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Available on  gplay  » Getahead » Gaming review: Fuel gets your pulse racing

Gaming review: Fuel gets your pulse racing

Last updated on: July 29, 2009 

Image: Fuel is an open-world racing game that plays out over a landscape the size of a small country
Photographs: Courtesy: Codemasters Sameer Desai, Editor,

Fuel was first revealed as an Xbox 360 tech demo, then titled Grand Raid Offroad, way back in 2005. It is said to have been in development long before that, but never came to fruition as Asobo Studio's grand vision was too much for the limited hardware capabilities of the previous-gen consoles. But with hardware to match and a publisher with a strong racing pedigree to back it up, one of the most ambitious racing games in recent memory is finally here.

In case you haven't been following the events in the lead-up to the release of Fuel, it was recently inducted into the Guinness World Records as the biggest console game ever. Fuel is an open-world racing game that plays out over a landscape the size of a small country. It's as big as Trinidad and Tobago and bigger than Hong Kong and Singapore combined; and it's all there for you to drive on. But the only way you will ever really be able to understand its massive scale is to get behind the wheel and just drive.

The entire area is broken up into 20-25 fragments, and only one of them is open to you at the start. As you complete career races, you unlock more areas, and only once you've actually driven through these different areas will you start to really appreciate the work Asobo have put into creating these environments, because they aren't just bland deserts from end to end, though you will encounter some arid areas, but there's lots of varied vegetation, and a healthy mix of asphalt and off-road terrain for you to explore.

The controls are less than ideal

Image: The most publicised of the game's extreme weather conditions are the tornadoes

Fuel is set in an alternate present, where Earth has been ravaged by climate change, and the effects are seen in the different areas that constitute the game world. While on one hand, you'll find lush rain forests and deserts comprised mostly of small shrubs, which might seem ordinary to us, at the other end of the spectrum, you'll come across massive forests destroyed by forest fires with ash and burning timber everywhere. One area has been left overrun with sand and shipwrecks in the middle of nowhere from the effects of a tsunami. The most publicised of the game's extreme weather conditions are the tornadoes. In some areas, you will often see two to three tornadoes on screen at a time and it's quite a sight, but I'll get to their effect on gameplay a little later.

Even when you aren't in the middle of one of these areas destroyed by nature's fury, you're always reminded that not all is well. There is always lightning in the sky and stormy winds kicking up dirt and dust. There are trucks, cars and other wreckage abandoned on the highways, acting as obstacles during races but also to further the deserted feel that the game tries to accomplish.

Coming to gameplay, Fuel's vehicle selection is very similar to that of the MotorStorm games; you have bikes, quads, buggies, muscle cars, SUVs, and trucks to choose from, but each race will only let you choose from one or two of these vehicle classes assigned to it. There was always the fear that with so much emphasis on the massive environments and weather effects, the vehicle controls would get overlooked, and just that has happened.

Vehicles handle quite erratically and even after hours into the game, you never really feel in control. The handbrake turn, which would otherwise be a godsend in an offroad racing game, is best left unused because it will never quite work like you expect it to, and when it does, it slows you down so much that you'd rather just use the standard brake. But while the controls are less than ideal, they aren't broken, so over time, should you have the patience to stick with the game, it will grow on you and you will even start to enjoy yourself.

Not helping matters though is the atrocious camera angle. There is only one camera angle ie the chase cam, which most people would choose by default in any case, but here, the camera feels too low and in the process makes it difficult to see nearby obstacles and also to judge how close you are to the car in front. While you can use the right stick to temporarily move the camera up, down and sideways, it moves back to its default position the moment you let go. The camera also suddenly changes angle when another car is right behind you, and it's extremely disconcerting during a long, tense race.

The AI seems pretty oblivious to your presence

Image: You only win fuel if you finish first

There are three difficulty levels and you can choose the difficulty before each individual race. The difficulty level affects the challenge the AI poses as well as the rewards in the form of fuel (which lets you buy new vehicles) you will earn if you win. Strangely, you only win fuel if you finish first, and there's no reward for finishing second or third. This can feel especially cruel after long races, where you could've missed first place by just a few tenths of a second.

To give you a chance to get to that coveted first place, the game employs a catch-up system whereby the AI will slow down to let you catch up to it and make a race out of it. But the implementation of it is a lot less subtle than you would hope for.

I was nearing the end of an endurance race in first place when I crashed. The second place car absolutely screamed past me at top speed and just when it looked like I had lost, it instantly slowed down to a crawl, allowing me to slowly get up to speed, catch up to it, overtake it, and get the win. This was on medium difficulty and though I needed the fuel I won from that race, the blatant hand-holding did hurt my ego. The AI also seems pretty oblivious to your presence on the track. They'll jostle for position among themselves, but let you pass without a fight.

The GPS system works quite well

Image: You could potentially complete the entire career without once entering free-roam

Now, you might feel that being an open-world racer and with the freedom to chart your own course to the finish line/next checkpoint, you could simply succeed by scampering from A to B in a straight line. But in reality, that's the fastest way to go from first to last. Even in an off-road race with a vehicle suited to that surface, there are parts of the terrain that are ideal to drive on and others that will slow you down.

In off-road areas, there are often narrow paths with less vegetation where your vehicles can travel a lot faster as opposed areas with tall grass, bushes and shrubs. Guiding you towards and through paths most conducive to racing is a GPS system that displays arrows at the top of your screen showing you what it deems to be the quickest way to the next checkpoint.

