Perhaps my greatest disappoint in Fuel was when I made my first foray to a Vista Point — Fuel's version of a scenic overlook, a sort of doable collectible — in the Drownington Cove region. I marked the vista in the map with my smart GPS, changed on the fly to a vehicle suitable to an asphalt/off-road combo and set off. Night fell, and in rolled a heavy rain. Just my kind of road-trip luck. But by the time I finally reached my destination, revealing a lovely distance view of a completely flooded-out former metropolis, the sun had come, the rain dried and most of the clouds cleared off. Yes, this game is huge. Guinness World Records has included Fuel in their annals of items particularly curious or gigantic, and you won't doubt it for a moment. We're talking upward of 5,500 square miles of apocalyptically ruined terrain you can drive around, through, under and jump over. That's Connecticut, the whole shebang, open to your vehicles — and it doesn't nearly look like an idyllic setting for a revival of an old Bob Newhart sitcom.
Fuel is a full-on arcade racer, save one item: There's no boost, nitrous, vehicular Red Bull or whatever you want to call it. Fuel, in the game's context and tied to its backstory, is merely a new form of rogue currency. You earn it through race and challenge wins — and there are barrels full of the stuff cached across the landscape — but it's used to buy cars, not run them, and there's nothing like a fuel meter you build up so you can goose your lagging hotrod across the finish line. Without a boost function, a type of contract is established between you, the gamer, and Asobo Studio, Fuel's developer: You promise to practice, run your courses as best you can, rely less on tricks and laughable shortcuts, and more on hard driving; Asobo promises to leave all the usual arcade racing game tricks in the bag this go-round. We all know about those developer demons. The most popular seems to be the one where if you're not out ahead by a car-length at first tight corner, you lose the race no matter how long the whole stretch ahead; the other is a dupe in which you're out front absolutely the whole race, when at the last moment an AI competitor, apparently one with a solid-rocket booster strapped to his back, comes barreling out of the pack to beat you by about five car lengths. Fuel doesn't play it that way, which is smart thinking. A racing developer can make a game progressively more difficult without creating a forehead-thumping nightmare, and Asobo proves it. (Please note, if you think the Forza franchise is for babies at the play park, steer clear of Fuel. This is not a trainer game for real outlaw off-road racing in a real present time frame featuring a contemporary landscape already really destroyed by tortuous complications of global warming.)
With so much ground to cover, there are some things Asobo didn't include in the game. I'd usually say they're "missing," but with a game this large, this much to do, and enough to accomplish even to unlock the entire racing environment, excision of potentially extraneous features is required. For starters, while you can style your driver and various vehicles however you wish, the kind of helmet you're wearing or the color of your engine cowling will not affect road performance one bit. Vehicle performance specs are fixed; you can use earned fuel to buy new, better or more interesting vehicles, but you can't upgrade what you already have. Nor can you sell anything out of your garage to raise fuel to buy something you really need to beat a troublesome career race. Instead, you go run more races you can win or you drive willy-nilly across the countryside searching for fuel dumps. (The latter is a great deal of fun. The last time I had this much free roaming any game, let alone a racing game, was Burnout Paradise; that's high praise merely hinting the comparison.) But this is not a full-featured racing simulator, and the title wisely has no pretensions to it.
The play balancing in Fuel deserves special note. It's easy the first few races and challenges, and then it just gets more and more difficult as you vie for stars to open up more regions of the game world. (Normally, I'd bounce on Asobo for that: The world, or most of it, should be accessible from the first play, and a game this size hardly needs an extension crutch, but in Fuel, there are so few enjoyment barriers to coming back at it over and over again, so I'll pass them just this once.) The difficulty level in later races, challenges and within certain regions is mostly a matter of opinion, as some gamers prefer, and are more skilled at, certain styles. This is the first multi-style racer in which I haven't cursed, "Oh, no, here comes another downhill dirt-bike suicide run." Rest assured that there will be enough grueling white-knucklers and kick-back cream puffs to go around. Career races feature an on-screen GPS highlighted by clear but unobtrusive arrows, and you can turn off the GPS when you're sure you know where you're going. Challenge scenarios often drop the GPS in favor of expecting you know the local terrain, or at least play follow-the-leader fairly well. Winning career races is based far more upon good racing than fancy shortcuts. Tooling around is the strong suit of the free ride mode.
