|a game by||Asobo Studio S.A.R.L.|
|Platforms:||XBox 360, PC, Playstation 3|
|User Rating:||5.0/10 - 6 votes|
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|See also:||Racing Games|
Codemasters Are Already at the helm of some of the PC world's finest racing titles. GRID'S got track racing down to a tee, while DiRTs replicated mud-based rallying to a staggering degree of accuracy. So what's left? How about both? How about tarmac and dirt with grass and mountains? How about 5,000 square miles of the stuff to be exact an unbound chunk of west America, procedurally generated using satellite imagery and laced with 11.000 miles of road. That'll do, won't it?
We've had promises of open-world racing before. Some - like Burnout Paradise and Test Drive Unlimited - amount to a carefully interwoven series of tracks - not truly open, but bloated with routes. Others, such as (wouldn't you know it?) Codemasters' old-time racer Insane, gave you a chunk of 3D landscape and made you work out the best means of navigating it.
Fuel belongs in the latter camp, stretching the tiny arenas to a single, monumental stage. It's so huge, claim the developers at Asobo, that they've yet to see it all themselves.
The setting is an alternate-present, and some narrative excuse has been conjured up to explain away the absence of major urban locations (the closest you'll come to a city is a view of some sunken skyscrapers breaking the surface of a lake).
Petrol has become the currency of thrill-seekers, as combustion engined vehicles become the transport of choice for stunt-faced biker types. All the uptight normal people presumably pootle about on hydrogen cell powered mopeds waiting for the lights to change.
The Grand Canyon, Monument Valley and the Salt Lake area will all feature, though urban settings will be scarce. Fuel's environments are ravaged by a scenario in which global warming isn't simply a tax scam invented by the government, but an actual problem. Dynamic weather effects turn the playing field into a meteorological hoedown of sorts, with tornadoes frequently tearing shit up left right and centre and rainstorms beating the . dusty ground into a muddy submission.
Massive draw distances allow you to peer right across the map and something Asobo is quite proud of is not ever having to "fake a horizon". What you see, where the land meets the sky, is a piece of earth you'll be able to drive to. This is the Far Cry 2 of racers, the only problem with which is a possible lack of tightness in procedurally generated courses. Fuel might lack that human touch.
Whether it'll be a tonic for lap-based monotony or an overly ambitious sandbox project remains to be seen, but with Codies at the steering wheel, Fuel could be special.
Shall We Run through the stats again, in case they've evaded you so far? FUEL'S game world covers a staggering 14,000km2. But don't collapse in a breathless heap just yet - your GCSE geometry skills should tell you that works out at around 120x120km, which sounds only slightly less impressive. That's an area the size of Northern Ireland, or Montenegro if that's easier a comparison for you to envisage.
Within this capacious geographical arena there are mountains, valleys, plateaus, canyons, deserts, forests and rivers - essentially a massive chunk of diverse middle-American environs ready to be raced across. Weather plays on the game's premise (that of post global-warming Earth in which fossil fuels have come back to bite us on the arse) so tornados, snowstorms and rainstorms traipse about the landscape like meteorological newborn lambs, only stopping momentarily to bleat weather in your face before bouncing off again.
But what's the use in having a playing field the size of East Timor if the cars handle like luggage trolleys? We know the geography, the geometry and the meteorology of FUEL, but what about the chemistry? That's precisely the reason Codemasters offered to let us run amok in FUEL'S world, to get some real hands-on time with the game.
Though there are no loading times when travelling between them, the gigantic map is split into around 15 zones, each containing events. Career events progress the storyline, Challenge events are prescribed races with pre-determined rules, and Vista Points are collectable location markers perched atop FUEL'S most aesthetically pleasing views. New vehicle liveries, bonus cars and storm-chasing doppler trucks are available to find too.
Discovering a zone's various points of interest rewards you with stars, collect enough and they'll unlock a new zone -though unlocking in this case purely means making that zone's events available to play, as the entire map is open from the outset. FUEL'S world plays out in real-time too: a day lasts 12 minutes, though when it comes to traversing the huge distances between events you can make use of handy helipads dotted about the place. Chinooks then drop you off at starting lines. If you prefer, and why not in a world this intriguing, you can follow your compass to nearby events.
Playing through a few races gave a feel for how the game handles. Quad bikes and scramblers are where FUEL excels, as its go-anywhere, off-road ethos is really allowed to shine. The road cars however, felt restrictive, their handling felt floatier than their twowheeled counterparts and the physics were unconvincing, especially when they were compared to Codemasters' other racing games.
