So far 2009 has been the year for open-world gaming. Whether you want to hop from rooftop to rooftop fighting crime (or causing it), or you want to destroy everything in sight, there is certainly something for you. Codemasters has quickly become known for their racing prowess. Titles like DiRT and GRID are among the best in their respective genres, so it was only a matter of time before the open-world genre was given a go. In comes FUEL, which continues the publisher’s love for capitalizing most of the letters in the game’s title, but also delivers the largest racing game, or even better yet, the largest game period, ever created. Over 5,000 square miles are at your disposal, and it even earned the developers a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records: Gamer’s Edition, but will it earn a place in your library?
FUEL is unapologetic in its goal to give you massive real estate to tread across. The game is broken down into a series of sections, all of which are bigger than most games alone. There are various camps where you can view your available races, events and customize your rider with new liveries and even equipment you earn as you progress. There is never a lack of anything to do in the game, and discovering each event would be more worthwhile if everything wasn’t accessible directly from the camp menu. Yes there is over 5,000 miles of area to explore, but outside of searching for sweet jumps and cans of FUEL (the game’s currency), there is very little reason to actually drive from point A to point B.
This takes some of the appeal away from the idea that the game is so massive. It almost feels like the developers were so interested in whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should. More questionable aspects are introduced such as the Doppler trucks scattered around the environments. They are used to display all the locations of various items, but most of them are found just by navigating through the main camp menu. This makes the entire world feel a bit boring at times, and outside of an Achievement/Trophy for traversing the a specific area of the landscape, there is little reason to drive around the massive world.
Each race event is much of what you would expect, but the downside comes from the fact that you are never sure what you are aiming for. You choose an event, race to the finish, and collect your star and FUEL. The FUEL is used to buy new vehicles, while the stars are used to open up new areas featuring more linear racing events. At first the appeal of the enormous world is appealing, but by the time you unlock the third or fourth section you begin to wonder what the point of all that open space was. It is also worth noting that you are required to come in first in order to earn anything. This is frustrating later on in the game when routes become more complicated, and the wish-wash AI tends to somehow pull ahead at the last second to steal an otherwise guaranteed victory.
Speaking of the AI in FUEL it will likely become the focus of most of your woes. In the beginning the computer-controlled racers will do boneheaded maneuvers such as trying to blast up the side of hills, while others will simply fall behind. When you begin race victories come easy, even on the higher difficulties. The further you get into the game, the more aggressive they become. Now on most occasions this would not be a fault, but when you can race a perfect line, and that second place guy still somehow manages to barrel past you in the final stretch (even without a nitrous option), it can be downright grating.
I know so far I sound very down on the title, but in all honesty I truly had a blast with what the game offers. It has been a long time since we had a solid off-road racer for the Xbox 360 (not so much PS3 as Pacific Rift is still alive and kicking), and FUEL does satisfy that need to barrel across barren plains and mountainside courses, without worrying too much about how you are taking the turns. The racing mechanics are par-for-the-course, which is both satisfactory, and a bit disappointing. Some of the vehicles handle splendidly, while others slide too much, or are poor when taken off-road.
FUEL does make up in some areas thanks to the expansive environment. A lot of the course you will trek across are genuinely more interesting then the bulk of the landscape. This further enforces the idea that the developers simply added in miles and miles of empty terrain just for a bullet point, but a lot of the circuits do provide a thrilling experience. This is complimented by the inclusion of some truly inclement weather effects that pop up from time to time. Violent thunderstorms and tornadoes are just a couple of examples, unfortunately they are mostly scripted events, so when you have to retry a race, which happens more often than you might like, you will quickly come to realize when a specific tree or power line will be dropping into your path, and how to avoid it with ease.
Outside of simply racing through the challenges and circuits FUEL does sport some other features that really help it stand out. For starters there is a race creation tool that allows you to create your own paths in the environment. These can be taken online and raced with other players, which adds to the already massive list of tracks available, but it can also be convoluted thanks to the editor and the placement of checkpoints. Speaking of online, this is where FUEL really has a chance to shine if patches and a community are commonplace. Jumping into a match is easy, but the lag sometimes can be atrocious. The other main concern is that after every match it dumps you back out, without being able to continue playing with the same players. The options online though are plentiful, and with a few tweaks here and there this could quickly become my online racing game of choice for quite some time.
Visually the game looks great considering the scope of the environment. You will visit snow-capped mountains, lush beaches, and even fallen landmarks that serve as obstacles in specific races. There is a bit of pop-up here and there, and the initial loading times can be annoying, but the amount of detail squeezed into this massive world is hard to ignore. The vehicles look decent enough, but with an off-road game that requires aggressive racing damage is almost always a must. The lack of damage in the car models is hugely disappointing, especially considering how great they have been in past Codemasters games such as GRID. The only other complaint visually is the day/night cycle the game forces on you in free-roam mode. It literally switches between slightly visible, to near pitch black in a matter of seconds, completely destroying your immersion. It is also a pain to try and navigate the area at night.
FUEL has a ton of potential, and moments of brilliance stashed under its rough exterior. The problems are hard to ignore though, and unless you have a ton of time to dedicate to it, the races will likely grow boring long before you uncover half of this massive world. However, if you are starved for a good off-road racer, then there is certainly no reason not to take it for a spin. The driving mechanics are solid, if not a bit floaty, and the amount to see and do will keep you busy for months. The graphics are entirely solid and the online has the potential to be incredibly addictive if they continue to support it with patches. FUEL is certainly not a bad game; it just suffers from being too big for its own britches.