June 24, 2009
Many people have different aspirations in life, but for the vast majority of us, winning the lottery is one of them. Just think what you could do with all that money ... buy a yacht, buy a mansion, travel the world, the list is endless. We all dream of things like that, but me, I’m a simple person, and the one thing that I would buy ahead of anything else is ... a new keyboard for Codemasters, because it seems that the caps lock is stuck on their current one. That’s the only feasible reason I can see for them capitalising their recent game names. There was GRID, don’t get me started on DiRT, but now we have another, FUEL. Developed by Asobo, FUEL is Codemasters attempt at an open-world off-road racer ... and boy have they created a world, the biggest one in console gaming history.
FUEL takes place in the not too distant future in an area of the world that has been ravaged by global warming. The inhabitants of the land are long gone and all that are left behind are a distinct bunch of extreme sports junkies who use this part of the world as their playground. The world in FUEL is your oyster, so if you can see it, you can climb it, you can ride to it, you can jump over it, unfortunately for FUEL that’s all you’ll probably want to do as the main racing mechanic isn’t that awe inspiring.
The world in FUEL is split into 19 camps which are unlocked by earning stars in the game’s 74 career races. For winning career races and challenges, you’ll be rewarded FUEL – not the gas, but the game’s currency – which can then be spent on buying new vehicles to make your life easier. That’s part of the problem though, Asobo made the conscious choice to only award the winner a prize so if you fall short, consider it wasted time on your behalf as you take nothing from that race. Winning races not only earns you FUEL, but you’ll also unlock a ton of liveries for your car and gear for your rider. The customisation on both is pretty limited and hardly worth the effort as your car will get muddy within minutes anyway. If the races and challenges don't take your fancy, you can just head out and explore the world as its open from the beginning, but to unlock races and points of interest on these parts of the map, you’ll need to race to earn stars.
The real fun in the game takes the form of challenges, of which there are 190 across the world. Variety is the spice of life with this aspect of the game offering the player 10 different types of challenges that can range from circuit races and helicopter chases, to vehicle takedown chases and many more. When you get sick of challenges, provided you’ve unlocked the area of the world you’re in, you can hunt for bonus cars, liveries and vista points situated around the map if you so please.
Despite the size of the world (5,560 square miles), getting around the world isn’t as hard or as frustrating as you’d have thought. That is mainly down to the fact that you can use conveniently placed helipads situated all over the world, and you can even fire up the menu and jump into a career or challenge race whenever you please without having to ride to the start line. The only qualm then is that the game has some ridiculously long loading times that exceed 10 seconds every time you fire up a race, or switch to free roam mode.
The racing mechanic in FUEL is in fact the biggest let down in the title, which is never a positive admission for a racing game. That reason is simply that there are a few major hold-ups that can really grind on you; namely the difficulty, the crappy GPS system, and the terrible opponent AI. The game handles as any off road racer would and boasts 6 types of vehicles ranging from bikes to monster trucks. The vehicle types do make an important difference and throughout the game you'll only get to choose from one or two classes for any particular race. In fact, you have to pay attention to the stats before a race as well because an off road bike is largely more effective than a faster road bike if you're planning a few shortcuts. Obvious I know, but it really shows in this title which is quite refreshing.
The balance of the game is pretty damn terrible; the rookie difficulty seems too easy, yet there doesn’t seem to be much of a difference between expert and legend which are incredibly hard. The real chance at success in these difficulty levels after the first two camps will be when you have faster vehicles to use or if you find shortcuts that can cut tens of seconds off your time. The rubber banding technique the game has doesn’t even seem realistic or seem to help either. Not only do you always start last, but on legend, you’re not even 10 seconds in and the opposition is already half a kilometre in front. It’s amazing to think how incredibly disadvantaged you are at times. The senseless AI doesn't help either as it seems to crash, almost as if scripted, at the same unnecessary points and even applies its brakes on straights when there is no need to do so. The AI pushes you to the edge of your sanity when it drags you down with it, meaning that you need to take that into account whilst racing ... which is not ideal. If you do crash as a result, don’t expect the respawn to do you any favours either as it has the habit of spawning you the wrong way, especially if you’re off-road ... which is most the time.