The controls are simple, too: accelerate, brake and a handbrake. Like any good arcade racer, you'll spend most of your time accelerating, but drift-style braking, via either brake control, is a skill you'll want to learn. There's a uniquely implemented "respawn" button, too. It's unique in that you're expected to use it, so if you shoot off down a mountain, miss a checkpoint or what have you, just punch that respawn, and from an equitable reset position, you can still come from behind to win the race. It's hardly a cakewalk, but respawning in Fuel is not tantamount to the "auto-lose switch." The feature encourages taking that irresistible, clearly marked shortcut here or there — now watch as you end up trying to rev it back a up a cliffside — and it also promotes finishing races, even if you fear you've fallen too far behind. If I hate one thing in gaming, it's a racer that has me compulsively restarting 30 seconds into every race. (Respawn is triggered automatically when you exceed your damage meter's capacity, wrecking out your vehicle.)
Graphically, Fuel is perhaps most reminiscent of MotorStorm, though it's hardly a copycat production; the sheer variety of terrain precludes that. The two titles are of the same genre, though, but frankly, Fuel is not as pretty as either MotorStorm title; the overall art direction is clearly different. We can talk more about concessions made to the huge game world, but ultimately the fun factor in Fuel negates a lack of jaw-dropping graphics. The visuals are more than serviceable, load times are minimal, and there are no hitches or freezes while roaming around the large maps. (This seamlessness comes at a small price: Fuel is a PS3 title that still mandates a game data install, which is 2.25GB and takes 5-10 minutes. It's not the whopping 10GB go-for-coffee deals we've seen in the past, but it's not a mere couple of MB, either, so make room if you'll need it.
Despite passable sound effects for the vehicles, audio is by far Fuel's weakest point. There is no dialogue and no announcers, so thankfully we escape the usual mortifying humiliations in those areas. At first, the lack of voices detracts somewhat from the title's realism, but once you do some free driving and spot down on a coastal highway, something like a small convoy of transport trucks, headlights sparkling in the dark through steady drizzle, the feeling you are in the middle of a quite real world hits home. I rather like the game's murky, foreboding theme song, but the in-game racing action music is woefully repetitive.
The most significant perk feature designed into Fuel is the race editor. Not only can you design and test your own courses, but you're also provided slots to hold your routes and invite your online friends to see if they can beat you on your own turf. You can even set time of day and race weather before you start — and, I emphasize, weather is a big, big deal in a Fuel race; the effect of a dry lightning storm or tornadic windstorm is often as daunting as the tougher tracks. I'm not the biggest fan of creating limited expansion elements for packaged games, but for those who do like such things and are accomplished at them, the tools Fuel provides should suit your wild-ass racing imaginations just fine.
Fuel's multiplayer is essentially the offline game migrated to an online environment. The online contests consist of standard career races and events, albeit with human opponents instead of AI drivers. Depending on host's choice, as many as all the offline vehicles or as few as one are available to players. The host can also turn off GPS — in which case, if you don't know the course like the host obviously knows the course, forget about it. Once you've spent a lot of time offline with a racer, you'll notice people do a lot of strange things online that make racing either too easy, too annoying or, most often, too damn hard. I'm a passable online racer, but I'm not nearly so capable that I didn't find Burnout Paradise's sort of Sunday-driver attitude a great blessing in multiplayer racing. There's online free ride in Fuel, too, but the map regions are so mammoth, and there are so many regions out there, the idea of zooming around and looking for random drivers like you might in Paradise City is ridiculous. Without some sort of advanced player-locator tool in Fuel, the best fun for the game's free-roam online mode will be planned meet-ups of your real-world friends at various spots in the game world. Fuel is, however, technically proficient online. I experienced what I'd call a complete lack of lag — though what kind of network-stability adjustments are being made behind the scenes, I don't know. I just know it played very well. There was but one single event of distracting pop-in during an online race, at a spot where I was sure it never occurred in any offline event; but I was out in the woods and trying to pull off the mother of all madhouse shortcuts at the time.
Fuel is an enormously easy game to summarize: With the full retail version, I played a couple of hours the first day, due to time constraints; I played at least six hours the next day; and the day after that, I played another five or six. I still want to go play my afternoon away. Fuel is a good game, reveling in its goodness and its genre, without trying to be the exclamation point for every racing title ever developed. It's also enormously fun, both in the ordered-style events, and just roaming anywhere and almost everywhere around this spine-tinglingly crazy world Asobo has envisioned for us. Of course, I'll be playing lots of Fuel in the short term, but it's the sort of game that will regularly come off the shelf for extended play sessions for quite a while into the future. If you like unpretentious, good-looking arcade racers, and "fun" is maybe your top requirement for a game, you'll want to own Fuel. The reasonably unique alternate history theme and sheer magnitude of the game world are all icing on the cake. You might want to pull over right here.
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