it...

Best Bits

- Massive environment - 5,000 square miles!
- Impressive lighting effects and draw distances.
- Lots of vehicles - ATVS and bikes to trucks.
Worst Bits

- Boring - 5,000sqm with nothing to do in it.
- Very restricted racing.
- Poor AI.
- Iffy handling.

by: Crazypunk

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