Many races bunch checkpoints close together to keep you on the exact route the developers had intended, while only a few of the races we saw spread their checkpoints far apart enough to really allow you tear your own path through the world. One race in particular saw me booting my bike off the beaten path to carve a straight line to the next checkpoint, only to find myself in a deeply forested area. Turning hard in the mud and travelling sideways with my elbow almost touching the ground, I threaded the bike through a small gap between the ground and a fallen tree trunk, righting myself just in time to rejoin the race in pole position.
It was glorious, and summed up why I love FUEL in a single, muddy skid. More of the game's events will hopefully cater to this idea of "risk and reward",
instead of effectively locking you into a prescribed route. The cars need to be sorted out too, as at this point they're simply not as much fun to drive as the motorbikes. And while we're airing gripes, the tornado and storm effects, while beautiful, result in scripted carnage such as electricity pylons falling conveniently into the road in front of you. A world this impressive needs a bit more of a dynamic edge to it.
Still, a world the size of the Lambayeque Region of Peru (yes, the area known for its rich Chimu and Moche historical past) is nothing to be scoffed at. We'll have a full review next issue, unless something goes dreadfully wrong in Asobo's office.
If You Know anything about FUEL, you'll know exactly what you want to do first: grab a buggy and strike out north until you can't head north any more. You'll be forgiven for forgetting how many thousands of square kilometres the racer is supposed to have crammed into it, as Asobo themselves kept changing the numbers while everybody else did their maths wrong and started thinking it had a playing area greater than the surface of the sun.
If you want to know how big FUEL is, the answer is "big enough". You'll get bored of trekking steadily towards the edge of the map before you get anywhere close to it. FUEL is so big that limits cease to matter. And if you're wondering how big that is, I've just looked it up. It's 14,400km2, which is a square 120km wide, about 0.69 times the area of Wales. Very big.
Weather plays a part in that too, any given bit of that map can be subjected to torrential storms, blinding snowfall and winding tornados which tear up scenery and bring it crashing down onto the track in front of you.
So that's FUEL'S strength: a large... make that a ridiculously large, procedurally generated wonder-map. In races, particularly the longer ones with widely spaced checkpoints, it allows you to meaningfully choose your own path through the world. Either you'll want to stick to the decrepit remains of the asphalted primary roads, or when those roads inevitably stop leading you directly to your destination, pull away into one of the millions of back roads and dirt tracks that realistically criss-cross the landscape and take a more direct route instead.
You race to win fuel (which is about as logical as working in a $10 note burning factory) completing . challenges to unlock more challenges in new areas of the map. A wide roster of vehicles can be purchased, and canny vehicle selection based on the sort of terrain you'll be racing on is touted as the key to success. Superbikes, for example, bolt down highways, but scream in pain the second they touch mud and refuse to budge. Conversely, buggies and quads are typically slow, but have the traction to go cross-country when required.
Your Oyster, Sir
In theory it's brilliant, and when it works as intended FUEL is a uniquely exciting racer. Blasting down a steep cliff face in a rickety buggy towards a 10 mile-wide lake, dodging rocky outcrops as the waterline creeps slowly towards you is easily one of the most exhilarating moments of any racer. The scale on show is simply incredible: draw distances are unfathomably huge, and every point on the horizon can have a car pointed at it and subsequently be arrived at, even if it takes an hour.
So that's fantastic. Well done Asobo! You guys certainly deserve this big congratulatory party with cake and balloons and party poppers, and a midget version of Ann Widdecombe who goes around the room on a tiny locomotive letting people snort cocaine off her arse. But hold on! Stop the celebrations! Somebody's leaping out of the giant cake! Damn that shady catering company - it's Professor Rubbish Al and his evil sidekick Shite Physics. And they're shooting everybody in their faces! Oh dear, now everybody's either dead or writhing in agony as their life slides out of them, and it's all because Asobo didn't give due attention to Rubbish Al and Shite Physics. And there's cake everywhere.
You know when someone is driven to a tortuous jumping-out-during-a-party metaphor that something is deeply wrong. And sadly there is. Structurally FUEL doesn't play to its established strengths, and you'll spend little time actually exploring the expansive world Asobo have created and more time in the menu screen, ticking off rudimentary challenges in a way not terribly unlike a normal and unremarkable off-road racer.
