Setting high standards with DiRT in 2007 and GRID in 2008, Codemasters has earned a reputation for producing top-tier racing games with four-letter titles. Developed by Asobo Studios, Fuel lets players loose across thousands of miles of terrain to compete in hundreds of events. Does this expansive racer live up to the publisher's pedigree, or is it running on fumes?
Fuel's claim to fame is its massive landscape, stretching over 5000 square miles from Mount Rainier to the Grand Canyon, in a future radically altered by climate change. The map is split into numerous regions called camps. You're free to roam as far as the road will take you, but to compete, you'll need to win races and earn stars to unlock new camps. Additionally, you need to find fuel, which serves as the game's currency, by winning races, completing challenges, or simply knocking over barrels in the countryside. Each race is restricted to a short list of eligible vehicles, so you'll need to keep the fuel flowing in order to purchase dozens of motorcycles, quad bikes, cars, and monster trucks.
Between races, you can free ride to search for challenges and collectibles hidden throughout the world. The problem is that the majority of that vast territory is open land with not much in it. You can drive for literally 15 to 20 minutes without finding anything of interest. When you do spot something, it may be five minutes away and up the side of a cliff. Getting there is never really worth it, when the reward amounts to a crude paint job or a disappointing vista. Relieving the chore to a degree are Doppler trucks that appear after races. If you hunt one down, it will reveal all the liveries, challenges, or vista points in a specific area, and there are also unlockable vehicles that pop up in similar fashion.
If the game's predesigned courses aren't enough, you can also try the bare bones create-a-race feature. You're limited to the game's existing roads, and there are no options to limit vehicle classes. There's also nothing preventing you from creating no-win scenarios. Still, there are thousands of miles of potential, and you can exploit the feature for quick transport to landmarks or collectibles.
Depending on the course, up to 16 players can compete online. Over 60 career races are available, but none of the challenge courses are included. You can also use your created courses, tweak settings, or simply free ride cross-country with friends.
With over 250 events and endless miles of terrain, Fuel sounds appealing on paper, but due to its monotonous world and flawed gameplay, it gets old quick.
The majority of Fuel's events embrace a no-boundaries philosophy. You can choose to follow your GPS or simply make your own road to the next checkpoint. The first problem is the GPS. Rather than directing you along a set course to the finish line, the so-called smart GPS constantly tries to calculate the best route from where you are. It will often send you the wrong way or erratically change directions, and in free ride, the device has no problem telling you to drive into a lake or up a cliff.
Fuel only counts first-place victories, making every moment count. Cutting corners can be risky, but it doesn't take long to figure out where it works to your advantage. Before you know it, you're ignoring much of the intended course altogether. The fundamental flaw is that you spend much of your time bearing straight ahead, and straight ahead is boring. As a result, races that take place on steep mountain roads or featuring vehicles with poor off-road performance end up being the most exciting.
In addition to checkpoint and lap-based races, Fuel tests you in speed runs, tasks you with ramming other drivers, and features some pretty lame attempts at extreme gameplay. The most conspicuous examples are the much-publicized tornado races. Sure, the tornados might toss a few trailers into your path, but even when you're just a few yards away from one, there's no adverse effect on your handling. The same goes for torrential rains or snow-covered slopes.
The chopper chases are also pathetic, where you have to outrun a helicopter in your much-slower vehicle on rough terrain. You have to follow the chopper to know where to go, but as soon as you see the finish line, the pilot slows to a crawl, letting you rush by. So much for its head start.
Not every course is a stinker. Some of the smaller, closed tracks allow for more back-and-forth between you and the AI drivers. But Fuel's long events, which invariably take place over uninspiring terrain, quickly become tiresome.
Fuel's massive landscape comes largely at the cost of visual appeal. The world is incredibly barren, with scarce signs of human life. Despite countless roads crossing the environment, we only encountered one inaccessible city, its ruins rising from the center of a lake. The lighting engine attempts to showcase extreme conditions with fiery sunrises and sunsets, but the game simply looks terrible unless it's midday. Other shoddy details abound. An unsightly overlay of grass and twigs is used to convey windy conditions, animal skeletons mysteriously rest atop snow banks, and cars don't show any damage modeling. The soundtrack doesn't fare much better, driven by guitar riffs that are as repetitive as the terrain.
Fuel may set records and feature tons of things to do, but very little of it is actually worth doing. While the scale of its world may be impressive on paper, this is one case where bigger isn't necessarily better.
Reviewed on Sony PlayStation 3