Reviewed: July 7, 2009
Released: June 2, 2009
Codemasters is responsible for one of my all-time favorite racing games, Dirt, and I am understandable excited for the sequel that is about to arrive, but meanwhile, to keep my racing skills honed, I thought I would tackle another racing game from Codemasters. The name Fuel had visions of funny cars or top-fuel dragsters dancing through my head. I had no idea Codemasters was branching out into off-road racing, but with the Dirt franchise covering Rally racing and Grid covering track and street racing, why not take racing off-road and into a world without boundaries.
Created by Asobo Studio, Fuel combines off-road racing with a massive free-roaming, open-world environment unparalleled in gaming history. With more than 5000 square miles to explore and hundreds of unlockable challenges, events, vistas, and other secrets to discover, Fuel might just be the most ambitious game ever released on the Xbox 360, at least in scale and content, but is the gameplay enough to keep you playing long enough to discover everything Fuel has to offer?
Until Fuel came along I had been getting my off-road jollies from games like Pure and MotorStorm. Fuel offers a much more open and non-linear world for you to not only to race in, but also to form your own career and explore between races. A tutorial offers a nice introduction to the massive map and how to navigate it. You are free to drive to the starting points of career racing events or simply select them from a menu for instant transport via chopper. Other locations like challenges and spawn locations (vista points) must be discovered while driving around the world. Once they appear on the map you can access them directly.
But bigger is not always better. One of my biggest complaints about the Grand Theft Auto games was how long it took to get anywhere so you could actually “play the game”. In GTA4 they added the taxi feature so you could instantly jump to the action. Fuel is not only larger than GTA4, there are no taxis, forcing you to drive upwards of 10-15 minutes to get to some specific point of interest. There were times when my desired waypoint was clear on the other side of a massive lake and I just told myself I would “do that one later”.
Fuel quickly turns into a game of convenience rather than discovery as you start to pick and choose what is nearby, and in some ways the game is probably designed on that premise, as your area of discovery will slowly creep and expand, but some races are massively long and will leave you deep in undiscovered territory. Navigating the map can be troublesome since the details vary by the level of zoom and by the time you zoom in enough to see the detail you no longer know where you are. Thankfully, a GPS system allows you to lock in destinations and offers a navigation line on the HUD, but if you set your waypoint while zoomed out you can easily miss your mark by miles.
Each race offers three challenge settings, offering a certain amount of Fuel as your reward. Fuel is the currency used to unlock new cars and purchase various upgrades. Being an experience racer I skipped the easy setting and dove right into the middle where I found some rather predictable and totally obvious opponent AI in place. Rather than any real-time rubber-banding the entire pack will desert you at the starting line leaving you to follow the dust cloud of the guy in next-to-last place. Sometimes you can make it to the middle of the pack, but almost assuredly, no matter what your place, as the race is about to conclude everybody seems to blow their engine, run out of gas, or merely let off the accelerator and you go flying by to win the race. It’s not only predictable…it’s guaranteed.
It didn’t take long before I became bored with “always winning” so I stepped it up to the hardest skill setting. Now things took a turn in the opposite direction. No longer were the opponents racing off at unrealistic speeds only to let me win in the final moments, they never let up and they totally devastated me. Even in races where I drove the perfect route and inflicted minimal damage on my ride, I could never catch up and I was losing by several seconds. The best I could ever place was third, whereas on the previous skill level I was always coming in first place with huge gap times. So Fuel has obvious balance issues with racing AI across the various skill modes.
Perhaps my biggest concern with the actual racing events is that you either come in first or you replay the race. There are no prizes for second or third place finishes. You are either a winner or a loser. Knowing this, it become second nature to simply restart a race if you find yourself in an impossible situation, but for some reason you will have to endure some of the longest restart times in racing game history. I can understand the painfully long load times prior to the race, given the scope and scale of the landscape, but if I am simply restarting a race that is already loaded, I shouldn’t have to wait 27-44 seconds for a second chance.