If I could liken the GPS AI to anything, it would be equal to having your missus in the car with you; directing you the wrong way or taking you the long way on purpose. Early on in your career especially, it will try to take you up inclines that are too steep for your car, but later on, it’ll find the need to direct you through water that is too deep for even the biggest of vehicles. I know it says at the beginning to trust instinct over the GPS, but when it can’t fundamentally ascertain what you physically can and cannot do with your vehicle, it becomes pretty redundant when you’re off road – which like I said ... is a lot of the time.
I find it hard to admit that the major selling point of a racing game is not the mechanic itself, but the world you’re thrown into. Whilst the races on the whole may not be that fun against the unforgiving and brutal AI and rubber band effect, the world can provide a few smiles and the races do show you plenty of different parts of it. The desolate and abandoned underwater city, the dry lakes, the epic rundown bridges, the big red sand canyons; FUEL has a huge variety of environments that will keep the game fresh from start to finish. The game’s major selling point though is when it combines the game’s weather system with the races, so you could be racing amidst a huge storm, or in amongst the tornadoes, to name but a few. That’s the problem though, there are only a few, and whilst these are easily the highlights of the game, they are too few and far between.
The visuals of the game are a bit of a let-down as well and aren’t up to the calibre of the rest of the Codemasters racing games. We understand that those sorts of levels may carry technical limitations with the size of the game world, but we’d rather see a smaller world and better visuals to be honest because the vast majority will not get to see even a fraction of the world as it is. It’s not just the visuals though, there are plenty of graphical glitches as well that include awkward collision detection on some trees which can be frustrating, and getting stuck in the map after going off a big jump. Then there are the design issues, when the day/night cycle turns to dusk in free-roam mode, it becomes hard to see anything. How did they miss this? Surely they could have slapped a main beam on the vehicles, I mean it is a desolate world after all. As for the audio aspect that compliments it? There was music!? I couldn’t tell for all the revving my car was doing. It definitely doesn't live up to the game's theme tune by UNKLE. That's the only highlight from an audio standpoint to be honest.
In FUEL you also have the ability to create your own races which is a welcome addition to any open-world sandbox title and it gives you the freedom to create whatever you want. Having the ability to then take these courses online to challenge your friends is always worth a punt. There is no sort of longevity online though and the community is pretty dead already and despite boasting 16 players online, I found it rare that I raced with any more than 4 other riders. If you’ve not got the will or drive to create your own, feel free to race on someone else’s, or any pre-designed tracks. Heck, if you want to, you can just grab a bunch of mates and just free roam in the massive world, but other than that, you’ll have no desire to head online with FUEL after you check it out once.
The achievements like the world itself are overwhelming. If I was to put a time figure on it, it would be closer to 100 than it would to 50. Completing 190 challenges, winning 74 races on the hardest difficulty, visiting 95 vista points, collecting 148 liveries and travelling 1,000 kilometres in free roam are 5 of the daunting achievements. There is a little online, but not too much, however you might struggle considering the size of the online community. Way too much collecting and too many monotonous tasks. It simply doesn’t deliver ... like the rest of the title.
Every fibre in every single bone of my body wanted to love FUEL. I’m a bit of a sandbox junkie truth be told, but even the huge open-world with diverse environments wasn’t enough to divert my attention from the game’s nagging design faults. With a pretty poor GPS, unbalanced difficulty scale, terrible opponent AI and average visuals, FUEL is left on a par with mediocrity. Don’t get me wrong, FUEL can have its moments of brilliance, but you can’t sell a racing game on moments that come around once in a blue moon.
Music? There was music? What little there was doesn’t quite meet the heights of the game’s touted theme tune (UNKLE’s Burn My Shadow), especially as everything you do hear will be drowned out by those revs as you attempt to climb every incline.
An average looking game that isn’t on par with the usual Codies stuff. The draw distance isn’t all that great, there is pop-up galore and the collision detection is off on some of the trees ... the last place you need it to be off!
The game controls are solid. Bikes handle like bikes should, road cars are terrible off road. All in all, not bad here. Pretty decent.
Brutal and horribly crafted rubber band AI, terrible GPS, unbalanced difficulty levels and relentless load screens. It’s enough to kill anyone’s experience.
The achievements aren’t particularly hard, but they sure are monotonous and stupidly time consuming. Way too much collecting and not enough imagination.
It’s a shame that FUEL's developer Asobo spent so much time in creating this huge, open-world with diverse environments and not concentrating on the fundamentals of the game; because without the world, FUEL would be burning on the bonfire now. The world itself does just enough to make the frustrating racing experience bearable.