In post-apocalyptic America, all vehicles will have automatic transmissions.
A strange lead perhaps, but then this curious oversight by Asobo and Codemasters is a microcosm of FUEL’s larger flaws. Somewhere beneath 14,400 square kilometres of satellite images, Guinness World Record application forms and a thesaurus left open at the entry for “unprecedented”, the team behind FUEL has misplaced many of the fundamentals usually present in a racing game.
The premise for the game is this: In an alternate present ravaged by the effects of global warming, most Americans have retreated to new cities where they employ renewable energy and live sustainably. You, on the other hand, play a kind of Vin Diesel clone who tears up the vast swathes of a newly-abandoned American landscape in a variety of fossil fuel-guzzling muscle machines. Racing against like-minded petrolheads, you compete for an increasingly rare commodity: fuel.
There is no second place.
Simply put, FUEL is an admirably ambitious production that barely scrapes the grade. Much of it could be that the game doesn’t know what it wants to be. It’s an arcade racer, then a sandbox racer, then a career racer. It’s partly all of them and it’s not quite any of them. Along with accompanying literature that highlights the game’s environment over the game-play, its confused identity may lead you to conclude that FUEL’s racing elements are little more than an afterthought and a conduit to the free-roaming map.
Make no mistake, the environment is spectacular, vast and detailed. To give you some notion of its scale, urban Auckland is 1,086km2. Guinness World Records inductee FUEL scoffs at such paltry figures, weighing in at 14,400km2. The map’s 40 kilometre draw range underlines its sense of enormity. And yet, it is also unfathomably empty. At every turn the game will recommend you take a break from its numerous competitive aspects and go exploring. Unfortunately, there’s little motivation to do so aside from unlocking purely cosmetic costume upgrades, ticking off helicopter flight-paths and collecting “vistas”. There’s a certain cringe-inducing comic disconnect in the proposition that such Devil May Care gas junkies like to pull over and breathe in the very panoramas they’re apparently continuing to destroy, but there you have it.
The game features a dynamic weather system with effects that range from light showers to sandstorms and it makes for some of the few memorable moments in the game. Navigating your car through a wasteland in the process of being reshaped by a tornado is an experience in itself.
In order to navigate the world, FUEL arms players with a GPS system and breaks the map into sequential zones, each with a central camp. By and large the GPS operates smoothly but it doesn’t perform well under stress: Scorn its directions too often and it will stop trying to advise you. When you come crawling back the GPS will start directing you up non-negotiable mountainsides and into lakes. It’s the digital equivalent of sleeping on the sofa.
The camps host a series of career races and challenges, all plotted out around the locale and you’ll need to win each before you can move on to the next zone. The format has overtures of MMO progression and you’ll wonder what might have been if Asobo and Codemasters had only embraced this and created a genre-defining Massively Multiplayer Online Driving Game. Nonetheless, advancement through the game world is well paced.
But the bigger picture isn’t where FUEL swerves off the road—that happens down on the race track. The driving simulation is satisfactory but the putters and splutters from your engine will detract from the sense of speed. Each career race will ask you how confident you are: rookie, expert or legend. Choosing a higher difficulty will unlock the next zone quicker. Unfortunately, there’s no rhyme or reason to the difficulty setting: You may effortlessly clear half of the career races in any given camp on expert difficulty only to find yourself hopelessly outclassed in the next. The first challenge may see you holding down the accelerator while you disinterestedly flick through a magazine. The second will thoroughly acquaint you with the wearisome “Try harder...Or fail forever!” retry menu.
All races and challenges take place on FUEL’s gargantuan map, there are no invisible barriers limiting where you can drive. If you care to, you can abandon the race and careen off into the back of beyond until all the other racers have crossed the finish line. The GPS system will generally direct you along the quickest tracks and roads to the next checkpoint or finish line, and indeed it sends its own racers down the same paths it recommends to you. However, each race plays out more like a movie script than a video game. When the race begins, your driver will always be left in a cloud of dust on the starting line. Yes, always. As the game guides its racers at varying speeds and with inhuman precision along the suggested route, you’ll take more cross-country shortcuts than Dick Dastardly in Whacky Races. As a result, the game’s AI is hyper-elastic.
Elastic AI is something gamers have come to expect in racing games. If you’re racing in first place, the pack will often quietly close in on you both to add some suspense and to urge you on. If you’re trailing, the pack will imperceptibly slow down to offer you some glimmer of hope and a reason to try again. So does FUEL, but as your shortcuts either afford you ridiculous leads or cost you serious delays, the elasticity becomes much too apparent and will at once frustrate and disappoint you: Watch on in horror as your nigh-insurmountable lead is decimated in the closing moments of a race. Next, suspend belief as the helicopter you’ve been chasing at a constant 150 meters politely pulls up so that you can zip past to win the challenge.
You’ll try to take comfort in the fact that your off-road cheating is balanced by the computer’s mechanical cheating but at the end of the day - and with the possible exception of Trevor Chappell - players will find that their legal-but-unfair tactics sap a lot of satisfaction out of their victories.
These problems are a non-issue online where there are others to play Greg to your Trevor and to give the vast empty expanses a bit of life, but debilitating lag will see you pining for offline play in a way you’d previously thought unlikely.
Fuel, obviously, is the currency du jour. However, since it’s all or nothing for first place and as there’s no race entry fee (nor any cost attached to retrying after a failed run) it’s largely meaningless. In short order you’ll have much more fuel than you need. The only item available for purchase is new vehicles - and there are plenty - but don’t bother heading to the garage, your options for any race are limited and if there’s a particular vehicle permitted that you don’t already own, you can buy it moments before the starting gun. Aside from free paint jobs that go from gaudy leopard skin patterns to clichéd skirt flames, none of the vehicles can be modified.
The race editor is a nice touch. It allows you to plot out your own courses or tweak existing ones, and then compete on them against friends. However, race checkpoints can only be placed on tracks and roads via the satellite map, making them somewhat imprecise. You can try your race before sharing your creation with others but as the computer won’t join you it’s an empty experience that will give you little notion of your race’s strengths and weaknesses.
The prospect of a game in which finding the edge of the map is an achievement in itself may make some of you giddy. But FUEL isn’t an adventure-explorer, it’s a middling racer, and even the most hardened sandbox gaming fan will be disappointed by the small thanks they get for their explorative investment. Ultimately, you’ll be left pondering its untapped potential. A map of FUEL’s size and intricacy simply predisposes itself to the MMO genre. It’s an incredible achievement but wholly unnecessary in a limited-player racing game.
We can only hope that Asobo continue to develop it and don’t leave it to squalor in this ordinary title.