The challenges are pretty fun and some even get original like racing a chopper to the finish line. Sure, we all know that no car or bike is going to beat a chopper in real life, but Fuel makes it fun to try, and finding that perfect route through complicated terrain will reward you with a win. Other modes like Speed Run, Endurance, Blitz, Raid, and Seek and Destroy offer their own unique styles of play and rewards for winning.
But racing games are only as good as their controls and physics and I have issues with both. First, regardless of the vehicle you are driving; buggy, truck, ATV, or bike, you will find yourself skating across the landscape. At first I thought this was a visual perception since there is nothing graphically digging you into the dirt, but you are actually slipping and sliding around the dirt, grass, mud, and sand and it all reacts the same…like ice. And no, you aren’t drifting…you are sliding…usually out of control and into a tree or off a ledge or into the lake.
Damage plays an important part in Fuel, and while I respect a system that punishes me for hitting a tree or smashing into an opponent, I am not a fan when that same system pounds away at my vehicle when I am simply bouncing over rough terrain. Even catching some mild air off a small hill in a buggy with bouncy shocks I can see my damage indicator slowly creeping into the red zone, and the game becomes more about finding the smoothest racing line rather than the quickest. These vehicles are designed to take a pounding but Fuel treats my buggy like a fragile Ferrari.
It wouldn’t be so bad but the more damage you take the more your vision starts to close in on you. The sides of the screen get darker and start to blur, much like the way in which you take damage in Call of Duty. By the end of some races my damage was pegged in the red and it was like I was playing through squinted, bloodshot eyes while wearing sunglasses.
Since it is nearly impossible to not take any damage during a race you will always have some visually impairing special effect filtering your racing experience. To compound matters, most races take place at sunrise or sunset so there is always this orange or red tint to the graphics with long dark shadows. And between the blur effect from speed and damage, you never really get to appreciate the landscapes unless you are free roaming. At least you have a few camera options when it comes to racing.
As with any massive game with relatively flat terrain, there is substantial pop-up and a visible line of detail a few feet ahead of your car where things go from sharp to blurry. The sensation of speed is lacking and you never feel you are going as fast as you really are. The car models look good and have reasonable physics and respond to the terrain but there is no real-time damage or broken body parts. You vehicle will just start to smoke when it takes too much damage.
There is a decent soundtrack included with the game or you can use your own music. The sound effects are uninspired when compared to other off-road racing games or any games with cars for that matter. There isn’t a wide range of engine noises and the whine of your engine doesn’t necessarily match your speed, and we all know that tires do NOT squeal on dirt so why are they so annoying in this game?
Fuel isn’t a terrible game but it doesn’t come close to the greatness of titles like Grid and Dirt. I think a lot of it has to do with the sheer scale of the game. While I appreciate the desire to make an open-world game, I don’t think we need that type of gimmick in a racing title. Apparently the designers agree since you can access the “meat” of the game through a conventional menu system, leaving only the unlockable fluff as your incentive for actually exploring the massive world laid out before you.
Open-world racing might have worked in Test Drive but only because there were hundreds of other real-life drivers all occupying that massive world that you could instantly challenge to a race. Fuel attempts this with online support for up to 16 racers in free ride or specific race events but it doesn't come close, even with the ability to use the built-in tools to lay out your own waypoints and create your own custom race challenges.
I suppose there is some fun to be had playing Fuel but it just wasn’t for me. The AI was dumb and the skill settings were rigged so you easily win or painfully lose. The physics were completely unrealistic like hitting a fallen burning tree and launching my bike 60-feet into the air. The controls were twitchy in the chase views but a bit more realistic in the cockpit view.
Most people will probably wade through the list of career races and challenges but only the most dedicated (or bored) gamers will ever have the desire to fully explore this enormous game world to unlock the secrets it contains. If you are looking for a racing game to get you in the mood for Dirt 2, I recommend going back and playing the original Dirt. That’s where I’m headed.