Fuel (PlayStation 3) review
"Though on the surface the game appears to be just another tour of some established courses where your only goal is to finish ahead of all of your competition, that's not actually the best way to play. Instead, you're expected to chart your own routes while adhering to actual roads only to the extent that is required to pass through the checkpoints. Everything else is up to you. The freedom that this dynamic provides is cool at first. When you come to the first bend in the path and most of the other drivers ease gradually around it and toward the left, you'll probably love continuing straight ahead and launching over a ramp to shave a second off your time. Performing similar feats of daring on the next few bends is similarly great. Then you hit a tree and the cursing starts."
Codemasters seems to have a thing for racing games with short and snappy titles. Dirt and Grid both spring readily to mind. Fuel, the latest addition to the mono-syllabic family of racers, is in good company and boasts an exciting new concept: open mayhem. Unfortunately, the execution often doesn't live up to what the project could have been. The end result is an exasperating effort that would have been better described by an entirely different word: undesirable.
I guess that's more than one syllable, huh? No wonder they didn't go with that!
Developed by genre newcomer Asobo Studio, Fuel lacks the refinement and depth that you would probably expect from a Codemasters racer and tries to compensate for that with in-your-face flair that gets old faster than taxes and bad breath. That's a shame because the core concept that we can assume got this project off the drawing board—chaotic races through an expansive environment held together by multiple vehicle types and free roaming—is very cool.
Fuel clearly was designed to melt your face. The grinding guitar, the sight of a transport helicopter dropping you off in the middle of a rugged wasteland and the motion blur along the edges of the screen as the timer counts down to doomsday (or at least the start of a race) all are transparent efforts to pump you up for something extreme. Even if you're susceptible to such charms, though, odds are good your enthusiasm will diminish the minute you burst forth from the starting line and actually start driving.
You'll encounter the first of several issues if you try to play Fuel like a regular racing title. Though on the surface the game appears to be just another tour of some established courses where your only goal is to finish ahead of all of your competition, that's not actually the best way to play. Instead, you're expected to chart your own routes while adhering to actual roads only to the extent that is required to pass through the checkpoints. Everything else is up to you. The freedom that this dynamic provides is cool at first. When you come to the first bend in the path and most of the other drivers ease gradually around it and toward the left, you'll probably love continuing straight ahead and launching over a ramp to shave a second off your time. Performing similar feats of daring on the next few bends is similarly great. Then you hit a tree and the cursing starts.
While it's true that most of the courses are actually open enough that you stand a chance of zipping through a stand of trees or a rusting junkyard and emerging unscathed on the other side—important in a game that encourages off-road racing—there will inevitably be moments where that proves not to be the case. That's to be expected and absolutely shouldn't be an issue, except that it is. If you slam directly into a tree, it can take a few seconds to get going again. That's not so bad, but the game might instead opt to re-spawn you directly in front of some other obstacle or lake so that you have no choice but to waste valuable time backing up and turning around. How did something like that sneak past quality control?
Missing a checkpoint is just as bad, if not worse. For example, one early challenge sees you racing a car along a mostly paved road as you wind your way through some beautiful forestation and across a rather bumpy stretch of grasslands. As you do, you'll be jockeying for position with other persistent drivers on the narrow roads. Venturing off-road in this particular vehicle means you instantly slow to an uncharacteristic crawl. As you come up on a checkpoint, there's a significant chance that someone will bump you to the side so that you just barely miss receiving credit for the checkpoint. Now the chevron arrows on the top of the screen—typically so good at pointing you toward your objective—will go crazy as you slide like butter on a hot skillet caught in a hurricane. You will likely spend several seconds gliding everywhere but where you're trying to steer, possibly even flying over a few bumps before finally coming to a stop. Then you must creep back in the direction of the checkpoint you missed as all of the other drivers leave you sucking dust. At this point, winning the race is essentially impossible.
Fortunately, the off-road bikes, quads, dune buggies and other vehicles control much better than the worthless cars. They prove a joy to drive and really allow the developers to capitalize on the rugged terrain and its inherent greatness. You'll wonder why cars were included at all. It's fun just to drive around, collecting fuel barrels or flying over jumps and zipping through trees and around buildings. You don't even have to race if you don't want to, which is a nice touch. Of course, extra content can only be unlocked by winning the more restrictive challenges (come in first place or it doesn't count at all) and dealing with the virtual armpits of the game's design. Sometimes, you have to complete events multiple times just to gain enough stars to add new areas to your map. That flat out stinks.
Better games find ways to eliminate or relieve such issues, but not Fuel. As such, the things that it gets right (like the beautiful environments with a surprisingly low amount of pop-up) are difficult to appreciate because you'll be too busy feeling miserable about the way it missed so many of the other points that make a racing game worth playing. Then you're more likely to start noticing all of the little flaws and perhaps hating them more than you should. Things like lengthy load times between attempts at a given race, a lack of licensed vehicles, awkward menu navigation, the absence of licensed tunes and no-show replay cameras become bigger deals than they would in superior efforts. Finally, while I personally didn't mind the lack of in-depth vehicle customization, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention it for the sake of those who might.
Something almost everyone will miss, though, is vehicle damage. Since companies like Chevrolet and Ford don't lend their vehicle likenesses to this game, you would think that the developers would go nuts with the rides that they fabricated out of thin air. A head-on collision with a semi should produce bunches of flying fiberglass and windshield shards. It doesn't. Barreling off a cliff and into the sea should produce a big splash. Again, it doesn't. This isn't Burnout or Flatout, but a little bit more satisfaction from the crashes still could have gone a long way.
Like I said, it's easier to notice all of that stuff when you're not having fun, a situation that persisted throughout most of my experience with Fuel. What's important is to remember, though, is that the game had the potential to be a fantastic racer. The foundation is here for a thrilling experience and what could easily become a strong franchise. Asobo Studio just botched the execution. Gamers certainly should appreciate the attempt, flawed though it is, but it's a bit of a stretch to ask them to leap at the opportunity to pay for it.
Staff review by Jason Venter (June 12, 2009)
Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.
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