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 has 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 AI 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 messing 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 competition 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 like they’re 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, since 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. We hope you’re proud.
Jul 2, 2009