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TVG gets lost in a 5,000 square mile game world, tries to outdrive a tornado, and freezes its fender off in a blizzard…
When you pop into your local game shop next weekend and take a look at the new releases, you’ll no doubt come across a copy of FUEL, flip over the box to read the key features on the back and be wowed by its vital statistics: 5,000 square miles of game world (it’s the largest game ever made), dynamic weather effects like tornadoes and blizzards, and multi-terrain racing etc. Don’t be fooled.
It’s all very well having mile after mile of game world but if there’s nothing good to do in it, then it’s a bit of a moot point really. The Sahara Desert is a huge place, for example, but that doesn’t mean we’re going to book our next holiday out there and spend our well-earned break looking for oases and avoiding sidewinder snakes while wondering why it’s so damn hot and everything looks the same. While FUEL isn’t quite as drab and featureless as a desert, it’s still a game and therefore has a duty to entertain the attention span of its average user – on this point, it fails.
Going The Distance
FUEL’s vast open world is tackled in two different ways. Firstly, there’s Free Ride, which does not mean riding for free. This is developer, Asobo Studio’s take on Criterion’s Freeburn in Burnout Paradise (in fact, much of FUEL is similar in style and delivery to Burnout Paradise – more on that a little later). Secondly, there are the game’s Career and Challenges. These are accessible from a central hub in the pause menu and gamers can fast-track themselves to the beginning of one of these events from the menu without the need to tediously travel between each race.
While Career events form the game’s core, Challenges act as side missions to the Career and, at their most diverse, feature point-to-point races that pit you against a helicopter or a kind of cat and mouse event called Seek and Destroy. Generally speaking though, most of the Career and Challenge events are fairly standard races against a grid of 8 other opponents. The variation comes from how far checkpoints are placed away from each other in each race type, thereby changing the amount of freedom you have to improvise in the game world and create your own shortcuts.
This is FUEL’s trump card: the ability to have a completely freeform race where gamers can either take the risk of driving as the crow flies (which invariably constitutes scaling mountains and negotiating forests), or go for the risk averse tactic of following longer road routes and sticking to well-beaten tracks. It’s a trump card that Asobo plays far too infrequently and we know precisely why: the AI simply can’t handle it. It’s one thing to program driver AI that can just about handle one or two alternate routes, but stick the AI into a race where the alternate routes are too numerous to count and you’ve got a problem.
The most open races in FUEL are its Endurance Challenges, which post a few checkpoints that are literally miles apart. The result is something a bit like orienteering without the clues, where you’ll traverse mountain tops, bowl down snow covered peaks, and bounce over sand dune moguls only to find yourself at the foot of a huge lake that has to be circumnavigated. Of course, lacking your improvisational skills, the AI will have driven around the mountain and, even though its precise routines did find a bridge across the lake, the AI still passed up an opportunity to cut 30 seconds of its time by cutting across the sand dunes. Whatever the case, the AI is incredibly easy to beat in these Endurance Challenges and, more importantly, it’s also not a particularly believable challenge.
This might be why there are only a handful of these Endurance races in the game and the vast majority of events contain much smaller distances between each checkpoint. It has provided Asobo with more control over each race’s direction and a firmer grip over the AI’s behaviour within these narrower confines. Of course, it doesn’t help that even within the game’s most confined events (the circuit races), its AI is plainer than ready salted crisps. We’re not saying that it’s easy to beat – getting from last to first is still enough of a challenge – just that there’s nothing surprising about how it serves up that challenge.
Early mistakes are to be avoided if you want to succeed in any given race. If you’ve had to respawn on the track more than once within the first minute or so, then you can more or less wave goodbye to your chances of winning – the leading pack will be too far away by this point, even if you manage to drive perfectly from there on out. Within each race, the grid of 8 drivers tends to spread out into smaller groups of two or three and, as a result, there will be times when you’ll see no vehicles for a quite a while before a handful of them appear at once. Once you’ve wriggled up to first place though, you’re usually able to put quite a bit of distance between yourself and the trailing drivers, allowing room for a couple of mistakes towards the end of a race.
This was the case for most of the races we played and, in this way, the dynamics of racing are not much different from an early 90s arcade racer. Any sense of driver aggression from the AI or realistic tussles between the competitors is entirely lacking, meaning that FUEL fails to possess any of the racing vitality that its contemporaries have in abundance. More troubling than the bland AI is the absence of any gameplay features that spice up the action. A large game world is simply not enough by itself and we often found ourselves craving for more elements of strategy or skill to add some much needed depth. Even clichéd additions such as boasting, the ability to punch on bikes, or some kind of mechanic to reward stunts would’ve been welcome (as it stands, all you’ll get are occasional animations of your biker doing a trick whenever you catch enough air).
