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.
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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.
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 of mostly 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 is 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.
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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.
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Not helping matters though is the atrocious camera angle. There is only one camera angle i.e.: 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 to the car in front you are. 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.
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.
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To give you a chance to get to that coveted first place, the game employs a catch-up system whereby the AI would 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. 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.
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.
Next page: The verdict