Review / Fuel (Xbox 360)

Sometimes a game, fairly or unfairly, gets pigeon-holed by virtue of a single feature. For God of War and Shenmue it was the quick time event. For Half-Life 2, it was the gravity gun. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing when it’s a gameplay feature that’s largely celebrated and widely adopted, like Gears of War and its cover system. Fuel, the Codemasters-published Asobo-developed new racing epic, is destined to be one of those games, where a single feature will define it. That feature is its size.

To call Fuel large is to call Devil May Cry’s Dante only a little over the top, or to claim Psychonauts was just ok. Fuel is massive to a point far beyond excess. It’s large to the verge of being claustrophobic. Driving 40 minutes away from the center of the map may get you to the edge depending on the terrain. Usually though it’s switchbacks and canyons to scale, leading to giant detours and vistas of unparalleled scope. You want to get from one side of the map to the other? Plan your route, get a very fast car and don’t plan on doing anything but driving for about an hour and fifteen minutes.

14,000 square kilometers. A little more than three times the area of Rhode Island. Five times larger than Luxembourg. That’s larger than 74 real-world countries and territories. That’s the 50 smallest countries combined with room to spare. On one disc. That’s the size of Fuel. And it looks good. Not amazing, but not bad enough to ever be distracting or break the player’s sense of grandeur. And that’s what seems to be the aesthetic Asobo wants to convey, broken grandeur or grandeur in spite of travesty.

The world of Fuel is a dystopia of unknown origin where the only glimpses to the cause are being given through the surroundings. Structures are now underwater, forests burn unabated, the weather rages out of control with tornadoes and torrential downpours cropping up all the the time. Cars and semi trucks lay on their sides, the only other companion on the road aside from the odd Maverick are giant, heavily armored battle-ready 16 wheeler cabs. It’s not Mad Max, it’s not The Day After Tomorrow, it’s not Fallout 3, but it’s something familiar that doesn’t need explaining. The landscape is the player’s main competition and ever-present companion and the developers made the most of it.

So then it’s time to race cars all over it. Why? I don’t know, because they want to. Gas is money in the future with fuel either being earned for winning races or found out in the mountains. There are 100 barrels spread over what is essentially all of Connecticut. Good luck on that one. Now the easy money (fuel), is in racing. Unlocking a new area on the map opens up its base camp and main races. Challenges, more varied racing types, have to be unlocked by line of sight. All the areas are open from the outset, unfortunately their races can only be accessed after the player has gathered a certain number of stars which are awarded for either winning races or challenges.

So there’s the gist. Challenges seen while in events are unlocked just the same as if the player were simply tooling around the map looking. As well as challenges, different collectibles are constantly being “seen” and added to the map. New paint jobs, new vehicles for purchase and even places that the developers thought looked pretty are always there to be chased down at any time. Everything about the game is telling the player to just kick back and cruise to your next challenge or whatever else might be near on the map, that is until the player gets there and sits through the same loading screen again.

Anytime a race starts, ends or restarts there is a load screen. Excuse me, it’s not a loading screen, it’s the load screen. The same 8 stats about the players racing habits and the exact same guitar riff every time. More troubling then that is the pause menu, which allows players to jump into any race or challenge regardless of where they are on the map as long as their in the right section. So then the main driving happens going between sections of the map? No sir/ma’am, there is an option to warp between base camps and go to any section available to race in.

And so, a pattern emerges. No incentive to drive any longer leads players to simply navigate the pause menu and jump from race to race. Completionist tinges at the base of my skull had me teleporting back and forth to different helipads, yet another way the get around the map without driving, all to collect a paint job for a car I was never going to use. The game simultaneously gives the player every reason to explore and enjoy this huge, expansive, world and then undermines it with a convenient and helpful way to move about the world. In the end I felt ill at ease, like I was doing it wrong.

The racing is fun and well balanced. Nothing feels cheap, the learning curve is very comfortable and organic. There are more than 70 vehicles from dragsters to dune buggies, quads to monster trucks and everything feels like it should. Armored street cars feel sluggish in the dirt while motocross bikes have the acceleration a person might expect. All together it’s remarkable how much sense everything makes once you’re on the track and racing against either AI or the clock. Online play as well is amazingly simple and fun. Just go into the start menu and go over to the Xbox Live tab and start it up. All race and challenge types a competitor could want are there, fully customizable. You can even make your own tracks at the drop of a hat.

I don’t mean to make it sound like fain praise. I have a lot of fun racing and completing challenges once I finally get to them. In a game so large that if I were skinned and laid flat it would take 7000 of me just to cover it and I am getting from place to place through the pause menu. This isn’t that different from games like Gran Turismo or Forza, games where there is no over-map. Tracks are chosen from a menu, this isn’t a crime. Unfortunately what we have here is not a game like Forza, it’s meant to be a game like Burnout Paradise. I was concerned that I had taken a game and turned it inside out, made it do what I wanted it to do and essentially ruined it for myself. Until I turned it on to play some more. I clicked continue and the game did a very telling thing; it loaded me not onto the last vehicle I was in or the last race I had completed. I started in the pause menu.

+ Huge open world
+ Fun and balanced gameplay, a lot of different race types
+ Weather and graphics keep the game looking impressive long into playing it

– Huge empty world
– No incentive to ever actually drive anywhere
– Tiring to the point of frustration. It feels like it’s wearing the player down