Vehicles do add some variation. We raced in everything from buggies to monster trucks and motorcycles to some pretty funky looking quad-bikes (there’s even a hovercraft hidden away somewhere in the game) but ultimately it wasn’t enough to keep our interests ticking over. Similarly to Burnout Paradise, progress in the Career unlocks vehicles that you can then find cruising around the game world in Free Ride. Once you track them down and tag them (there’s no ensuing takedown duel like in Paradise), the vehicle is yours to keep. Asobo Studio has missed a trick once again though because, in Burnout Paradise, these cars would appear out of nowhere and race past you. In FUEL they’re simply marked on the map and you’ll have to drive for miles to retrieve them only to experience a disappointing anti-climax once you get there.
We weren’t huge fans of what Criterion did to the Burnout series with Paradise but it’s got to be said that they wove together an open world racing game incredibly well. With this in mind, If Paradise City is woven together like the bespoke tailoring of Savile Row, then FUEL is the equivalent of receiving a rent-a-tux that’s 10 sizes too big. You could spend hours mindlessly rambling across terrain in FUEL’s Free Ride mode, but the best thing you’ll ever find are the aforementioned unlockable vehicles. Other than that, the environment is completely sparse apart from the odd new livery or the occasional batch of Vista points (we still haven’t quite figured out what these do). Does that sound like the sort of thing you’d enjoy spending hours of your time doing? No, we didn’t think so.
Burnout Paradise had a veritable menagerie of things to do in your racing downtime, such as the Showtime mode (a spiritual successor to Crash events), a wide range of online Freeburn challenges for 2-8 players (e.g. All players must jump a total of 1,000 yards), and sections of road to post fastest times on. There’s a complete lack of anything like this in FUEL, which makes us wonder whether Asobo Studio had all the development time they wanted for the title. On the upside though, FUEL will have online multiplayer races for up to 16 players and, similarly to Burnout Paradise, the game’s Free Ride mode will serve as a kind of active gaming lobby for the action prior to races.
In fact, it’s in this online multiplayer component that FUEL’s potential ultimately lies. A race creator that ships with the game will allow players to design checkpoint races that are as spaced out as the previously mentioned Endurance Challenges. With 15 other human players, this sort of cross-country racing then becomes appealing as it essentially nullifies the problem of stagnant AI. Whether or not FUEL will pull in the sales and long-term appeal to foster a strong online community, however, is highly questionable.
As far as the dynamic weather effects and day/night cycle are concerned, prospective buyers should once again not be drawn in by the blurb on the back of FUEL’s box. During Free Ride, the day/night cycle drew in as expected and there was some occasional rain/lightning on the horizon, but that was about it. Where the variable weather effects do come into play much more significantly, however, is in the Career and Challenge events. For example, the all-important tornadoes can be battled against in the Tornado Warning race on the Drownington Cove map, although the way they were served up was entirely scripted. That’s not to say that the tornadoes were unimpressive, just that their destruction played out exactly the same way in ensuing restarts and we strongly doubt that tornadoes like this are procedurally generated elsewhere in the game.
While FUEL’s streaming game world may be impressively large and, thankfully, doesn’t suffer too badly from texture popping considering its size, objects in the environment tend to react in frustratingly immovable and sedentary ways. Destructable objects such as barriers and piles of logs do appear from time to time but you’re much more likely to fender-bend up against a tree that reacts like a metal girder. Similarly, some bushes also have a surprisingly solid centre when they’ve been run over by a monster truck, not to mention the flat textures that are all too obvious once you get up close. So flat were these apparently 3D textures that we even felt like we were playing a modern day Cruis’n USA at some points (Gwynne has an odd infatuation with Cruis'n - ed). Nonetheless, the game world is large (did we mention that already) and the terrains are varied throughout, which does at least provide a welcome change of pace and an added layer of strategy when you have to decide which vehicle’s strengths to pit against a certain race event.
FUEL’s soundtrack contains mindless rock riffing throughout and we had trouble identifying more than two separate pieces of music in the entire game (which are only used in the opening cinematic and menu/load screens). Sound effects fare no better either. For example, whenever you drive on tarmac the sound of screeching tires is prompted at every turn, although it’s the same canned sound loop on each occasion. Drilling, it certainly is; immersive, it just isn’t.
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