When Codemasters publishes a racing game, I usually head for the hills. Not because Codemasters publishes bad racing games, but because I'm bad at Codemasters' racing games. GRID practically required you to know how to drive a real car, and if I knew how to do that, I'd be off joyriding instead of playing videogames.
Fuel (PC, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 [reviewed])
Developer: Asobo Studios
Released: June 2, 2009
Fuel takes place in a massive wasteland ravaged by natural disasters. According to the game, civilization fled the wrath of mother nature as the weather turned on mankind, leaving behind only those stupid enough to want to take part in off-road races where the only prize is fuel for their cars. It's a ridiculous, contrived premise, but it's enough to justify the whole Mad Max vibe that the game is going for.
The single-player aspect of the game is split into three different modes of play. There's the Career, where players take part in standard races to earn stars, there are Challenges, which make for slightly more offbeat racing experiences, and there's the free ride, where players are unleashed on Fuel's open world to find more challenges, discover Liveries with which to customize their vehicles, and hunt down enemy vehicles to learn the location of prizes and earn powerful new cars.
Fuel is an ironic piece of software, because it's actually the open-world aspect of the game that stops it being as great as it could be. As a racer, Fuel is one of the more enjoyable experiences I've had in a while. The standard races and challenges are friendly to newcomers and consistently fun. However, when players are just roaming around the map, there's so little to do and so much ground to cover that it becomes incredibly boring. Hunting down Maverick vehicles or trudging to livery locations is a chore and there is nothing to break the monotony. Even the map's many spawn points fail to get you near any desired locations.
There are also many impassable mountains and other obstacles forcing players to take the long way around and it all gets incredibly tiresome. Adding to my irritation at Fuel's main selling point is the fact that the open-world stuff is presumably the reason for unforgivably lengthy (not the mention frequent) load times that seem to occur before doing anything in the game, even restarting a race that should already be loaded. Oh, and the game is incredibly vague as well. The manual does little to explain the game's various modes and features, and the game itself tells you jack-shit about a lot of things.
It's a shame because Fuel's more traditional elements are well crafted. As someone who isn't that great at racers, I found Fuel to be instantly accessible and rewarding on every level of difficulty. Some of the challenges are rather cool too, especially the ones where players have to race against a helicopter. The online mode works great, although I fail to see the point in having online free ride, where players just ride around the map and do nothing of interest.
Still, for almost everything that Fuel does right, it manages to do something wrong. The GPS, for example, is absolutely abhorrent. It's hard enough to follow as it is, with silly purple arrows that appear very faintly in the sky, but when you consider that the GPS barely knows its way around the map better than you do, it becomes a complete nightmare. In races, the thing has pointed me in the wrong direction, sometimes right into blockades that caused me to crash my vehicle. The GPS really shits itself during free ride, however, as it was clearly not designed to be able to handle such an open environment. You'll need it to get a rough idea of where your desired location is, but you can never follow it completely, because it will point you up steep mountains, down deadly cliff sides, and even into the middle of the ocean. The GPS simply cannot deal with the game. It's an embarrassment of design.
Another flaw is the way the game repositions a vehicle after it's crashed. Again, like the GPS, it seems incapable of dealing with the way the rest of the game was designed and sometimes makes ridiculous mistakes. I've crashed a vehicle and had it respawn while facing the wrong way, and for some reason, a respawned vehicle nearly always has the camera positions in front of the vehicle, facing it, rather than behind, which sometimes causes the player to make the same mistake that caused the vehicle to crash in the first place.
However, despite these issues, I can't deny that I had a lot of fun with Fuel. When it works, which it nearly always does in standard races and challenges, it's a highly competent, consistently enjoyable racing title that does a good job of welcoming rookies and scaling its challenge. It also looks really good, with some great, if indistinguishable, environments and terrific vehicle designs. Slightly more music, or at least music that wasn't so generic, would have been appreciated, however.
In addition to this, there is also a race editor, although to call it such is to overstate its presence completely. It's simply a case of selecting a starting point, then creating check points on the overworld map to create a circuite. Oh, and if you thought the GPS was bad for the rest of the game, it really goes insane when dealing with a race you've created.
Ultimately, despite Fuel's many flaws, it is a fun game and its heart is in the right place. It's simple to get into, it looks good and at the end of the day it provides some incredibly good racing action. Purists will hate it, but those who just want to have a laugh without worrying about hardcore racing simulation will enjoy Fuel for what it is. A good game in spite of its issues, despite what everybody else is saying about it.
Score: 7.0 -- Good (7s are solid games that definitely have an audience. Might lack replay value, could be too short or there are some hard-to-ignore faults, but the experience is fun.)
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