While the GPS system may not always show you the fastest way to your objective, it is the safest, and for most part, works quite well during races. The inadequacies of the GPS system are however exposed in free-roam mode. You can place a waypoint anywhere on the map and the GPS system is supposed to guide you there, but very often it takes the longest route and usually sticks to the highways, even with much shorter off-road alternatives at hand. I've also had the GPS system direct me into a suicidal dive straight into a lake several times.

But in a massive open world such as this, something is better than nothing, and you will make use of the GPS navigation a lot to get to some of the game's side events and collectibles. Besides career races, there are also other events for you to enter into to earn fuel. These side events as well as the career events can be accessed directly from your pause menu and you could potentially complete the entire career without once entering free-roam. While some might argue that this invalidates the open-world approach that is the game's hook, expecting anyone to drive around this humongous world -- and I really cannot stress enough how massive it is -- is extremely unrealistic.

Weather effects are a neat addition

Image: Weather effects don't really affect the behaviour of the track or the car

Events mostly consist of checkpoint races, although you will also occasionally have lapped races, elimination races and chase missions. A lot was made of how storms and tornadoes would affect gameplay in Fuel. In reality however, the effect of tornadoes during races is mostly superficial. They never toss you around like I had hoped. Instead, they intimidate with their sights and sounds and kick up a lot of dirt to hinder visibility. They also trigger a few set pieces such as bringing down cell towers across the road and tossing vehicles and other objects in your direction. While that may surprise you the first few times you see it, you'll soon find that they are designed not to take you out as long as you stay on course.

On the whole, these weather effects don't really affect the behaviour of the track or the car. The only change is in the visibility and these effects only serve as distractions from the task at hand, which, while a little anti-climactic, is still a neat addition.

While the game lets you enter events through the pause menu, it also gives you enough reasons to free roam as well. For starters, winning career events unlocks Mavericks. These are cars (which would otherwise cost you lots of fuel) that you can acquire by simply chasing them down and crashing into them. There are also collectible vehicle liveries strewn around for you to collect.

Vista points are locations that give you a stunning view of the environment and are usually placed on high ground. Visiting a vista point also makes it a spawn point and you can transport yourself to a visited vista point from anywhere on the map. You also have helipads scattered around the map that serve the same purpose.

Although collectibles and vista points have to be discovered by driving around, advancing in your career will hand you a short cut by unlocking doppler trucks. Chasing down these doppler trucks will display the locations of all vista points and collectibles in that area on your map without having to explore them yourself. Suffice to say that this is a huge game and unlocking every area, completing the career races and side events, and finding all collectibles and vista points will take you well over 20 hours. And that's after using every helipad and vista point to reduce your traveling time. If you choose to do it the hard way and drive around everywhere, I cannot even imagine how long it would take, let alone put a number on it.

Outside the career, you can also create your own races, with your own custom routes and checkpoints, both offline and online. But in my experience, it's very hard to come up with race layouts as challenging and fun as those that have been created by the developers for us. One fault in the track design and layouts is that despite such an open space, the game doesn't give you any obvious alternate paths, like an optional elevated cliff or a fork in the road, something the MotorStorm games have excelled at. It's all a little too flat. Unfortunately in the three-four times that I've tried playing Fuel online, I was unable to find any players. You can thank the unfairly harsh reviews elsewhere for that.

You can't help but be impressed

Image: Driving around and looking at everything that surrounds you, you can't help be impressed

The game's presentation doesn't really shine in any one individual area, but is more a sum of its parts. Menus are basic and functional, the car models are just about average, textures are extremely low resolution and there is a lot of texture and object pop-in in the environment. But driving around in this world and looking at everything that surrounds you, you can't help but be impressed with the entire package. The lighting too impresses, but if only the day and night transitions weren't so frequent. Load times aren't that long, but a dull loading screen and the same repetitive music do make it feel that way.

Being an open-world racing game that wants you to spend a lot of time just driving around by yourself, a selection of radio stations would have been a nice addition, but instead, you're treated to a mediocre soundtrack that is a mix of techno and rock. Vehicle sounds also lack the punch, and the change in sound effects as you move from one road surface to another also isn't as pronounced as it should be.

If you approach Fuel as an out-and-out open-world racer like Burnout Paradise, you'll get fed up of it within minutes because you'll have to drive a lot to get from one event to the next. But if you play through the events from the menus, while free-roaming occasionally for collectibles and unlockables, you will really start to enjoy it, without missing out on the beautiful and varied environments.

Asobo have done very well to create this massive world and, more importantly, make it fun to drive around in. If only they had worked on the vehicle controls with as much dedication, it might well have turned into the game that many were expecting. Still, it's a fun game and definitely has its moment, but with better off-roading alternatives like MotorStorm: Pacific Rift and Pure already available, Fuel is a very hard sell.

(+) Massive game world with varying environments and terrain
(+) Plenty of events, collectibles, and unlockables
(+) Option to enter events without free-roaming

(-) Poor vehicle handling
(-) Frustrating camera issues; no alternate camera angles
(-) Indifferent AI; poorly implemented catch-up system

Score: 7/10

Fuel is in stores now for PlayStation 3 (Rs 2,499), Xbox 360 (Rs 2,499) and PC (Rs 699)