In the races themselves, losing sight of the lead vehicles and allowing them to fall out of rendering distance lets the race Al unfairly propel them steadily towards victory. I've had to restart many races upon noticing that the two race leaders were a good mile ahead of me, and that the gap was widening thanks.to their magic "if you can't see them they're not mucking up" powers. On the highest difficulty setting you'll be thumped time and time again, and on the mid-setting you'll often find your opponents little challenge. Margins of victory are magnified hugely by the distances you race, and you'll rarely encounter anything close to a photo finish.
When you can see the other racers, they're generally good sport apart from the occasional hiccup - getting stuck on inclines (only to receive magical boosts), driving headlong into abandoned vehicles, that sort of outrageousness. Contact with them feels unsettlingly unpredictable, as does contact with anything other than the floor beneath your wheels. So we move on to the physics, which are floaty and unconvincing in all but the buggies. FUEL feels solid enough when you're not doing anything unusual, but collisions with roadside furniture and jutty-out bits of terrain highlight a real problem with the handling.
At times you'll be launched skywards, or fall foul of the cruddy damage meter that decides like some strict parent whether or not you've had enough damage for one day and rudely resets your car to the track. If you're lucky, it'll be pointing in roughly the right direction. The road cars are big offenders, feeling to be made of polystyrene and shiny paper - which is appropriate, as that's how they look: garish, chunky and exhaust-pipe laden in an otherwise fantastic looking game.
That FUEL is marred by these problems is a great big puddle of shame, as when things come together the game really does shimmer. The payoff for daring to ride your bike through the dense, charred remains of a pine forest and succeeding, while your opponents stick to the prescribed route and fail, is immensely satisfying. The vistas and scripted weather changes you're treated to during races can be stunning at times, and when you decide to endure the free ride mode (before eventually being put off by the lack of anything to do or see in it) the previously mentioned sense of bigness about the mountains and valleys rarely ceases to impress.
You'll spend your time with FUEL trying to love it, endlessly probing it from all angles like an awkward virgin, certain there's at least one way in but repeatedly finding yourself rebuked, unsatisfied and frustrated. The head-spinningly massive world is a design feat on paper, but in practice it delivers nothing other than a varied, edgeless backdrop and the ability to plot out 100 mile long marathons, which unfortunately isn't as much fun as it sounds. FUEL'S not a bad game, but it's fallen short of the incredible open-world racer epic we'd conjured up in our imaginations having had all of those big numbers and square miles thrown at us.
So really it's your own fault. I hope you're proud.
Fuel Is Set in a massive world. David Dedaine - the co-founder of Asobo - sets off an aerial cinematic that takes us from one corner of the map to the other. It sails effortlessly past the point where you think "Jesus, that's big". Then it goes on, until you get that lost feeling you get when you walk with your eyes closed. And still, it goes on, until you're forced to laugh at the sheer dumbfounding enormity of the terrains, the number of distinctive landmarks, and the fact that it's still flying by.
By the time the cinematic had completed the 170km diagonal journey, I'd involuntarily muttered "Fuck off!" to myself in cheerful incredulity. But FUEL wasn't always going to be 120km by 120km of open-world arcade racing. At one point, it was going to be five times bigger.
"First and foremost, FUEL is about the sense of scale," says Dedaine. With a view distance of 40km, there's always something you can see in the distance to entice you away. Whether that's the searchlights of a.quad bike tournament being held nearby, a snow-capped mountain you fancy biking over, or whether you're just exploring for the game's unlockables and occasionally absurd Challenges, Asobo are doing everything they can to make sure that "huge, open world" doesn't translate into "empty, lonely world".
That's part of the reason they brought the landscape down from that original, supermassive plan. "We wanted there to be something to catch your eye every couple of minutes, but things were too spaced out It was realistic, but not fun," explains Sebastian Wloch, another co-founder. So, when someone asks how long it takes to drive from one corner of : the map to the other, the answer is: "We don't know. We always get distracted."
In creating a world of this scope, you can't ask a human to place every tree, and sculpt every square inch of land. A lot of the detail in FUEL'S world has been generated from algorithms - from the roads, to the terrain, to the obstacles that litter the highways.
You're a petrol-head adrenaline junkie, who finds that global warming has turned the world into a giant metal playground. You're collecting fuel, but for no more noble purpose than to unlock more cars and races - seriously, you don't need to worry about a storyline. Auto Assault tried that path, and look where that ended up.
Secondly, you'll be kept in check by the career races. You'll unlock the higher races by earning fuel. This is earned, with a kind of irony, by winning races. Going for a gold medal requires a knowledge of the map's shortcuts, while going for bronze (which means your competitors will be slower, not that you rank third) you always have to win to earn the fuel and keep progressing.
Whilst Asobo aim to fill their world with spectacle and events, racing games are more instantly suited to MMO-style multiplayer than story-driven games like Grand Theft Auto IV or Oblivion. The MMO route was one they considered, but performance issues has led them into a compromise. So, the number of player-controller cars sharing the world at any one time is limited to 16. That might sound like a desolate wasteland, but when you drive away from one crowd of people, the game will take them out of your world, and replace them with a new set of racing buddies. We didn't see this in action, but Asobo assure us that this feels naturally like a full world. You just, won't see many people at once. It sounds like a logistical nightmare, and it's something that can only play out in the fullness of a well-populated release.
The race editor is a great addition, and it's something that'll add an appealing tinge of infinity to the game. You can drop up to 30 checkpoints on the game world, wherever you like, and challenge the game's Al - or any of the people currently sharing the world with you -to compete in your race. Other players will have the option to keep the race in their own banks to play later. Make a particularly fun event and it might proliferate - you might even get challenged to your own race.
The weather and day cycles add variety to the world. Fog rolls across the land in the morning, and the ravaged environment throws sandstorms, rain, blizzards and tornados out during the day. In some races, these moments are scripted - abandoned trucks are reliably launched at you, and the same pylons will topple across your path every time. But in the free-ride aspect of the game, it's all generated.
That I'm talking about a four-letter Codemasters racer and I haven't mentioned the racing aspect yet says something about the game. That's because there's so much new stuff to talk aboutjthe racing element - as enjoyable as it is - feels like the least surprising part of the game. But it'd be approaching unprofessional to ignore it, so here we go.
FUEL is no simulation. It's not a pure arcade racer, either - the lead character may have a tattooed-dude attitude look about him, but this isn't overpowered trick-driven gameplay where you earn boost by shunting and drifting. In fact, there's no boost button. Its inclusion was considered (as were a lot of things, including cross-platform play) but eventually decided against For some games, the replayability comes from mastering these tricks. In FUEL, the replayability comes from the world, the flexibility, and the shortcuts.
The vehicles open to you are diverse - from motorbikes, quad bikes and buggies, to muscle cars and trucks. The 10km diameter lake in the centre of the map causes an instant reset of your vehicle, if you drive into it, so it's natural to ask if there'll be any vehicles designed for water. "We are not saying yet," says Dedaine. But his pride briefly gets the better of his professional PR facade, and he adds, "But there is something. Just ask yourself what the coolest thing you can do in an area like this would be." He might mean yachts. He might mean you get to freeze the lake, get out of your car and ice skate around.
Even without boost and drift, the courses we played are highly entertaining, providing a fluid and enjoyable driving experience. Driving paths range from wide roads to goat paths, each with a type of vehicle best suited to it For this reason, some races will be limited to a particular vehicle. Others related to a class of vehicle, still others to the two genus of off-road and on-road. Some races will have no restrictions at all, and the multiple paths available to players will be a triumph of balancing. If they work.
Challenges are designed to add a bit of variety, and they range from finding and destroying a car to chasing a helicopter. There's a long raid challenge, which is a four-hour race designed to induce dry-eyeballed epilepsy in a player's shredded nerves. The saving grace of the long raid is that it's completely optional.
In terms of difficulty, the gold medal Al is unforgiving, and even though trailing cars are given a boost, that only takes you so far. There's certainly no power-ups. "You make one mistake, and you can recover from it - make two, and you'll lose," says the QA guy behind me, as I make my seventh mistake. And this is the silver medal difficulty. It can be more punishing.
FUEL is looking audacious, gorgeous and strange. There are elements that throw up a bit of doubt - mainly how whether the online multiplayer will worl - but the proof of concept that we've seen and played is a good reason forward to summer.
How satellites can put you off driving
One aspect of the game that needs a fair amount of refinement is the on-screen GPS system. A solid set of arrows in the sky, the animation was so fast that it became the busiest thing on the screen, drawing your eyes away from the action. Moreover, it was constantly recalculating itself so quickly that you could see it changing its mind during the tighter circuit races - it was far less stressful to turn it off.
However, the GPS is also designed to adapt to your racing skills, alerting you to more hazardous routes, once it thinks it can trust you. There's plenty of months left to file down the GPS into something less obtrusive and more helpful, so let's hope they sort that out.